A long list ofsnubs--including a near miss for this year's All-Star Game--didn't make GilbertArenas bitter. It made him better
Where are thejerseys?" Gilbert Arenas asked before the Eastern Conference All-Stars tookthe floor for a practice session last Saturday morning. Arenas had spent $1,000for 25 Washington Wizards uniform tops emblazoned with his name, and afterpractice the point guard walked a slow lap around the court inside Houston'sGeorge R. Brown Convention Center, autographing each of the shirts beforetossing them into the stands. On his way off the court, he stopped to signprograms and basketballs while most of his fellow All-Stars blew past pleadingfans. "I don't think I'm better than them," says Arenas of hisrelationship with the audience. "I was a fan too--I am still a fan. [But]I'm one of them who's actually playing."
No player was moregrateful for his All-Star invitation than Arenas, who went from hard-to-explainsnub to 11th-hour sub. Though he ranked fourth in scoring (28.3 ppg), 17th inassists (5.9) and seventh in steals (1.8) for the playoff-bound Wizards, Arenaswas passed over by the East coaches. Unable to sleep the night the All-Starroster was announced, the 24-year-old Arenas showed up at the Wizards' practicefacility the next day at 6 a.m. and spent the next five hours hoisting nearly2,000 shots while soft mood music played on his headphones. "It was hard toswallow because I thought I worked and improved my game," says Arenas, whowas an All-Star last year despite averaging 2.8 fewer points and nearly onefewer assist. "But I said I'm not going to let this break me." Hisreprieve came quickly. That afternoon commissioner David Stern selected Arenasto replace injured Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal.
By last weekendany traces of bitterness about the snub had disappeared. When the NBA needed alast-minute replacement for Raja Bell on the eve of the three-point contest,Arenas eagerly jumped in; he finished second to Dirk Nowitzki in the event. OnSaturday afternoon Arenas volunteered to give autographs at a league-sponsoredevent at a shopping mall. He doesn't understand players who hide in their hotelrooms and shun contact with fans. "They probably think they got too big forthe average person," says Arenas. "But if the average person stopsloving them, stops talking about them, stops asking them for an autograph?They'll be heartbroken."
Humble butambitious, Arenas still wears number 0 as a reminder of the number of minutessome people believed he'd play at Arizona. (He was given a scholarship onlyafter another recruit backed out of his commitment and was a second-round pickof Golden State, thus the name of his charitable foundation, Zer0 2 Hero.)"Like he needed something else to get him going," said Miami guardDwyane Wade of this year's All-Star diss.
Arenas rateshimself as no better than the "20th to 25th" best player in the league,which explains his frenetic off-season schedule. After taking a week off at theend of last season, he spent the rest of the summer playing "every day, allday" in his native L.A. and in the D.C. area. Among his favorite haunts inthe nation's capital is the Berry Farms rec center in Southeast D.C., whosemurder rate is one of the nation's worst. "I was the first NBA player whoever walked through those gates, and I've gone there three years straight,"he says. "The players there go hard at me--they've put me on my butt acouple times."
As his visibilityoutside D.C. grows, however slowly, Arenas wonders if he won't be happier beingalmost famous rather than Kobe-famous. "When you get [so] famous that youcan't go out in public and enjoy yourself--I don't ever want to be thatfamous," says Arenas. "Right now I can still go to Blockbuster. I sign50 to 60 autographs, but I still get my movies."
An ex-WarriorCalls for U.S. Aid
Europeanbasketball is in crisis, and only David Stern can fix it. So says former NBAstar Sarunas Marciulionis, the founder of the Northern European BasketballLeague (NEBL), who has called on the NBA commissioner to preside over a summitto restructure professional basketball in Europe. "Right now [Europeanbasketball officials] are in the dark," says Marciulionis, whose emigrationfrom Lithuania to the Warriors in 1989 helped open the pipeline ofinternational players to the NBA. "They have no vision."
While Europeansoccer is unified under a single umbrella that includes the wildly successfulChampions League, which last year generated hundreds of millions in sponsorshiprevenue from such brands as Heineken, Sony and MasterCard, European hoops is amodel of economic instability and contentiousness. The continent's top league,the Euroleague, has only a fraction of the Champions League's sponsors, and itsrelationship with FIBA, basketball's international governing body, has beenfractious at best; the two, in fact, broke off ties between 2000 and '01. TheFIBA-Euroleague split, which led to the creation of two major European leagues(think the old NBA-ABA wars) divided the continent's fan base--and turned offpotential sponsors. Though reunited, the two organizations remain at odds abouthow to fix their sport.
"There are nobig brands--none--connected with high-scale basketball in Europe," saysMarciulionis, who intends to parlay his tenure with the smaller NEBL into a runfor the presidency of FIBA-Europe. "[There needs to be] a long-term masterplan with FIBA-Europe, the Euroleague and the NBA so that they all understandone thing: They have to join together to promote basketball."
Hence the plea toStern, whose global marketing savvy and credibility abroad makes him theperfect candidate to help clean up the mess. "We need one structure, oneclean pyramid," says Marciulionis. "I think David could uniteEurope."
Stern has pushedambitious European initiatives in the past--as recently as three years ago hepublicly floated the idea of an NBA league or division on the continent--but heis no longer pushing European expansion, nor is he willing "to intrude"in the affairs of another league. "We have so many issues on our own[continent]," Stern told SI last Saturday. "We think that theEuroleague is professionalizing the sport and working very hard under difficultcircumstances to raise the level of basketball."
• Trade deadlinewinners and losers at SI.com/nba.
On second-year 76ers swingman Andre Iguodala, the MVPof last weekend's Rookie Challenge and runner-up (to the Knicks' Nate Robinson)in the slam dunk contest:
"As good as he looked this weekend, I don't see himbecoming a big star. He can do a lot of things, he's a great athlete intransition, and he's improved his shooting, but he has small hands and youcan't just throw him the ball and have him finish the play. I think he's aterrific complementary player as opposed to somebody you'd build your teamaround."