Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Answering Reality

It didn’t just happen, and it didn’t go down overnight, but time looks like it’s finally caught up with Allen Iverson.

For the last decade and a half, ever since he burst onto the scene as a freshman phenom at Georgetown, Allen Iverson has been the toughest, and one of the most electrifying players in basketball. Year in and year out, Iverson played, as hard as anyone, through injuries to virtually every part of his 6-foot, 180-pound (both generous estimates) body, and year in and year out, “experts” predicted that his slight frame would begin to buckle under the heavy physical toll. And yet, year in and year out, Iverson would manage to defy those who were forecasting his decline, always coming to play, never giving less than his total commitment, bouncing up every time he hit the floor.

Sadly, it looks like this is the year that the reports of A.I.’s demise are not so greatly exaggerated. It’s rare that a player who’s clearly still among the league’s fastest and quickest can obviously have lost a step or two, but that exactly what’s happened to Iverson. Last Wednesday in New Jersey, A.I. managed 4 points and 4 assists in just 17 minutes off the bench in the Pistons’ 111-98 loss to the New Jersey Nets, after which he said “I won't do this again in my career… I'll retire before I do this again. I would leave the game before I'd do this, because I can't be effective like I know I can [by] playing this way. It's just that I'm not used to it. It's just not something that I've ever been able or had to do."

Iverson’s comments have provoked quite the reaction, some of it rather vitriolic, with journalists, bloggers and their commentors not wasting a moment in reapplying the “selfish” label that A.I. wore early in his career, suggesting he should simply accept the reality that he’s no longer an NBA starter, and happily accept a reduced role as a supporting player off of the bench, and that his reluctance to do so would significantly detract from his legacy.

To which I ask- WHY?

Are we not the same culture that admires the stars who are willing to step away from the game with dignity, before their career hits rock bottom? Think of Patrick Ewing with the Seattle Supersonics and the Orlando Magic; Hakeem Olajuwon with the Toronto Raptors; where was the honor in that? Had medical conditions not accelerated their exits from the game, do you think it’s likely that Magic Johnson or Larry Bird would have graciously moved to the bench? Probably not. When he ultimately reaches the twilight of his career, will Kobe Bryant be happy accepting a diminished role coming off the bench? Doubtful. Would a starting spot with the Wizards have been guaranteed to any aging star not named Michael Jordan? I don’t think so.

As I observed in what would be Iverson’s last game as a Piston, from some sweet corporate seats at the Izod Center, something became painfully evident.

Allen Iverson should retire. Not because he can no longer play at a high level, but because his is a style of play that does not age well. Iverson’s game is predicated on his being the best player on his team, being allowed to monopolize the ball in the halfcourt, probe the defense with the dribble, absorb tons of physical punishment and get to the free throw line. For thirteen seasons, which is frankly longer than anyone predicted, Iverson dominated the NBA with his speed, his quickness and his warrior mentality. He never had a signature move, would take 25-30 shots a night, and sported a shooting percentage that always left a bit to be desired, but to anyone that watched him carry his undermanned Sixers team to the Finals in his 2000-01 MVP season, that’s all irrelevant. To understand the dominance of Allen Iverson, you had to watch him play, leaving every ounce of himself on the floor, doing whatever he could (occasionally trying to do too much) to pull out a win.

For nearly two decades, going back to his high school days, Allen Iverson has been a superstar, getting the most out of his physical gifts, never concerned with self preservation. Allen Iverson is a fighter and a winner. But sadly, there comes a day when a player’s heart and his mind are still strong, but his body can no longer rise to those same heights. Reality is now dictating that Iverson can no longer rise to the same physical heights, and to vilify him for contemplating retirement at this point in is nothing short of absurd. Allen Iverson has poured his heart and soul into his career, and as his career wanes, the NBA’s best-ever little man should be celebrated, not criticized for trying to cling to his pride.

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