November 25, 2009
So this is how it ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.
It started with a bang. The brawl in Virginia. The breathless reports of this two-star athlete dominating the football fields and basketball courts in high school. This amazing scoring guard that nobody — not even John Thompson — could slow down.
Pissed off Jordan. Crossed over Jordan. Took over for Jordan as the league's most popular player, when the NBA was in its darkest era since the drug daze of the late 1970s. Won the MVP. Took home-court advantage from a swaggering, dominant Lakers team in the 2001 Finals. Made it, nearly, to the top. On his terms.
Marc Spears just confirmed the news that Allen Iverson is set to retire. This follows an ignominious attempt at shopping himself on the open free-agent market, with the season having already started. That followed an ignominious three-game turn with the Memphis Grizzlies, which followed an ignominious season with the Detroit Pistons, which followed a ... you see where I'm going here.
Every step of the way, Iverson stayed true to himself. And, in a game and a culture that had grown up around him, that steadfast refusal to do anything but stay true to himself resulted in this early, unnecessary retirement.
It's what made him what he was, you know. It's what made him the MVP in 2001, even if he wasn't anywhere near the best player in basketball that season. It's what brought his 76ers to the Finals in 2001, even though they were the class of the watered-down East and several other Western teams were superior. It's what won him the All-Star Game MVP in 2001, even though Dikembe Mutombo(notes) and Stephon Marbury(notes) likely had more to do with the East winning that game than Iverson.
It was that personality that won him those awards, that personality that inspired Larry Brown to build a team around a shoot-first 5-foot-11 guard, and that personality that made him so, so popular. He should have been popular. The man had the heart of a giant.
And in the end, it did him in. Iverson never adapted. His game never grew, it hardly changed, and everybody knew. He could still get his — A.I. was still averaging over 26 points and seven assists for the Nuggets two seasons ago — but at what cost?
He needed the ball, quite a bit, to get those numbers. It took others out of their games. He bitched and moaned every time he was asked to leave the game, even though he averaged over 41 minutes per game in his career. He never tried to help, he never tried to lead, he never tried to learn.
He stayed true to who he was. It's what got him a nice house, huge contracts, out of poverty, into working at the game he loved. Good for him. But at some point, you have to stop working at things as if you're a week removed from the breadline.
I can't possibly criticize that line of thinking, because I'll never (hopefully) know the pressure of that situation, least of all knowing it as a child. But others in this league have come from poverty. Others have been betrayed by people in positions of authority as children or teenagers. Others have had it rough. They stayed strong, made it out, and most of them adapted to a change in context.
A.I. never adapted. And while "me against the world" is admirable when it truly is you against the world, at some point you have to realize that you have four other guys with you, on your side, against the world. And they're not interested in fighting your fight. They're interested in winning the game.
And that hurts. Iverson accomplished quite a bit, but I'll never shake the feeling that so much was left unaccomplished. That he could have learned so much and contributed so much to this game had he not decided to essentially flatline in his early 20s.
I take no great pleasure in pointing this out, but the man quit on the 76ers (who traded him a few weeks later), his presence stifled the Nuggets, he quit on the Pistons, he quit on the Grizzlies (complaining about playing time after sitting out of practice for weeks and playing one whole game), and he just quit on this league. Way too early. With so much left to do.
And all I feel is sad. Not because I'm not used to the idea of the NBA without Allen Iverson — I haven't really enjoyed watching him play for most of his career, every sweet crossover came packaged with five ill-conceived jumpers — but because the man who got so much out of all that talent also got so little. And every half-empty assumption we made about him ended up coming true. Yes, you made it to the top while standing 5-11 and with critics at every turn, but so what? That was 1996. What comes next?
For Allen Iverson, nothing came next. Just huge strides toward irrelevance and, frankly, embarrassment.
It might not be over. For all we know, this could just be a temporary hissy fit, pitched to the point of filing retirement papers just because no team with a starting gig wants to know. He could be back next season. He could be back in February. We don't know.
What we do know is that this is a shame. For a man with his talent, his vision, his will, and his heart; to go out like this? To never, really, "get it?" It's a shame.
And, saddest of all, it's typical A.I.