Monday, March 3, 2014

Allen Iverson Forever

In the first good moment for Sixer Fans in 2014 -- and no, it's not fair to call it the only good moment of the year, that 3-0 start and opening night win against Miami was all kinds of fun -- the club retired Allen Iverson's #3 in a surprisingly tasteful and well-received ceremony. Iverson didn't break down (there's a lost bet), the crowd didn't boo enough relatively neutral parties (really, Sixer Fan, you have animosity already for Adam Silver?) to make a scene or cause the media to lose sight of what was actually happening, and both teams stayed on the court for the event in what can only be seen as pretty serious amounts of respect. Iverson joins a pretty great collection of talent in the rafters (Charles Barkley's 34, Maurice Cheeks' 10, Wilt Chamberlain's 13, Julius Erving's 6, Bobby Jones' 24, Billy Cunningham's 32 and Hal Greer's 15) as his first stop before an eventual NBA Hall of Fame election, and the ownership is said to have him on board as a special advisor role, which might mean he'll draw a paycheck and/or live long enough to get to old age and his deferred money. Larry Brown didn't make it due to his still coaching and having a game, but plenty of franchise stalwarts made their way down to the building, and, well, finally, the Iverson Era is well and truly over. (I kept expecting some terrible team with attendance woes -- you know, kind of like the current Sixers -- to give Iverson a partial season contract just to see him pad the career numbers a bit.)

Iverson has been an obsession for this blog, just as he has been for just about every Sixer fan of the past 15 years. I also wasn't planning on writing about him, well, ever again, because I thought I'd said it all. But in watching the tribute this weekend, I realized that there was something else left on the table here, and that was this: just how much of an artist the dude was, and how it doesn't really matter that he didn't win a freaking championship.

When it came to actual basketball, Iverson was problematic. Percentages were not great, he primarily excelled in counting stats that were accumulated in massive minutes, with usage rates that were off the charts. He fostered an environment that made second and third banana status difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, and defensively, he was someone you could punish in the post, with steals being the only real contribution. If he was the best player on your team and you built the team specifically around what he could do, you still were going to get ground into a pulp by the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, the pass-happy Vlade Divac / Chris Webber Kings, and more. If you expected him to be the second best player on a team with, say, Carmelo Anthony, that always wasn't going to work against top-tier competition, and if you thought he could ever be a bench guy, you were out of your mind. Then as now, the East wasn't as good as the West, so expecting the conference champion to just have an even chance of winning wasn't really the case. There's a faction of Sixer Fandom that remains convinced that if only Theo Ratliff hadn't gotten hurt and then traded for Dikembe Mutumbo, and the free-flowing five that raced off and hid from the rest of the East in 2000-01, that maybe Iverson might have gotten his ring early in his career, and everything would have been different.

Um, no. Not on their best day, not four out of seven, and not against O'Neal, Bryant and Phil Jackson. Shaquille O'Neal ate Theo Ratliff and his ilk all the damned time, and always would.

And that wasn't the point, really. Iverson was about moments, artistry, desire and ever-present hunger, even to the point of self-destructiveness. Smarter teams and players would have taken games off and preserved their health and energy; Iverson didn't. Smarter players would have done weight training and diet to strengthen all of the areas that were at risk. Iverson just played. Smarter teams and players would have deferred more, especially in games that weren't at risk, to spread the scoring wealth and get more buy in from team mates. Iverson and the Sixers never had the foresight or the margin to do any of that, or maybe just never could think of anything but the moment.

That is, of course, why he was loved. The ever-present warrior, the die to win mentality, the knowledge that the ticket you bought might have been the last game he ever played; that was what Iverson gave you. If you wanted your NBA with a side of UFC, Iverson was your man. If you like your live entertainment to have hints of danger, of rawness, of anything but artifice, he was your favorite player ever. And that's what Philly Fan wanted, and probably always will.

There was a madness at the core of Iverson, a distillation of the same hyper-competitiveness that Michael Jordan brought to the game in full relief. Jordan's fire was always directed at the competition and the refs; Iverson's would go, well, anywhere, but mostly, it seems, toward himself. For a man who achieved his greatest heights with his strictest coach, his style of play never really changed. The only thing that was different was that Brown moved him off the ball and got him a facilitator point guard in Eric Snow. Iverson took all of the big shots because he had to, and when he missed, you got the feeling that he never really forgave himself for it. Play harder. The next one's going in. And ten more after that.

So we're left with the crossover on Jordan. The tip dunk over Marcus Camby. Stomping Tyronn Lue like a bug. Cupping his ear as the Ray Allen / Glenn Robinson / Sam Cassell / George Karl Bucks went down, or at Vince Carter and the not good enough Raptors.

He was the most captivating player in franchise history. The favorite player for a relentless majority of the fan base. A polarizing figure for a nation unprepared for men who didn't seem to give a damn for mainstream acceptance. The single-best ticket-seller of his generation. A man who moved more merch than you could easily imagine, and an unforgettable player.

We will never see his like again, and we will never see his number again.

It's enough.

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