By Vincent Thomas, for NBA.com
Posted Sep 10 2009 4:51PM
Way back in July, about a day after free agency frenzy began, Allen Iverson popped up on Twitter with this missive: "For those of you who thought I was done -- Think Again!" Then the summer dragged on and A.I. had yet to find a team that wanted his services. So he hopped on Twitter again: "I have heard all of the doubters," he wrote, "but they should know that I will not be broken." The sword was drawn.
Now he has a home in Memphis and, judging by his demeanor and tone at Thursday's press conference, homeboy is on a mission. After a couple of years during which A.I.'s rep and, perhaps more importantly, his legacy have taken some hits, this 2009 campaign with the Memphis Grizzlies is his chance for vindication. He said so himself.
"This year for me is so personal," said A.I., in a crisp, baggy white button-up and fresh new Grizzlies hat, still diddy-bopping at 34. "It's going to be like my rookie year again ... I turn on the TV and read the paper, I listen to some of the things people say about me ... me losing a step ... they trying to put me in a rocking chair already."
As recently as Iverson's post-Philly stop in Denver, he averaged about 26 points, seven assists and two steals per game. He seemed ageless and timeless as a player, still darting, zipping, banging and swerving all over the court, defying any precedent for a player of his age with his kind of game. During that time he remained a peerless icon for a whole generation. He might not have been the most popular player anymore, but the glow from what he was at his peak earlier in the decade -- arguably the most culturally relevant and impactful athlete of his time -- was still evident to his Gen X peers and the younger generation that had grown to love him. But then Detroit happened. It's been well documented that last season wasn't A.I.'s favorite or best. That part of this story is hackneyed. What's compelling is that we have one of the all-time greats approaching this upcoming season like a hungry upstart and unlike, say, a washed-up boxer or 40-year-old QB in Minnesota. A.I. is actually still capable of whipping up on whatever sucker is standing between him and a hoop,
But there's something even more compelling about A.I.'s stop in Memphis, and it's not his answer to critics who say he's washed-up. In late August, when news broke that Iverson and the Grizz were getting closer to a deal, A.I. took to Twitter again, said Memphis was a place where he would "love to play," and that they have "good young players with great upside," and that -- here's the important part -- he "would lead by example," and he "could show how important it is to work hard everyday, play the game the right way." This is coming from the orator of the famous "PRACTICE?! WE TALKIN 'BOUT PRACTICE!!" rant from a few years ago.
I wasn't a huge fan of the "A.I. in Memphis" idea, at first. I'm one of those fans and journalists that likes to see the league's best players play for the league's best teams. That's very selfish of me, I know, but if I have the chance to see A.I. from November through May, why wouldn't I want that? But the more I thought about Memphis, the more I liked the idea from an A.I. Legacy standpoint.
There's not much more that A.I. can do on the court. He's led the league in scoring, he's won All-Star and leaguewide MVPs, he's wowed us and captured our imagination as much as any ballplayer without the initials "MJ." But if there's been a knock on Iverson, it's been on his leadership skills. In Philly it was "Why could he never coexist with a real Second Banana?" Or, "Why isn't he being a better mentor for Andre Iguodala?" In Denver it was, "Why isn't he sitting down JR Smith and telling him to stop jacking up 35-footers with 14 seconds on the shot clock?" Memphis is the perfect location for A.I. to bookend his career in the Sagacious Vet/Paternal Mentor role.
Memphis general manager Chris Wallace said that, "We left Atlanta singing off the same sheet with Allen." Why? Because Iverson said he thinks the Grizz can make some serious noise this season. At the press conference, Iverson said his expectation is "to win -- simple as that." Winning is something the Grizzlies haven't done much. Save for a few seasons during the Gasol era, the Grizzlies have been pretty dreadful. But, A.I. doesn't care. "Just getting to the playoffs is not enough," he said. "My goals are a lot bigger."
With A.I., OJ Mayo, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, Hasheem Thabeet and Zach Randolph, Memphis, at the very least, has the talent to bust a few heads in the postseason. But they will only realize success if A.I. does his best Chauncey Billups impersonation. How ironic, right? Championship or no championship, if Iverson comes to Memphis and, through his example and leadership, the Grizzlies turn into a winner and the young boys blossom and Randolph behaves and we see this squad in the playoffs, think about what that would do for A.I.'s legacy.
Yeah, it would be dope to see him as another cog on a veteran contender, gunning for a championship. But nothing would round out and bolster A.I.'s resume more than a turn as the vocal and emotional leader for a volatile young squad, the glue for a team of previously disparate parts. What a career-conclusion that would be. The guy always tagged as a little selfish (even while hailed as a selfless competitor), the virtuoso that played in a vacuum, that dude becomes the face of a previously faceless franchise to give an organization an identity.
I don't know about you, but I'm watching. I can't wait to see how A.I. steps up to the mic this season and beyond. It's a swan song that could be career-defining.
Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His "From The Floor" column appears weekly on NBA.com. Vince invites you to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/VinceCAThomas.
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