The band played. Cheerleaders cheered. Gilbert Arenas tried to hide in plain sight.
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Midnight Madness had finally come to the NBA.
The Washington Wizards opened training camp around the stroke of 12 on Tuesday morning, launching a new era they hope will be more fan-friendly as they attempt to recover from the most embarrassing season in franchise history.
”It think it’s exactly what the team needed,” said the team’s new owner, Ted Leonsis. ”Just kind of a jolt of adrenaline.”
The event drew about 4,000 fans to the Patriot Center on the George Mason University campus. It featured many of the trappings of the college version of Midnight Madness, including an over-hyped introduction of the roster that made Arenas stand out right away.
Arenas is trying to be as low-key and as serious a possible as he makes a comeback from a felony gun conviction that led to a 50-game suspension and a one-month sentence in a halfway house. He didn’t crack a smile during media day on Monday, a far cry from the flamboyant Agent Zero personality that used to make him a marketable star.
Arenas was cheered loudly during the Midnight Madness introductions, but he didn’t soak in the adulation the way many of his teammates did. He sprinted through the line of cheerleaders, then tried to stand in teammate Andray Blatche’s shadow to hide from a camera.
Arenas, by the way, was introduced next-to-last. The Wizards’ new main man, No. 1 overall pick John Wall, was saved for last.
But, once the practice began, the fans’ focus was clearly on Arenas. His every move was cheered, but his expression hardly changed. Even when he hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the first quarter of a scrimmage – the type of play he’s pulled off so often in his career — Arenas maintained the face of a student taking a hard physics exam while the crowd erupted.
Leonsis had no problems with Arenas’ all-business approach.
”I’m very happy,” Leonsis said. ”In our conversations, it was ‘I have to be all about basketball. I have to be all about team success.”’
Leonsis was certainly all smiles as he shook hands and signed autographs at the public curtain raiser of his stewardship of the franchise. The former AOL executive worked his marketing skills to near perfection over the past 11 years as owner of the NHL’s Washington Capitals – he’s actually made hockey fashionable in the nation’s capital — and now he has a similar challenge with the Wizards, whose standing in the community plummeted last season after Arenas brought guns to the locker room.
The practice lasted for about one hour, and Leonsis plans to make it an annual event.
”For a kickoff event, this is pretty good,” he said.
Leonsis also confirmed the team hopes to change its colors to red, white and blue for next season — yet another sign of a team turning a page.
”We’re testing, but have nothing finalized,” Leonsis said. ”Nothing’s been approved. We haven’t chosen a final design.”