Allen Iverson: A Humbled Star
Is Turkey where The Answer’s career should have ended?
by Jay King / @CelticsTown
The man they once called The Answer was the last player announced. The arena lights were turned off, and a spotlight revealed Allen Iverson.
It was easy to see he really was Allen Iverson. The braided hair, the shooting sleeve, the headband. The swagger. Everything I remembered about Iverson was evident. But yesterday was different than I was used to with Iverson. The crowd treated it like a celebration, but this was sad. Iverson was playing in Turkey, for some team called Besiktas. Things weren’t supposed to turn out this way.
This was a former NBA MVP. A 10-time All-Star, 11 if you count last season when the fans voted him in. A four-time scoring champ. This was The Answer. The hero who carried Aaron McKie, Eric Snow, Dikembe Mutombo, George Lynch, Tyrone Hill, Jumaine Jones and Todd MacCulloch to the NBA Finals. Who stepped over Tyron Lue in the midst of a 48-point explosion, in the NBA Finals, against Kobe, Shaq and the Lakers. Who scored at least 40 points 79 times, who scored at least 50 points 11 times, and who is one of only 20 players to score 60 points in a single game. Who helped carry the NBA into the hip hop era, who didn’t care if he was misunderstood. Who played as hard as anyone, who never stopped scrapping.
This was Allen Iverson. The man who didn’t want to talk about practice. Who reminded fans of another gritty Philly overachiever, Rocky. Who was beloved enough to make people buy Reeboks. Who, even at 6-0 tall (in heels, I bet), even at 165 pounds (soaking wet, most likely), managed to physically dominate the world’s best athletes. Who brought the killer crossover to new heights. Who sacrificed his body, game in and game out, to lead his teams to victory.
Now I am forced to watch Iverson on ATDHE.net, with the live (and probably illegal) video stream temporarily pausing every minute or so due to poor connection. Is this really what it has come to, a Hall of Famer shamed into playing overseas, with no NBA team willing to offer a contract? Is this really what it has come to, Iverson’s struggles forcing us to squint just to remember his transcendent greatness?
Few legends age gracefully. Few leave on top. I’m not sure why. Maybe most legends understand they aren’t good enough to remain superstars, but can’t bear to give up the game. Maybe most legends have so much pride and confidence they still believe they can rule the game. I don’t know. I was never much of a legend in my playing days. More like a scrub.
But I didn’t have to be a stud myself to see how most NBA legends leave the game — as shells of themselves. Larry Bird hobbled around with a back that wouldn’t cooperate and Magic Johnson was never the same after an HIV-induced semi-retirement. Karl Malone tried to piggyback his way to a title in Los Angeles. Gary Payton hung on a few years too long. Patrick Ewing ended his career playing only 13.9 minutes per game — for the Orlando Magic. Stars rarely, if ever, leave the game on top.
Michael Jordan was just about the only superstar who did, and then he ruined it when he came out of retirement to play for the Wizards. When Jordan finally left the game for good, he wasn’t the Michael Jordan we’d known for so long. He averaged 20 points per game for a 37-45 team based in Washington. Perhaps David Robinson had it right. He wasn’t an All-Star when he left the NBA, or even close to it, but he retired after his team won an NBA championship. Of course, that was more a testament to Tim Duncan’s ability than Robinson’s perfect timing.
Bill Russell was probably the player who left the game as close to the top as anyone before or since. (Forgive me if I’ve missed someone.) Russell left the game a champion, and he left it a starter averaging 19.3 rebounds per game. But he was the exception, not the rule. And even Russell averaged a career-low in points during that final season, pouring in fewer than double digits for the first time in his career.
All these stars were severely diminished by the time they left the NBA, yet there was something admirable about the way they aged. There was something about Ewing hanging on until he could barely lace his sneakers anymore. We could see how badly he loved basketball, how much the game meant to him. Same with Bird and his troublesome back. Bird couldn’t even sit on the bench; he had to lie down instead. But he battled through it, doing whatever he could to help his team win ballgames. Bird’s back could sometimes keep him from standing up straight, but it couldn’t hold back his competitive spirit.
And NBA stars have almost always aged in the public eye. We could turn on the TV and watch Michael Jordan in the waning years of his career. He wasn’t always the Jordan we loved and admired, but there were flashes. Every once in a while he’d execute that fadeaway jumper, and all the memories came flooding back into our minds. Or remember the time he pinned Ron Mercer’s shot off the backboard with two hands, then caught the ball right out of Mercer’s hands?
Legends aren’t always the same as they grow older, but once in a while they offer glimpses into the past. It’s almost like the nicotine patch. You don’t normally quit legends cold turkey. You usually get a smaller dose of them each and every year, until finally they’re gone. And when they leave, it’s normally with a retirement ceremony in front of a loving crowd.
But not with Allen Iverson. His demise was quick, his fall furious. We didn’t even get a chance to cherish what we suspect were his last moments in an NBA uniform. One second he was starting for the 76ers, playing 31.9 minutes per game and averaging 13.9 points per game. The next he had quit, noting his daughter’s illness as the reason. Iverson’s final game in the NBA was played on February 20, 2010, against the Chicago Bulls. The lead in the game’s AP recap wasn’t Iverson’s retirement, but Taj Gibson’s double-double.
How could the AP recap possibly discuss Iverson’s retirement? We didn’t know we would probably never get to see Iverson play in the NBA again.
We had no idea.