Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hair Shirt

Last weekend, while I was on my semi-break, blog obsession Allen Iverson trimmed his trademark cornrows, probably out of an effort to show he's all grown up now and deserving of a final NBA contract after his current deal is up. Given how his year has gone, if he gets a job, it will come from a going nowhere team that hires him to sell tickets and score 25 points a game by any means possible, though I suspect he could also go to a playoff team that sees him as the rich man's Earl Boykins for bench scoring.

Anyway, since AI is no longer actually good enough to watch in a game, see his new 'do here. It makes him look ordinary, in my opinion -- something he should never be.

And with this development, it seems as good of a time as any other to try to explain why the man-crush still hasn't fully gone away, even as his skills erode and two consecutive teams have looked good for trading him for a previously maligned point guard.

It all has to do, of course, with AI's MVP year, which seems to fade in the memory of everyone but the hardcore Philly Fan faithful. Thankfully, enough of you read this blog to justify a few more words to try to explain things.

In the 2000 NBA season, I had moved cross-country for work, and lived in the East Bay in Northern California. All of the people that I knew in the area where the folks from work, and the Shooter Wife and I had just had out first kid. It was a little lonely and off-putting. Soon after moving, my first start-up failed, and ninety days later, so had the second. I was able to roll with the punches and get into a third, more stable and better gig. But for a good long while, that gig was a case of high frustration, because it involved a lot of managerial oversight that the other positions didn't have.

I was also pretty much over sports, if you can believe such things. After giving up sportswriting to make more money typing for a living, I spent most of the '90s committing every waking moment to my rock band. Once that dried up, I switched to writing books, parenting and work. Sports was then, as it is now and probably always will be, guy soap opera with a side order of corporate welfare. At the time, that mattered more than the games.

I had stopped watching baseball entirely in the wake of the strike, spent most of the last decade suffering with the worst Sixers teams of my lifetime (and considering how good they'd been for most of that time, that really hurt), and given up entirely on hockey, to the point of being unable to tell you their expansion franchises. Maybe I'd have followed the NBA again with any tolerable Sixers team, but they've been good for a year or more now, and it hasn't really moved me. Only the Eagles kept on, mostly because the NFL is fairly impossible to shake and doesn't require a ton of time commitment.

I didn't even play in a single fantasy sport.

And then Allen Iverson took the franchise on his 160 pound shoulders and had the best season ever for a small guard.

It's hard to overstate how moving AI and the Sixers in 2000-01 were. The team started with a 10-game winning streak powered by the most artistically satisfying ball of the Larry Brown Era. Theo Ratliff earned his monster contract by blocking a ton of shots (3.7 a game) and keeping them in play, and with Eric Snow and Aaron McKie joining AI in the NBA's top 10 in steals, the team always had more possessions than you. McKie had the year of his life providing instant glue work as the sixth man. Snow was a simple defensive hammer with a sneakily reliable mid-range jump shot, and Tyrone Hill gave them some good inside work. Hopes were immediately raised that perhaps this team would do more than lose to some Pacer/Piston-like entourage, the way we always did. Then Ratliff got hurt, and rather than just take a knee and wait for him to get better, the team moved him and Toni Kukoc to Atlanta for Dikembe Mutumbo.

A small word here about Pat Croce. Now, he just seems like a strange little huckster, but at the time, he was a unique figure in Philadelphia sports: an owner that you did not want to set on fire. Sure, his enthusiasm could be cringe-worthy, but his impact was amazing, from getting a new stadium to convincing people to put car flags up in their vehicles, to even affixing flags his own damn self to huge structures like, well, a crazy person.

Here was the first guy in Sixers ownership history that wasn't content to just have the #4 franchise in town, to just assume that the region's strong racist undercurrent and allegiance to college ball would keep his building less than filled. He didn't try to censor Iverson; he embraced him. Repeatedly. He indulged Brown to the point where we actually thought the coach would stay for good. And for a good long upswing, it all worked.

Anyway, back to the court. The team won 56 games in the regular season. And then the playoffs started, and the white knuckle ride of a lifetime began.

A Game 1 home loss to the Always Beat Us 8th seed Pacers made everyone panic, especially since it came with an 18-point lead being pissed away, Disaster was averted in four games, with the last two road games won by just 5 and 3 points. The next round went seven against Toronto, with AI and Vince Carter trading off 50-point games; had Carter hit his 3 at the buzzer in Game 7, the run would have ended right there. Then the Bucks series also went seven, with a speed and spacing team that was death to Mutumbo, and the Sixers somehow won despite only having one of the top four players on the floor.

For that entire month, we were all consumed by the plight of this team. I've never been more emotionally involved with a team. I was riveted on every possession, inconsolable after a loss, giddy after wins, rearranging my vacation schedule to see every minute of every game. Behaving, frankly, in a way that I never did anymore, and haven't done since.

In Game One of the Finals, the Sixers became the only team to defeat the Shaq-Kobe juggernaut that year. It also had the signature play of Iverson's career. I don't need to tell any Sixer fan what that is. Let's just watch it.

AI was 25 years old, at the height of his powers. The rest of his basketball life has been an echo of this single moment -- the crossover, the strike, and the pure disdain he had for his opponent as he stepped over Tyronn Lue as if he were a cockroach. Despite the lack of a championship, it is my favorite Sixer moment ever, and my favorite sports fan moment, too.

The Lakers won the next four games, including three on the Sixers home court. Iverson's Sixers teams were never serious contenders again. By the last couple of his years, even for those of us who always thought his supporting cast was to blame, it was obvious that it was never going to happen for him here. The trade to Denver led to criminal negligence from George Karl and a roster full of people who don't defend. AI in his 30s wasn't going to be able to do enough there, and despite a 50-win season, they were little more than speed bumps for better and more well-coached teams. In Detroit, it's also not happening.

Now, I don't really care to get into the merits of the man. If you think he dogged it on defense, shot too much, didn't hit for a high enough percentage and committed too many turnovers, I'm not going to convince you. Similarly, if you think he's the best little man to ever play in the Association, that opinion is also set in stone. I'm sure that if I weren't a Sixers fan and short, I might feel differently about him.

But what I really want to address is this: what price do you put on the career of a man who rekindled your entire interest in a sport?

If AI doesn't go to the Sixers -- let's say the Grizzlies won the lottery and took him at #1, and the Sixers win up with the mostly forgettable Sharef Abdur-Rahim at #3 -- I can't imagine that I'd be much of an NBA fan right now. I wouldn't have my favorite fantasy league, the years of enjoyment, and now, the league-wide appreciation that makes me feel more amazement at LeBron James than I did for Jordan. (Yes, I know, I'm a blasphemer. So be it.) I also wouldn't have my Iverson jersey, the only basketball jersey I've ever owned, or likely, will.

AI is, for me, the same as Mickey Mantle was to a generation of Yankee fans, what Cal Ripken was for Oriole Fan, what Dan Marino was to Dolphin Fan, what Mario Lemieux was to Penguin Fan. Whether or not he ever won a championship, or his standing in the all-time greats, doesn't much matter. Andre Iguodala could win a championship here. Thaddeus Young could become the greatest small forward on the team since Doc Erving. It still wouldn't have the same impact.

Allen Iverson gave me the game.

The rest is noise.


The Till Show said...

This is amazing. I'm a few years younger than you, but AI has a higher place in my heart even more so that His Airness. Maybe it's because he's my height, or maybe it's because of his rebelliousness on the court, but he is my favorite all-time player.

*Shameless Plug*

DMtShooter said...

Thanks for the good words, and I'll blogroll you the next time I'm serving up links. As Mark Twain said, I could live a month on a compliment.

Zoomy3 said...

Totally agree. I was Iverson's biggest hater during his prime, until I realized that his best years were over and I wasted them instead of appreciating them. I've spent the past few seasons trying to catch up. Not a Philly fan, but you summed this up perfectly.

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