Gilbert Arenas: The NBA's Colt Seavers?

Gilbert Arenas has come into his own as an NBA superstar this season. After overcoming a difficult upbringing, he has succeeded beyond all expectations. And throughout it all, he has maintained a quirky sense of humor.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Professional basketball has an emerging superstar whose skills will be on display during the NBA All-Star Game Sunday night in Las Vegas. He is Gilbert Arenas of the Washington Wizards. Arenas is making a habit of winning games at buzzer. Games like this one, heard on the Wizards Radio Network.

(Soundbite of radio program)

Unidentified Man #1: Arenas out front. (Unintelligible) at the arch. Beyond the arch for three. It's there! It's there! At the buzzer! Gilbert Arenas has done it again!

NORRIS: But it's not just his on the court skills that is propelling Gilbert Arenas to the top. As NPR's John Ydstie reports, an exuberant personality and quirky behavior are making Gilbert Arenas a fan favorite around the NBA.

JOHN YDSTIE: His coach calls it Gilbert-ology: a mix of swagger, good humor and unpredictability, like yelling hibachi as he shoots or throwing his sweating jersey to fans after the game. Gilbert-ology was on display as Arenas talked with reporters in the locker room recently after making a long buzzer-beating shot.

Mr. GILBERT ARENAS (NBA player, Wizards): If you have quality shot.

Unidentified Man #2: Quality shot. Ok.

Unidentified Man #3: Did you say anything? Did you say hibachi? Or what did you say?

Mr. ARENAS: No. I didn't say anything.

Unidentified Man #3: Didn't say anything?

Mr. ARENAS: Uh-uh.

Unidentified Man #4: Didn't have to.

Mr. ARENAS: My swag was phenomenal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: Luckily, Gilbert's skill matches his swagger. He's an explosively fast six-foot-four-inch guard, who's the second leading scorer in the NBA. In one game he rang up 60 points. Yet, he's so dedicated he sometimes shows up that the gym after midnight to shoot a round. But it's his playfulness that sets him apart from most NBA players.

Mr. ARENAS: You know, you've got to enjoy what you're doing. You know, you're here. People come to see you because they want to get away from their problems. You know, they had a long day at work and they want to come here. They want to enjoy the game. So, you know, you have to be an entertainer out there.

Mr. PHIL CHENIER (Former NBA player): I think that's extremely refreshing.

YDSTIE: That's Phil Chenier, a former NBA star and part of the Wizards Comcast SportsNet broadcast team.

Mr. CHENIER: He connects with the audience. He connects with his fans. And he keeps the game fun. He seems to show you that he enjoys what he's doing. That's a little unique in this league. You have a lot of people with stone face. You have people that go overboard. When you are genuine, people notice that and it has dividends.

YDSTIE: While he's personable, Arenas is also extremely competitive. When he headed for college, someone told him he'd play zero minutes for the University of Arizona. So Arenas decided to wear zero on his game jersey as motivation. Now he strips that jersey off after every game and tosses it into the crowd. He says he was inspired by former NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman, who used to heave his jersey to fans after being thrown out of games.

Mr. ARENAS: You know, the fans loved it, you know. So when I was little I was like, you know if I ever get the chance, you know, to throw my jersey off, you know, I'm going to do it every game.

YDSTIE: I hear you're going to take several hundred of them to Las Vegas.

Mr. ARENAS: Yeah. I had 100 of them ordered of the All Stars and I had Agent put on the back.

YDSTIE: Agent for Agent Zero, Arena's new nickname.

(Soundbite of audience cheering)

Unidentified Man #5: Agent Zero wins the game at the buzzer for Washington.

Mr. ARENAS: It's just like being James Bond. You know, everyone has a nickname because people pick up on it. People like - you know, people like aliases, you know - The Matrix, you know, Flash, you know - people like that.

YDSTIE: The country's basketball fans approve. Their votes made Arenas a starting guard for Sunday's All-Star Game. He's brought excitement to Washington fans like the Coleman family from McLean, Virginia.

Unidentified Man #6: I like his attitude. I like how he's a little quirky. I heard that he takes showers, you know - when he's having a bad game he'll take a shower at half time, you know. He'll play poker on three different computers before a game, so.

Unidentified Woman: I love him. That's why I came. You know, it's fun to have somebody young and kind of crazy like him.

YDSTIE: It could have turned out differently. Arenas faced some difficult times as a child. He never knew his mother, a drug addict. His father, an aspiring actor, took him to Los Angeles. They ran on hard times and lived for awhile out of their car. But Arenas credits his father for his positive outlook.

Mr. ARENAS: You know, I rarely seen days where he was sadder than that. You know, everything was upbeat. So, you know, it's what you see. You know, I see him smiling and having fun, you know. So you start, you know, inheriting that.

YDSTIE: Arenas has the potential to be among the NBA's all time best player, says former star Phil Chenier. But he has a long way to go. Winning a championship is the ultimate test and Arenas and his Wizards team have been slumping lately. Chenier says they need to get better defensively before they'll get to the top rung.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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