WASHINGTON – Gilbert Arenas wore a thick beard, a No. 9 jersey and an expression lacking of any joy whatsoever.
He looked like someone posing for a mug shot instead of a publicity photo as the Washington Wizards crew took picture after picture, the photographers trying in vain to get him to crack even the slightest smile.
It was the eve of training camp, and the carefree personality formerly known as Agent Zero was nowhere to be found.
"The only place I want to smile is on the court," Arenas said. "That's where my job is, that's where my love is. That's the only time I need to smile now."
Arenas spoke publicly Monday for the first time since the day he was sentenced on a felony gun charge in March, a silence that ended only because it's mandatory to take part in the team's media day. The words came out in a measured, serious monotone before a group of reporters crowded four-deep around a table. He paused before answering every question — no more of the spontaneity that produced freewheeling answers in the past — and a member of the team's public relations staff ended the session after just 3 minutes, 12 seconds.
Someone asked the obvious question: Are you happy?
"I'm very happy," Arenas said. "In the past, I used to show happiness on the outside. There's no need to do that anymore. Now I can just play the game the right way and play with my passion, and that's really the focus."
How else has he changed?
"I'm more to myself now," he said. "You're getting older, so you automatically grow. Just another year, a new team."
That answer was harder to swallow.
It's not just another year, and Arenas did more in the past 12 months than just grow older. He is now a convicted felon who pleaded guilty to bringing guns into the Wizards locker room at the Verizon Center following a dispute with a teammate over a card game. He was sentenced to one month in a halfway house and two years of probation, was suspended for 50 games by the NBA and became an embarrassment to a franchise that had treated him like an icon.
NBA Commissioner David Stern advised Arenas not to talk about those ugly series of events, and Arenas seemed more than content to oblige. Asked how he felt about talking with reporters again, he said: "I just want to play. It's part of my job, and I have to deal with it."
One of the most unpredictable players in the NBA, Arenas has staged media boycotts and freeze-outs in the past, so it wouldn't be a total shock if he were telling jokes and starting up his blog again in a month or so. But coach Flip Saunders said the young, flamboyant Arenas who once made as many headlines with his pronouncements as his play might be gone for good.
"I don't think he's going to be as maybe loose as he's been in the past," Saunders said. "As you get to a certain point in your career there are certain things that become more important than other things. In order to achieve some of the success that you want, you have to approach it as ... serious. That's where he's at. He's very serious and he's been serious in his approach."
Arenas is now 28, and he's ditched the jersey that generated his nickname. He originally planned to go from No. 0 to No. 6 this season, but then changed his mind and opted for No. 9. Those hoping for an explanation were left disappointed when the media session was cut short.
At least teammate Nick Young was able to tell the story behind Arenas' facial hair. It stems from a bet: Arenas is growing a beard, and Young is growing an Afro.
"At this point in his career, after all that he's been through, the attitude that he has right now, being more serious, it's a good attitude," forward Andray Blatche said. "We've seen the old Gil, and I think a new Gil would be better for him right now. For him to stay focused and go out there and get the job done, he'll be a better player on the court."
Teammates and coaches say Arenas has looked sharp in pickup games at the Verizon Center over the last two weeks, and that he does smile and laugh while on the court. The true test of his fitness and demeanor starts with training camp, with the first practice scheduled for 12:01 a.m. Tuesday at George Mason University as Washington becomes the first NBA team to open with a college-style Midnight Madness.
Arenas has played only 42 games over the last three seasons. Two years were wrecked by a knee injury, and the third by his legal problems. It's safe to say the only reason he's still with the Wizards is the six-year, $111 million albatross of a contract he signed in the summer of 2008.
The team is moving into a different era: Ted Leonsis is the new owner, No. 1 overall pick John Wall is the new face of the future, and Arenas co-stars Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler were jettisoned late last season as the team went into full rebuilding mode.
Arenas called the new faces a "breath of fresh air" and said he has a "great relationship" with Wizards management, despite the decision to make him persona non grata in the second half of last season. The team removed nearly every photo and banner featuring Arenas from the Verizon Center and stopped selling his jersey.
"It's still a business," Arenas said. "Any product you own, if something happens to it, you've got to do what you've got to do to save your company, so I understand it. Now we've just got to move forward."
There was a time when Arenas was arguably the top athlete in Washington, a difficult feat to achieve for anyone who doesn't play for the Washington Redskins. Now he has to win back the fans, but he said he plans to do so with his game — without the added antics.
"You know, at the end of the day, the fans just want to see good basketball," Arenas said. "No matter what you do, your game speaks for yourself."
AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich and AP freelance writer Elliott Smith contributed to this report.