Gilbert Arenas has found life in exile to be liberating. His sabbatical from the NBA and the “fantasy world” of the league has helped him clear his mind and focus on the one thing he didn’t have the will or the time to do — get healthy.
Arenas’ 49-game tenure with the Magic last season turned into a complete disaster. Coming off the bench for the first time in his career, he averaged only 8.0 points per game and shot 34.4 percent, including 27.5 percent from beyond the arc. More than that, Arenas seemed like he had lost a lot of the joy that made him such a thrilling and dynamic player to watch earlier in the decade.
Knee injuries, suspensions and perception finally caught up with Arenas and worked to ruin his fresh start playing underneath the watchful eye of his mentor, Magic general manager Otis Smith.
Arenas may have also been fighting another problem. One that contributed to his rapid and unreal decline that helped tank the Magic’s season, ending it in a first round loss to the Hawks.
No psychologist may have clinicly diagnosed him (Arenas jokes that between the TV shows Dexter and The Sopranos, he got plenty of therapy time), but as that joke I just shared may have shown Arenas had a lot of time to sit and think as his playing time dwindled and he could not figure out what he needed to do to crack Stan Van Gundy’s rotation.
But Arenas all but admitted he was battling some demons in his own head in an extended interview with Sam Amick of Sports Illustrated.
“You just reflect on your basketball career and see how far you came,” Arenas said of what he did after the Magic cut him. “I watch a lot of game tape of last year in Washington and finishing up in Orlando. I just realized even going back to training camp it was basically a spiral down. I didn’t have it anymore. I didn’t have the spirit. I guess somewhere that summer, or somewhere the season before that, I lost the spirit to play, and that’s what showed last year. I was depressed.
“When something drastic happens in our life, one person goes and hides and doesn’t want to be seen. That’s what I did. [Others] want to stand up and fight and think they’re tough. Like if someone gets shot, you’re either scared of guns or you think you’re Superman. In my situation, I wanted to hide. I didn’t want to be seen anymore.”
Arenas said he had no ill will from Smith, his mentor, deciding to cut him at the beginning of this season using Orlando’s free pass on a contract. In fact, he said he welcomed it — even going so far as to tell an allegedly upset Dwight Howard that Arenas needed the time to get himself right before he could contribute to any team and that he would have done the same thing.
Arenas said Smith told him to get his mind right and get his body right before coming back to the NBA. That is what Arenas was doing when he worked out in front of Lakers brass while in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. Arenas though told Amick he was not quite there yet.
So how did Arenas get to that low point where he lost “the spirit” as he calls it?
The incident in the Wizards locker room in 2009 certainly had something to do with it. Arenas admits that his “Agent Zero” persona began to blur lines with fans. But reality never intruded until that incident.
In that situation the real world intruded upon the fantasy world of the NBA. And it changed his perception around the NBA and changed the way he approached the game.
Orlando was supposed to be Arenas’ fresh start. And, initially, it was. The Magic ripped off eight straight wins and looked to be a rejuvenated team after hitting a lull in December. But as things settled down, Arenas struggled to get into a shooting rhythm and, still not healthy, struggled to keep up defensively.
His spirit was gone and Arenas began to gain weight, claiming he was at 232 pounds by the end of the season because he was showing up to work and then going home and eating “good food.”
The affable guy giving away his vast sneaker collection and talking boisterously with reporters when he first arrived, became a ghost to the media in the Magic locker room. Arenas said he was no longer able to put on a face of geniality. His locker was cleaned out long before the media even entered on most nights it seemed.
“When I came back [in the 2010-11 season after being suspended for the final 50 games of 2009-10], I just didn’t want to be around people,” Arenas said. “And that’s why I grew the beard. I don’t need you to see me no more. I’m gone. I don’t want to be here.
“You know how when you think someone is talking about you, and you try to go in with high spirits when you start off, but as soon as one bad thing happens you revert? Once I got to Orlando, I got my spirit back. I was around some people who like me and we’re on an eight-game winning streak and then all of a sudden I get my playing time cut and then from there I just lost it. I couldn’t think anymore. Every shot, I thought about shooting — just like [the Magic] players playing now. They’re not losing their game — Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, they’re not losing their games. They’re just going through so much pressure now with the Dwight [Howard trade situation].
“There was a point where I don’t even think I talked to the media the last two months. I just took my showers and just went home. And then when I went home, I basically never left the house. I was just in denial.
“I remember I was at Dwight’s barbecue, and I’m hearing him on the microphone and I’m just watching him and I’m sitting in a corner trying to hide from fans — it was so sad — and didn’t want to be around people anymore. I’m looking at [Dwight] like, ‘Man, that used to be me. I used to be the life of the party.’ And he’s just in there enjoying himself, saying, ‘Everybody, let’s dance’ and this and this. And that kind of got my spirit back up, like, ‘What the hell am I over here sulking for, like a little girl?'”
A reporter suggested he tried starting up on Twitter again. But even when he started, he felt the jokes fell flat and people took him too seriously — unable, in his mind, to separate Gilbert Arenas the person from Arenas the personality. That was, he said, one of the reasons he stopped his popular NBA.com blog and Twitter in the first place.
That infamous incident when he live-tweeted a date? Arenas said he was sitting on his couch the whole time.
You always take the hits from those who don’t get the joke.
But that incident Arenas tells from the Memorial Day bar-b-que that Dwight Howard hosted in Orlando was a turning point for him. Arenas said he committed to showing Howard and Nelson, the Magic’s team captains, he was willing to work and get healthy. He spent much of the summer working out with them and shed his weight trying to get back to a comfortable playing weight.
The road back out of NBA exile is still going to be a long one for Arenas. He has shed the weight and is still working to get back to 100 percent health, even going to the same blood-spinning knee treatment Kobe Bryant used this offseason. The next thing he has to shed is the perception that he is not the player he once was.
One thing is for sure. Arenas appears to have found himself and become a person ready to handle the potential rejection and adversity. More importantly, Arenas has found much of his spirit again.