This is the tale of an NBA All-Star and future Hall of Famer. It’s the story of a man who, despite his small stature, has carved a place for himself from amongst the pantheon of taller men in a league of giants. He has been both celebrated and condemned for his fierce, aggressive style of play; for his years showing no fear as he barreled to the basket, dragging along bigger and stronger men with him on his way to four scoring titles, seven All-Star appearances and a league MVP award. He’s a man whose self-confidence oozes from his game. It’s perhaps the only way for someone with his deficiencies in physical nature to succeed at this level. But that same self-assuredness that led to all the accolades has also been his undoing. He doesn’t hesitate to criticize his teams when he believes that he knows better. And for speaking his mind, and following his own drum-beat, he’s been made the poster-child for everything wrong with modern sports.
Four weeks ago, Allen Iverson became so annoyed with his minimal role coming off the bench for a really bad Memphis team that he took his ball and went home. He used the ubiquitous “family issues” defense to justify his disgust and desertion but that didn’t stop the media vultures from pouncing. Here was a guy in denial; the very epitome of the selfish, spoiled athlete. How dare he not accept whatever role his team wants him in, no matter how humiliating? After being released by Memphis, we were subjected to speculation about his being signed by the New York Knicks. But after a few days of will-they-or-won’t-they, the Knicks would do what many of Iverson’s critics say he doesn’t do enough of, pass.
Even worse, a team that was 2-9 at the time said that Iverson wasn’t worth the risk. Since passing on A.I., New York has been a brisk 2-6 with a five game losing streak worked in. It’s hard to see how things could get much worse or what exactly they thought they were risking. But again, the media swooped in. Iverson’s a cancer, anyone would be crazy to sign him, he’ll tear your team apart. At this point, with the sour feelings of the press making it nearly impossible for any team to openly consider adding the four-time scoring champion and former league MVP, Iverson retired out of anger and frustration.
Obituaries were written, Iverson’s final answer had been given. The former great would rather quit that come off the bench. Good riddance, they all said. Charles Barkley came out and said that Iverson needed to learn to adapt, needed to be okay with coming off the bench. He said this, even though Barkley, except for a couple dozen games in 1997-98 dealing with injuries, came off the bench in only 6 games through the final 13 years of his career. Surprisingly, one guy who stood up for Iverson was Larry Brown, his former coach for the 76ers who, the media tells us, got so fed up with A.I.’s act that he was the reason the coach left Philly in the first place. We’re told this despite the fact that the Sixers’ job with A.I. was the longest stint of Brown’s NBA career with any one team, two years longer than any other. Somehow, despite Iverson’s “toxic” presence, the perpetual wanderer Brown stayed put. Even winning a championship in Detroit couldn’t make that happen.
Then, late in November, the news that current Sixers guard Louis Williams would miss eight weeks with a broken jaw started up the rumors anew. Here was a perfect position for Iverson, a triumphant return as a starter to the town where he made his Hall of Fame credentials. It was an opportunity even I didn’t think would come about. The Sixers, a team expected to challenge for the playoffs, had been scuffling all season, especially after Williams went down with five straight losses without him to leave them at 5-14. The doubters arose again, even as it seemed more certain that a reunion would ensue, and that Iverson would get another chance to fill his desired role as starter. This isn’t a basketball decision, we were told, despite the fact that Williams is a similar player in stature and game to Iverson, only much less experienced, and the only other point guard on the roster was a 19 year old rookie. In a basketball sense, this move is a perfect decision, bringing a player whose scoring and skill set match exactly what the young team needs, despite what the critics say. And say they did. This is about selling tickets for a bad team, it’s a marketing ploy. Even after a tearful press conference by Iverson, professing his appreciation and joy for being given another chance, and for it to be in Philadelphia, the din hasn’t stopped. Those were crocodile tears. This’ll only last three weeks before he doesn’t want to practice any more.
Whatever the reason, Iverson was signed and will suit up in his first game back on Monday. His coach, Eddie Jordan, who dealt with (and won games with) another mercurial high-scoring psuedo-point guard in Washington with Gilbert Arenas, has even stated publicly that Iverson will be the answer to the question of who’s starting for the Sixers the rest of the season. In one of those odd twists of scheduling fate, Iverson’s first opponent will be the Denver Nuggets, the team that started him on this dark road to near-oblivion when they swapped his contract for Chauncey Billups three games into last season. Much has been written since about how Billups is the anti-Iverson, almost single-handedly lifting the Nuggets to never-before-achieved levels if success. Iverson was holding them back, the press gleefully said. Very little mention is given to Carmelo Anthony’s maturity, largely earned during the 2008 Olympic experience, Nene’s fit and healthy return, Kenyon Martin’s ability to stay on the court for a full season for a change, J.R. Smith’s maturity as a player, hard-earned after being at least partly responsible for the death of his best friend, and Chris Andersen’s reemergence from drug-induced purgatory as an energetic and sober off-the-bench force. Iverson in Denver had the benefit of none of these things, yet we are still told that their problems as a team began and ended with A.I.
Two days after the Denver game, Iverson will play the Detroit Pistons, where his career completely went off the tracks. This is where the now-constant array of complaints about his inability to adapt was started. The Pistons, after six years of brilliance or near brilliance, fell apart last season. They barely made the playoffs after six straight years of conference finals appearances and were well under .500. Iverson destroyed the Pistons dynasty, we were told. Iverson was savaged in the press for complaining about his coach and his role off the bench, but Rip Hamilton said many of the same things without anywhere near the criticism. By season’s end, it was clear that Pistons rookie head coach Michael Curry was over-matched in the job, and that he had been less than honest with more than one of his players, Iverson and Hamilton included. Curry was rightly fired, and the Pistons moved on. Yet Iverson still shoulders an inordinate amount of blame for the collapse of an Eastern Conference power.
Allen Iverson gets a chance this week to show all the doubters, who will be only too ready to pounce on every turnover, yet dismiss every assist; condemn every missed shot yet undervalue every made basket. To them, Iverson can’t succeed, even if he does. If Iverson does make a triumphant comeback, either this week or somehow leads the Sixers into the post-season (they are still a talented team, and only 3 games out, even with the early season struggles) I hope he starts a press conference somewhere by saying, “I don’t want to talk about the game, let’s talk about what a great practice we had instead.” That would make me smile.