As happy as Gilbert Arenas is to be here, he has convinced himself he doesn't belong. He is on his way to a players-only meeting for Sunday's All-Star Game, but reminds himself constantly that he is a second-round draft pick, a player with no pedigree, with no cache. Arenas, for the record, has been selected as an all-star for the second straight season. He's fourth in the NBA in scoring at more than 28 points per game. Yet, it's Arenas's official position that he's just another guy.
This isn't an act. Arenas is dead serious. Most of the all-stars spent Friday afternoon lining up invitations to the hottest parties for themselves and their entourages. Arenas was looking for a gym where he could shoot by himself, work himself out of a funk he fell into after a nightmarish 4-for-22 shooting performance in Dallas Wednesday. From the time Arenas entered the league as the 31st overall pick out of Arizona, he has used being passed over in the first round as motivation to prove everybody wrong. Arenas, albeit with a smile, sometimes refers to himself as "No. 31." He knows that Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs was No. 28 in that 2001 draft. Arenas actually memorized the entire draft, and earlier in his career would go over the opposing roster before games to see if he would be encountering a player who had been selected ahead of him in that draft.
So I asked Arenas, just as the all-stars began to convene in the lobby of a downtown Houston hotel, if this second consecutive selection makes him feel as if he belongs. After pausing, he said: "I want to say yes, but I can't. The answer is no. I'm not saying I don't appreciate my peers saying nice things about me because I do. But I won't let myself think I'm on that level. I'm not. I can't say yes."
Ray Allen, for one, doesn't believe that. "Yes, definitely Gilbert is on that level," he said. "Okay, the first couple of times may be difficult to believe. You feel like you're an outsider because you're around a lot of guys who've been all-stars for a long time, for a lot of years. There is a fetal stage in terms of your life as an all-star. But Gilbert? He's on that level."
Arenas is happy to simply ignore that kind of talk. He isn't insecure about his skills or his ability to compete with the men sitting in the room around him. "I just won't put myself on that list," he said, "because it gives me a reason to keep climbing. I don't believe in satisfaction. I have to think there are 10, 15 people ahead of me. It's like setting your watch 10 minutes ahead. You come to believe the time on your watch."
So Arenas has convinced himself, despite evidence to the contrary, that he's not worthy of being an all-star?
"I can convince myself. I have convinced myself, yes," he said.
This is certainly the best news the Washington Wizards could possibly hear. It's a terribly steep climb from where the Wizards have lived, which is to say the basement, to championship contention, and very likely it will take somebody with Arenas's mindset to lead the way. He doesn't want to hear about last year's trip to the playoffs, or the recent five-game winning streak the Wizards put together. What's obsessing Arenas now is back-to-back losses in Oklahoma and Dallas. "Did you see how I got my butt whipped on national television the other night?" he said. "I looked bad. I was firing on no cylinders. It always seemed to me when I was a kid that Hakeem Olajuwon never had a bad game.
"I don't like the idea of being satisfied," he continued. "I don't let the NBA life get to me. It's a breeze and we're just blowing through it. In another 10 years there will be another crop of players blowing through. Don' t get me wrong; I'm going to enjoy this weekend. I'll enjoy myself. But at the end of this weekend, I've got 13 other guys who I'm in the foxhole with and we're still trying to find a way to make the playoffs and contend. I appreciate it. But I choose to keep a handle on it. I can see all the trappings around me and how it affects star players."
Arenas's voice was barely audible because he spent Wednesday night playing online video games and lost himself completely in the competition. The raw voice proved just how badly he wants to win at everything. After an NBA loss he can't sleep more than 90 minutes. He might get a couple of hours, but it's not because he's out clubbing. The NBA life really hasn't yet caught Arenas in its breeze.
You run into him around Washington, or perhaps in California where he grew up, you seem him mostly by himself, perhaps with one friend. There are no stories about him being a diva, like so many of his peers, no stories about demands or exotic requests. The story he delights in, involving new teammate Antonio Daniels, is exceptionally tame by NBA standards. "You know what Antonio told me? He said, 'When I came here I thought you'd be in to all that star stuff.' "
The two were bowling somewhere in suburban Maryland when Daniels told him how refreshing it was that Arenas wasn't into any star stuff. Arenas thought it was a pretty good endorsement, coming from a teammate who had played with Tim Duncan and David Robinson in San Antonio, with Ray Allen last year in Seattle. This is what passes for a favorite compliment for Arenas, a kid so diversely skilled and intensely driven he put up quadruple-doubles in high school games and appreciated his coach telling him he could have played better that night.
Arenas has found the best way to motivate himself. He presumes the other guy is better, then sets out to prove himself wrong. We see the 40-point games, the two straight all-star selections regardless of whether the fans, coaches and the commissioner picked him and feel he's looking the other stars eye to eye now. He, however, has convinced himself he's looking up at them. "There's no bitterness," he said. "There's passion. I want to be so good at what I do. And the only way I can see myself getting better is by understanding I'm not on that top level."
I asked Arenas who among the stars gathered here this weekend he considers a true all-star. "Kobe," Arenas said. "LeBron, A.I., Shaq of course, Dwyane Wade . . . everybody here except me."