RICHMOND, Va. Something's always eating at Gilbert Arenas.
Real or perceived, tangible or not, slights lurk around every corner for the Washington Wizards' All-Star guard. No matter his accolades, Arenas seems to seek, gather and, yes, cherish affronts, precisely the way he collects autographed NBA jerseys and he owns hundreds of those, from all sorts of players and eras.
Stop him for a few questions after a training camp practice, and out slides a mention of how that very morning he was reading one person's preseason ranking of top NBA players and was shocked shocked! to find himself down at No. 20.
"Duncan's No. 1, Kobe's No. 2. Then they've got all them bums in front of me," Arenas said this week, a can-you-believe-it? tone in his voice and mischief in his eyes. "I'm 20; I feel I'm in the top five. There's motivation right there."
Typical Gil, Wizards coach Eddie Jordan or teammates might say, and they might even laugh or roll their eyes. What they and fans are not as accustomed to is Arenas' questioning himself, being the very source of the sort of underestimation that drives the guy.
Yet that is precisely what Arenas did in the weeks right after last season ended prematurely, after he tore up his left knee during a game in April. What he did as he began the arduous workouts needed to return from surgery. What he did knowing how crucial that knee is to what he does and what he loves.
"I was doubting myself early," Arenas acknowledged during a chat with a small group of reporters last week in Washington. "When you're sitting there, hurting, you can't move, and you just start looking down at your knee, and you're walking and trying to run, and you're limping, you're like, 'This is how it's going to be?' ...
"Then I was like, 'I'm going to wait until December before I can kick it into gear?"' he continued. "So I just started pushing myself harder and harder and harder and harder."
Seven days a week, five to eight hours a day and sometimes more, throughout the dog days of summer. Even though Wizards strength and conditioning coach Drew Cleary already considered him "a workaholic," Arenas knew he needed to push, needed to do more than ever.
To add to his three All-Star selections? To average 28.4 points like he did in 2006-07 or 29.3 like in 2005-06?
To be able to call 50-point games and deliver? To lengthen his highlight reel of walk-away-'cause-you-know-it's-goin'-in buzzer beaters?
To increase his array of aliases ("Hibachi," "Agent Zero," etc.)? To land more sneaker commercials or more video game covers?
To assure himself of getting the maximum money from the Wizards when he opts out of his contract at the end of the upcoming season?
No. Not necessarily.
To win more games when it truly counts, to finally get beyond the second round of the playoffs because, as he put it last week, anything less for Arenas and the Wizards this season will be "a failure."
"The chip for Gilbert is: Is he one of those players? Is he a LeBron James? Can he take his team to the finals?" team captain Antawn Jamison said. "Can he win a championship like D-Wade and, you know, Tim Duncan?"
Which is why Arenas would strap a 15-pound weight to his left ankle and dangle the leg off the edge of his bed, forcing his knee to extend. "That," he said, "was pain."
Why he would run the 1,392 steps along one of the seating levels above the team's home court, up and down, up and down, up and down, hoping with each stair to grind some of the stiffness from his knee and some of the worry from his mind.
"I've got to prove myself coming back from this injury," Arenas said last week. "I've got to prove myself that I'm an MVP candidate in this league, and I'm one of the best point guards in this league. So I'm going to come back with that same passion, that same fire. If I have to go out there and score 70 or 80, it's going to happen, but I don't shoot for those goals. Goals of mine are always about winning the game."
Which is why he would ride his bicycle through Washington for an hour or so at a time, three days a week, forcing his knee to keep churning. Lest anyone forget this is Gilbert Arenas, he was sure to explain that he never wore a helmet because he didn't want to "look goofy" and stayed on the sidewalks because, "There's cars on the street. I'd rather hit a person than a car, any day."
Why he would trek to a D.C. public high school and first spend time on the track four 100-meter sprints, four 200s, three 300s, and two 400s then chug away on the litter-specked football field with a pair of red-and-blue parachutes strapped to his waist for resistance.
"When I first started running, I was favoring it," Arenas said, recalling that a teammate who joined him for track work noticed a limp. "We just kept running and running and running, just trying to run it out."
Why he would do drills on the court that involved dribbling a basketball past Cleary, who tried to knock Arenas off stride by pounding on him with a foam pad that looked like something NFL linemen would use in practice.
And, of course, why Arenas would shoot. Boy, did he shoot, sometimes for 2 1/2 hours straight. At one point, Arenas said, his goal was to reach 100,000 made baskets by a certain date, and he was way ahead of pace but then his shoulders started feeling stiff and, well, suddenly, it didn't seem like such a good idea.
Last week, with reporters gathered a few feet away but no one guarding him, Arenas hoisted 143 3-point attempts from a corner, one after another, and made 100; that works out to 69.9 percent.
"That rim is broken," Arenas said afterward with his customary wink and smile. "Usually, I make all of 'em."
Apparently, that self-slighting has started to dissipate, huh?
And, apparently, all that work is paying off.
"His body's in better shape than I've ever seen him. He's always in shape, but he is chiseled, he's cut," Jordan said. "He's got the glare in his eye. He wants to come back stronger than ever."
This whole ordeal was all a bit new to the 25-year-old Arenas, whose only previous significant injury in the pros was an abdominal problem that limited him to 55 games in 2003-04.
He decided early on during this rehab that he didn't want to wear a knee brace so as not to have a constant reminder of what happened: The mental recuperation was just as important as the physical.
For showing up at training camp this week in fine form, Arenas made the team's Day 1 Honor Roll, along with Jamison and Caron Butler.
Still, Jordan cautioned after Day 2 of practice: "He's not the real Gil that we all know. Not yet. And it's normal. But he's working hard. He's still our best player; he's still the best player out here. He's not the real deal yet. When? It's going to come."
Arenas expects to be at his best Oct. 31, when the Wizards open the regular season at the Indiana Pacers. He'd like to show that he's A-OK on Tuesday, when the Wizards open the preseason at James' Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that eliminated a healthy Arenas and Washington from the playoffs two seasons ago and swept the Wizards who were missing Arenas and Butler in the first round last season.
Actually, Arenas doesn't want to wait until then. Ask him how his knee held up at the start of training camp, and you hear what you expect to hear.
"I'm 100 percent now. Been 100 percent for the last month," Arenas said, then nodded in the direction of a group of teammates walking out of Virginia Commonwealth University's arena. "Ask them. They're getting killed out there."