Today is a sad day for me. After three whole games with the Memphis Grizzlies, the perpetual NBA bottom-feeder, and the only team that was willing to sign him this off-season, Allen Iverson has been granted a leave of absence from the team. I have an unfortunate feeling that now, and especially after the debacle that was the Detroit Pistons last season, this might be the last time we see A.I. on a professional basketball court.
For years, I have been an Allen Iverson apologist. When he first came into the league out of Georgetown, I wasn’t a fan. I was convinced that Stefan Marbury was going to be a much better player. I was quickly a convert as Marbury showed himself to be a loser in every sense of the word while A.I was winning scoring titles, and carrying a mediocre Philadelphia team to the playoffs year in and year out.
There were problems all throughout his Sixers tenure, like partying in front of the cops while on house arrest. And who can ever forget the infamous “practice” comment? While many members of the press blasted him for his seeming selfishness and unwillingness to get with the program, I began to admire the man for his self-confidence and courage to stick to his beliefs. I even convinced myself that his rant against practice was over-blown, and that he had a point, particularly considering his size and the rigors of playing the long NBA schedule.
When he was traded to Denver, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to show that he still had it, but in his time there, he had to deal with constant injuries to nearly everyone on the roster who could bang inside and lingering immaturity from their young superstar Carmelo Anthony. When he was swapped for Chauncey Billups last season, he got a lot of heat for the Nuggets not being able to progress previously. Of course, they only won 3 more regular season games last year than the year before, and were fortunate that 54 wins got an upper echelon seed, home court advantage and favorable playoff matchups with the fading Hornets and under-manned Mavericks. If A.I. had gotten to play with a svelte and healthy Nene, a healthy Kenyon Martin, a rejuvenated Chris Andersen, and more mature versions of Anthony and J.R. Smith, I doubt the end result would have been all that different from what Billups accomplished.
Instead, he was relegated to a collapsing mess in Detroit with a coach who was clearly over-matched and a roster full of veterans who were, to put it mildly, annoyed that their friend and battle-tested compatriot Billups was traded in the first place. This is when Iverson first began to voice his displeasure over not starting. Considering the situation and the mess that the coach had made of the formerly championship-caliber Pistons, I excused his audacity. Particularly considering that Rip Hamilton made the exact same argument about not starting, but no one vilified him in the media. When A.I. shut down his season with a “back” injury, to me, it seemed like a justifiable retreat from an intolerable situation.
During the off-season, I kept waiting for Iverson to show up on the radar of some genuinely competitive teams. There was a brief flirtation with the Heat that amounted to nothing, but mostly it came down to joining also-rans like the Bobcats, Clippers and the Grizzlies to toil away for a lottery team with little chance of seeing a playoff game. For a guy nearing the end of long and, according to me, Hall-of-Fame worthy career, this indignity has to be frustrating. When the lines of communication with yet another seemingly over-matched coach fell apart this week, A.I. again started in on the “I want to start,” rant.
Finally, maybe long overdue, I can no longer make any more apologies. A.I. is a warrior on the court. He comes to play and works hard every game. In the end, Iverson may be right and his coaches wrong. But it doesn’t matter if Michael Curry or Lionel Hollins end up as short-term afterthoughts in the league’s coaching ranks. A.I.’s reputation has taken a potentially fatal hit, helped along by a media only too willing to line up against him. No one is going to pick him up if he gets placed on waivers from the Grizzlies, at least no one with any intention of giving him the significant playing time he desires.
So I say to you, A.I., as a loyal fan, suck it up. Make up to your coach no matter how full of it you think he may be. Take the role off the bench and run with it. Light it up every time you come in the game and make it clear to everyone who deserves the playing time. And if the Grizzlies don’t get it, some other team on the cusp of contention looking for a spark off the bench will. Learn from guys like Jerry Stackhouse and Manu Ginobli, both of whom accepted roles in reserve and became key, irreplaceable components on championship contenders. You could do the same, and add a Top Sixth Man trophy to your Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. Otherwise, you’re likely done.
As Ginobli, Stackhouse and numerous other players around the league have learned, it’s not important who starts the game on the floor, it’s who finishes it that matters. Today, barring a major adjustment in attitude, Iverson’s career may have just ended. And, sadly, he wasn’t on the floor.