Thursday, August 22, 2013

Allen Iverson Reitres, The Only Way He Can

Alone in a crowd
Announced today in Slam Magazine, nearly as dated a document as the player, Allen Iverson announcing his retirement.

It is, of course a courtesy to call this a retirement. If someone offered him a job playing ball tomorrow, he'd take it. But let's stay with the courtesy, and leave aside the fact that retirement has an implication of voluntary behavior, and that no one has been interested in paying AI to play basketball for a long time now. Let's also leave aside the man outside of the player, which is clearly all kinds of train wreck, so much so that if Vegas put up a prop bet for homelessness, I'm pretty sure it would look like even money. Instead, I want to get into something a little more esoteric and enduring: why the man is still loved in this town, and probably always will be.

It's about this: if you combine any kind of talent with a work ethic that's downright pathological, you will be loved as an athlete, on some level. Iverson on the court, in his prime, was as outcome-dominant as any player in the history of the game. There were very few games where he played poorly and the team won, and vice versa. There were even fewer games where he looked like he was not relentlessly involved in the outcome.

It goes without saying that this was also a huge part of his downfall. Truly great players make their teammates better, and will allow games that aren't as necessary to be at risk, in the interest of developing younger players. No great players exploded into stardom in the periphery of Iverson. Larry Hughes did not reach his potential, nor Jerry Stackhouse, Andre Iguodala, Carmelo Anthony et al; they all became better when he was gone. He averaged six assists a game, most of them spectacular, rather than ordinary and routine. If you wanted the ball, you needed hands to handle a laser, or a taste for o-boards. The same relentless drive to compete did not stop with the opponent. Iverson was an equal opportunity rage.

That combination of skills and pathology was, of course, rocket fuel; not going to age well, not destined to wear a ring, the creator of memories, rather than the caretaker of wins. His single greatest moment, stepping over Tyronn Lue, gives the Shaq Kobe Lakers their only playoff loss of 2001, and as moments go, I guess that has to be enough.

So why, really, is he so loved? I get pitied, I get appreciated, and I even get admired. There will always be room in the heart for small, fast and fearless, but at the core of it all, Iverson is, well, a supremely talented but self-defeating loser, and we're not supposed to love those folks. And yet, well, we do... because the single defining trait of Iverson on the court is this: work.

Everything Iverson did looked like he was, well, working harder than anyone who has ever played the game. He'd dunk, but barely. He'd finish in the paint, but only while looking like he was going to be disassembled. He needed the refs to be effective, and yet he railed against them. He was most effective when he played 5 out of every 6 minutes, and just wore out the men who were tasked with checking him, but he looked like he was dying while doing it. He was the fastest man in the Association with the ball, but it never looked smooth, or effortless, or that he wasn't completely aware that the speed was only going to be there for as long he willed it.

It's impossible, on some level, to not respect work. People who sneer at it do so privately if they have any sense, because it's downright unpatriotic. Few of your co-workers will ever admit to not working hard with sincerity, and those people never seem to be very happy about that, or with their lives in general. We believe, at least historically, that our work defines us. Work defined Allen Iverson.

So, no, there was no other way for him to "retire." If he had been a cop, he'd have been on the street into his 60s. If he was a fireman, he would have died in a blaze. Something less noble, sure to the last beat. There is no retirement for men like him; there is only dying in the harness, or having the effective impact of dying occur, when the job is taken away from him.

Men like Iverson "retire" all the time. The only difference is that Iverson never believed he was good enough to go out any other way, or could imagine any other way to be.

And that, more than the quicks, more than the handle, more than the fire, more than the crowdwork and emotion, will be what we never see again. Because to work like that, and to have your work define you, should go away with tens and hundreds of millions of dollars... but with Iverson it never did. For good and ill.

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