WASHINGTON D.C. - All night, Gilbert Arenas and the Orlando Magic made clear that his return to Washington D.C. for the first time since being traded in December was just another game in a long season. He joked with reporters that they waited too long to talk to him after the game. His coach, Stan Van Gundy, downplayed his return by saying he had no idea what was going through his head. His team's star, Dwight Howard, said Arenas was "just ready to get [this game] over with."
But there was still one moment, after the scrum exited, where Arenas took some time to appreciate his new situation. As Arenas was walking out of the locker room, Rashard Lewis, the man who was traded for Arenas, was catching up with old teammates. Arenas interrupted him briefly and greeted him with a high-five and a hug.
"Sorry, man," Arenas said, referencing the fact that Lewis was sent from a contender to the lowly Wizards.
Lewis laughed. "It's OK. I'm just playing the game I love. Can't complain too much."
It was Arenas' way of reminding himself of his new reality as a role player on a good team instead of the most recognizable player on a squad like the Wizards that Arenas said is "learning bad habits" from being full of youngsters. In his return to D.C. on Friday, he scored just 10 points on 4-12 shooting in 25 minutes, but his more talented and veteran teammates picked apart his old teammates, taking advantage of their youth and lack of muscle inside to overwhelm them in a 110-92 win.
All the while, Arenas was a lesser player: still himself, but not on such a grand scale. This Arenas was still trigger-happy, but reluctantly, as if he shot because he had no other option. Instead, he passed, dribble-probed and, shockingly, played defense. Arenas matched up with old protege Nick Young, holding him to 7-20 shooting. After the game, Van Gundy joked that it was probably the first time a coach mentioned "Arenas" and "good defense" in the same sentence.
This brought Arenas out of his shell a bit. But only a little.
"I got in Nick's head last week," he said. "He never scores on me. I didn't do anything different than what I used to do in practice. He never scored in practice, so I knew he wasn't going to score in the game.
"Flip was trying to get him the ball to break the spell I have over him," he concluded. "But not this time."
This was one time when Arenas' personality came out, but there was none of the usual unfiltered rambling that we saw in the past. This time, Arenas was personable, but brief. When asked to explain his changing attitude with the Wizards over the gun incident last season, he simply said "you get older, and I'm a year older and wiser than I was last year."
Even the overwhelmingly positive fan reaction to his entrance into the game didn't get Arenas talking all that much.
"I expected to get booed some, but I'm glad I got cheered. It just shows that people understand that it was one year, one bad mistake, and it can't erase seven good years I had here," he said.
The only time Arenas was really reflective was when he was asked about what he wanted his legacy to be in D.C. Even here, though, Arenas' answer was short and to the point.
"I really don't want to be known as a basketball player," he said. "I want to be known as someone who gave back and gave other people a chance."
In a way, it was the same old Arenas, the one that gives answers you don't hear from others. Indeed, one reporter, in a nod to his Agent Zero past, told Arenas that "we're going to miss you around here." But in a way, it was a different Arenas too, one that is truly taking steps to move on with his life. He's content with his current situation and is coming to terms with the rollercoaster he left behind. Some of the baggage remains (like his situation with his fiancee, for example), but mostly, he's moved on.
As he walked out of the visiting locker room, Arenas exited a media scrum there to talk to him and him only. As he exited, a smile crossed his lips. The former face of a downtrodden franchise was now officially free to continue his new life.