ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Gilbert Arenas was so eager to leave Washington he didn’t even pack his bags.
After he found out his trade to the Magic was official, he ended his workout, grabbed a pair of shoes, said his goodbyes and caught the first flight to Orlando. There was no time to waste.
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The chance to start over had finally arrived.
“This is a new beginning for me,” Arenas said late Saturday night in a gray Magic practice T-shirt and black shorts, finishing a workout in the team’s practice facility. “This is a true new beginning. Changing my number was a new beginning, but this is a real new beginning with a new city, new people and new team, and I get to start fresh.”
The Magic only hope he leaves all his problems behind.
Arenas was suspended 50 games last season for bringing a gun into Washington’s locker room. He also faked an injury to sit out a preseason game this year, and his off-the-cusp remarks were a constant distraction for a young team now built around No. 1 overall pick John Wall.
Arenas never really fit with Washington once Wall took the reins as the franchise player and new point guard. The Wizards were going through growing pains this season, as young teams do, and Arenas felt their plans no longer included him.
“I sensed something when I was coming off the bench,” Arenas said. “The excuse was that they needed scoring off the bench. My questions was, ‘Where’s the scoring from the starting five?’ I figured they were probably shipping me out because I was playing well and some people would probably have some interest in me.'”
The interest came from a place so many had expected but always wondered if it would really happen — Arenas included.
Magic president of basketball operations Otis Smith has been a close friend, mentor and “father figure,” in Arenas’ words, to the guard since they were together at Golden State — Smith in the front office and Arenas a young player. They often speak with each other, and Smith has never given up hope that the three-time All-Star might again be one of the NBA’s most dynamic players.
Now it’s Smith who might be putting his own Magic legacy at stake with a bold move so many other teams refused to make.
“We have a tendency not to forgive people in this country,” Smith said. “We have a tendency to hold onto things a little bit longer, particularly if they play professional sports. And I always say that some times good people do stupid things, and that one’s right on the top of the list. But I feel comfortable with who he is, knowing him since he was 19 years old.”
Arenas is still due about $60 million over four years, one of the biggest reasons — along with recurring knee problems that limited him to 47 games the previous three seasons — many teams also stayed clear. But the Magic were able to unload another ballooning contract in Rashard Lewis, who still has two more years after this season remaining on a $118 million, six-year deal.
Arenas has showed signs this season that he can be close to what he once was when healthy. The 28-year-old has averaged 17.3 points and 5.6 assists, scoring a season-high 31 points against the Magic on Nov. 27.
“I had to prove a point,” he said, laughing.
Those around the league are also wondering how much Arenas has left.
“Just a few years back he was an MVP candidate,” Miami’s LeBron James said. “Injuries and off-the-court issues have plagued his career the last few years. Do we know he’s going to get back to the MVP type feel? We don’t know. But he’s a great player and he’s had some great battles with me in a Cavs uniform and him in a Wizards uniform.”
One thing is certain: The Magic are in desperate need of a spark.
They have lost six of their last seven games to drop from first to fourth in the Eastern Conference. The slide is magnified by 12-game winning streaks by Miami and Boston, a ripple effect that was enough to force Orlando to revamp the roster again.
The Magic also acquired Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson from the Phoenix Suns in a major roster shake-up Saturday. They sent Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, Marcin Gortat, their 2011 first-round draft pick and cash to Phoenix.
How it will all work is another story.
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said matter-of-factly that Jameer Nelson will remain the starting point guard and that one player among Arenas, Turkoglu and Richardson will have to come off the bench. Arenas already volunteered himself.
That still leaves plenty to resolve on a team that has slowly slipped from an NBA finals appearance two years ago. Orlando’s Dwight Howard, still trying to process his revamped team, doesn’t foresee any major problems.
“You have me and Jameer as leaders,” Howard said. “There’s no way you cannot fit into our team.”
Arenas, for his part, doesn’t think it will be a difficult transition.
Arenas and Richardson formed a top tandem when they were with Golden State. Orlando also was Arenas’ favorite team growing up, Penny Hardaway was his favorite player — he plans to take Hardaway’s No. 1 jersey– and most of his friends and family live in Florida.
As for learning the offense?
“Their plays are easy,” Arenas joked. “If you have the open shot, take it. If not, pass to Dwight.”