by Adam Fleischer

Just a few summers back, this would have been unthinkable.

Allen Iverson, out of work and lacking any passionate suitors.

About a year ago, Iverson finished the ’07-08 season leading the Nuggets in scoring, assists, steals, and minutes per game while starting all 82 and helping Denver to a 50-32 record. During the Western Conference’s most competitive season in recent memory, he teamed with Melo to will the Nuggets to the playoffs. Yes, they were the 8-seed and abruptly swept by the Lakers, but it was a five-win improvement from the previous year (when they earned a 6-seed), and AI was out there on the court every night.

We knew he would be, though. Iverson’s inclination to suit up on a nightly basis—regardless of how beat up he is—has been well documented throughout his career. That’s why he doesn’t deserve this. And I don’t mean he doesn’t deserve this from a respect standpoint. I mean it from a basketball one.

It’s difficult to reconcile that title-contending and up and coming organizations alike don’t feel that Iverson would be an asset to their team next season. Or, if there are those that feel he could, they’re certainly slow and reluctant to show it. Media and fans have been quick to point to the many issues and perceived shortcomings that surrounded Iverson last year as some sort of indication that he’s done. Sure, players often fall off once they climb into their thirties, but not this fast when they’ve been this good.

But maybe the lack of off-season interest shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Answer has always been somewhat of a polarizing figure to all those ranging from teammates and coaches to the public and the league. That’s not to say he wasn’t loved by those four entities, too. It’s simply to state that AI has been toeing the line between an exalted and castigated superstar for his entire career. 1501021P GEORGETOWN V TX TECH

Iverson was a controversial figure from the moment he came on the national scene (outside of basketball circles) in 1993 as a talented young black athlete in trouble with the law and in the center of a legal battle with a racial backdrop. After a racially based brawl erupted at a local Virginia bowling alley, AI and three other black youths were arrested—the only ones detained, and a mere fraction of the many aggressors involved—and he and two others were sentenced to a ridiculous 15 years in prison, with 10 years suspended. A 17-year-old Allen ended up only serving a few months at a minimum-security work camp, and the decision was later overturned, but such a racially charged entrance into the national spotlight was a precursor to the type of fiery discourse that Iverson as a figure and player has sparked over the last decade plus.

At the time, I was too young to understand the issues surrounding the incident or to even be cognizant of its existence (what do you expect from a first grader?). But only a few years later, AI catapulted himself onto my radar and instantly became my favorite player. From what I remember, our relationship began with a Georgetown hat that I took from a friend’s house which in turn made me like the Hoyas. Once I had the hat, I watched the team’s superstar in awe. The way he played and his on-court style grabbed me. His fervor, focus on defense, tendency to weave his way towards the hole, and passing ability were only a few of the things that had me hooked.

Instantly, I wanted to be like him on the court. And I wasn’t the only one. There’s no one player, besides Kobe and MJ, who people my age grew up trying to model their games after more than AI. I loved his crossover, and I loved when he hit MJ with it. I loved his spats with Larry Brown, and I loved when they made up. I loved when he rocked size 11.5 Questions, and I loved when the later generation of the sneaker tiptoed over Tyronn Lue. Despite sporadic off-court troubles and criticisms from all sides, I felt like he could do no wrong. DNA054924022.jpg

People born some years earlier than I was didn’t always have the kindest thoughts about the young superstar, though. Scratch that. Opposite of my standpoint, when they thought of doing wrong, they thought of him. He didn’t pass enough. His baggy jeans, the ink on his arms, and the braids in his hair had no place in the game. He didn’t respect the older generation. He couldn’t be the face of the league—at least, not with the image that it looked to project.

That image is one of family-friendly athletes who could be readily marketed as the higher ups pleased. When you come in the league, you’re part of a multi-billion dollar corporation that has an image and a product to uphold, and if you don’t fit the mold, then they’ll airbrush your picture and change the rules so you can’t wear what you want.

But Iverson was, and is, in many ways, representative not of something that the league should be moving away from, but of something that it is sorely missing these days: honesty. From Iverson, you always get it straight. When he was at the podium for his now infamous “We talkin’ about practice!?” press conference, he was letting us in to how he felt. Maybe he was wrong, and maybe you didn’t agree with his sentiments, but at least he was sharing his true feelings. Isn’t that what we’re looking for from athletes when we ask them questions? Not for some easy to consume crap, but for the real thing? He wasn’t worried about always giving the politically correct answer. And when he did give it, it wasn’t for the sake of political correctness—it was because he believed what he was saying. You could just tell.

That’s something that hasn’t changed during his career. From his Rookie of the Year acceptance to a tearful press conference earlier this summer and everything in between, he gives you the real. His on-court game during that span has changed, but you gotta believe he’s still got it. He could still put up 20 per on playoff squad, but none seem to want to give him a shot. Or, possibly, it’s that he won’t give them one, stuck on looking for the sort of The Man role that, while marking his career, he’s now grown out of. But he’s not ready to stop playing, despite what he suggested some months ago. Not someone whose give and take with the game has been this meaningful.

There’s a chance I’m rejecting the current reality for the one of my youth, but I don’t think that’s the case. Much of what I’ve read, heard, and seen over the last few months regarding Iverson leaves me puzzled. It’s almost as if people have been waiting for his descent so they could use it as proof that he was never really as great as he was billed to be; so they could claim that his teams never made it over the hump not because of inferior talent around him, but because of him.

He claims that all he has ever wanted is to win. To me, it shows. It’s what he strives for—more than scoring titles, accolades, or endorsements. Has he always gone about that goal of winning in the right way? In hindsight, maybe not. Maybe he should have been quicker to meet his teammates and coaches halfway in disputes. Maybe he should have taken less shots after all. Maybe he should have done a lot of things. But it would be wrong of us to only think about him that way after what he’s given us.

Bring him onto a championship contender and he’ll help show that you need to “play every game like it’s your last,” like he has professed so many times. Bring him on a young squad and he’ll show the kids that it’s better to be yourself than something that the media, management, and the public want you to be. He’ll show Brandon Jennings that it’s more than alright to speak your mind. As one of the few with the platform to do so, you should take advantage.

He has brought a level of authenticity to the court and the mic (no, I’m not talking about “40 Bars”) that we would be remiss to quickly forget thanks to one sub-par season. Yet, here we are, two weeks into August and with just about every capable free agent off the market, but AI is still looking for a team. We may feel far removed now, but there was a decade when Iverson was one of, if not the, most exciting, fascinating, and entertaining player in the game. He’s no longer the MVP he was early in the decade, but he’s no schmuck either. 55993847EZ011_Milwaukee_Buc

So anyone hoping to diminish where Iverson’s been and what he’s done for the game in light of the where he and it seem to now be going, just remember: each time he hit the deck, he got right back up. As fans, we’ve all been better for it. And, as whichever team eventually extends their hand to pick him up will soon realize, don’t expect that to stop.