WASHINGTON (AP) — As he has done many times in the month of March, Gilbert Arenas took off his shirt in a building full of adoring fans.
This time, though, he was simply changing into a T-shirt with the PETA logo, not removing his Washington Wizards jersey to toss into the crowd on the way to the locker room after a game.
Suspended by the NBA for the rest of the season for bringing guns to the locker room, he was giving away used fur coats to women in need on behalf of one of the few groups still proud to be associated with him: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"I have a lot of free time on my hands," Arenas said when one of the organizers thanked him for coming.
After the coats were handed out, Gilbert spoke to The Associated Press, his first interview since pleading guilty to a felony gun possession charge in January. Appearances such as these are helping pass the time until the next big date on his calendar: March 26, when he'll learn whether he'll go to jail for his crime.
Asked if he was nervous, Arenas shrugged.
"If the judge goes off with the story the papers write, then, yeah," Arenas said. "But if he goes off the actual real story, then I have no problems with it."
Arenas has maintained that he had four guns in the Wizards locker room and took them out in a "misguided effort to play a joke" on teammate Javaris Crittenton, who then displayed a firearm of his own and has since been sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation for a misdemeanor gun charge. Arenas could get anything from probation to five years in jail, although the government indicated it will not seek more than six months.
Until the fateful date comes and goes, questions about Arenas' future are hard to answer. Would he be willing to play again for the Wizards, the team that gone to great lengths to disassociate itself from him, the team that has removed nearly every trace of him from the Verizon Center?
"I have no problem," Arenas said. "Basketball is basketball. I don't think people realize that. No matter what city, overseas, D-league, park league — I just want to play."
Then again, Arenas noted that his future with the Wizards is not up to him. He's only in the second season of a six-year, $111 million contract.
"That's up to the city and the owners," Arenas said. "It's out of my hands."
Arenas' sentence could determine whether the Wizards will attempt to void the remainder of his contract, something the players' union would almost certainly oppose. Still, team president Ernie Grunfeld has indicated an Arenas appearance in a Wizards uniform could happen again, saying last month: "He's part of the organization. If he wants to play, he's going to play here."
Arenas is not big into downtime — he's been known to play online poker during halftime of NBA games and work out in the Verizon Center gym at 2 a.m. — but knee problems that derailed his previous two seasons have made it easier for him to cope while away from the arena.
"You've got to remember: I've been hurt for two years before this, and so I did all my stir-crazy moments then," he said. "So now it's like 'I'm used to this, I'm used to this time off.' Just play with the kids, be a father."
Arenas also said he's "staying in shape and finding causes to help, without all this publicity behind it." The athlete who used to make news regularly via blog, Twitter and outlandish comments in the locker room expressed surprise to find a reporter at the PETA event, and his short answers exhibited his preference to lay low.
His million-dollar smile came to life, however, for the people at Rachael's Women's Center, where the event was held. It might seem unusual for PETA to be giving away furs, but these were all donated by people who bought them, then had a change of heart and wanted to discard them for ethical reasons. Rather than throw them away, PETA accepts the furs and gives them to homeless people and others in need of a winter coat to stay warm.
Arenas helped the women try on the furs, giving advice on size and looks. Several asked for autographs, photos or hugs — or a combination of all three — and he complied every time. He was called "my favorite basketball player" by one woman and told by another how much the last-place Wizards need him back.
PETA approached Arenas about becoming a spokesman for the organization early in the season. It was coincidental that the organization released a photo of his tattooed bare chest with the slogan "Ink, Not Mink" the very week that he was initially suspended by NBA commissioner David Stern.
"Nothing that allegedly happened had anything to do with how animals are treated on farms or the issues that we advocate for as an organization," said Dan Shannon, director of campaigns for PETA. "If he wants to speak out about the cruelty in the fur industry, we want him to do that."
Arenas said he's never owned a fur. Being welcomed by PETA is a welcome change: The Wizards have kept their distance and his shoe company, Adidas, has dropped him altogether.
"It's just like anything. When something happens, everyone flees away," Arenas said. "So I already knew all that was going to happen. But PETA, they stayed behind me, they stayed with the cause, and that's the reason I came."
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