by Lang Whitaker

Last week, NBA writers around the world had a chance to do a dry run of their “Allen Iverson is retiring” columns. I think I read 278 of them. We’ve all known that the end of the Iverson era was coming for a few months now — even if it now appears it wasn’t actually the end — but the news seemed sudden nonetheless. (“Yeah, it was really a shame. To go so suddenly like that.” “He was dying for years.” “Sure, but…the end was very, very sudden.” “He was in intensive care for eight weeks.” “Yeah, but I mean the very end, when he actually died. That was extremely sudden.”)

The general consensus from the NBA writerazzi seemed to be that Iverson was great, an amazing player with unmatched heart and soul, but he wasn’t great enough. For you see, AI never did play team basketball — despite having a career average of 6.2 assists per game — and for this, we will have to give him a place in history somewhere just short of the top echelon.

Well, what did you expect? Who did you think you were watching? Consider who Allen Iverson is, and what he went through to even make it to the NBA. His father deserted him and his mother. His mother, Ann, was just 15 years older than Allen. They grew up in a house that more often than not didn’t have electricity or running water. When the weather turned bad, their floors would be flooded with raw sewage.

Growing up, the first lesson Allen Iverson was forced to learn was how to look out for himself, a lesson absorbed more out of necessity than anything else. At Georgetown, John Thompson designed the offense to feature Iverson. In Philly, they asked him to shoot every time he got the ball. Billy King surrounded him with role players, and he carried the whole mess of them to the NBA Finals. It didn’t result in a championship, obviously, but they came damn close. Since then, but particularly in Detroit and in Memphis, Iverson was asked to be less than he felt he was able to be.

It’s possible that Allen Iverson never learned how to be a part of a team. He’s been through 9 coaches in 14 seasons. The most long-tenured coach he ever had was Larry Brown, who has never exactly been a model of stability. I’ve always felt that Iverson would be glad to defer, given the proper situation. Put talented guys around him, he’ll take that step back. He did it in Denver, didn’t he? When I spoke to Carmelo about playing with Iverson as a teammate, he raved about him. During the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Iverson was USA Basketball’s best ambassador; he was the only member of Team USA who was willing to face the media after every game, no matter how embarrassing the outcome.

(Incidentally, one of my favorite AI quotes of all time came from those Olympics. “Honestly, it’s real life,” Iverson noted after the US was awarded their bronze medals. “A lot of people don’t understand how Smarty Jones lost his last race. A lot of people don’t understand how Muhammad Ali lost a single fight. And a lot of people don’t understand how hard it is over here. I could go on about what didn’t happen, but I don’t want to take away from what the other teams did here.”)

It’s really only been the last two pit (literally) stops where AI didn’t fit in. In Detroit and in Memphis, Iverson’s personal agenda overshadowed that of the team’s agendas. (Both places where, it should be noted, neither team hid their lack of future plans for AI, either.)

There are two ways remaining for Allen Iverson’s career to go. He could sign on with a contender, play 10-15 minutes a night without grumbling, and do none of the things that made (and make) Allen Iverson “The Answer.” Or he could bounce around and finish things out the way Dominique Wilkins finished it out, playing for a succession of terrible teams, getting buckets but not getting W’s.

Which direction is the “proper” direction for Iverson to go? As a basketball fan, someone who appreciates the nuance and flow of watching a team share the ball and involve everyone, I think it would be tremendous to see Allen Iverson attempt to play that style of basketball, but he feels he doesn’t have to yet. AI says he’s still a franchise player, and he seems to believe that if a team is assembled around him, he still has enough gas in the tank to carry that team to a title. He might be wrong, but this is what he believes.

If he never plays again, if his career ended today, he’ll retire as a former MVP, Rookie of the Year, four-time scoring champ, three-time All-NBA first teamer, ten-time All-Star and 17th all-time in NBA history in scoring with 24,020 points. Unbelievable numbers for anyone, much less a kid who came from nothing.

That Iverson appears to not actually be retired means not only that all my peers get another shot at writing their final Iverson columns, but also that Iverson gets a shot at redeeming himself in their eyes. But if he cared about that, he wouldn’t even be Allen Iverson.

Allen Iverson has been judged his entire life for not being what everyone else has wanted him to be. When he does finally walk away from the game, can’t we, for once, judge him on what he has actually done rather than what he didn’t do?