Posted Nov 10 2009 11:21AM
To steal a line from a classic Chris Rock bit, I want to "shake the ----" out of Allen Iverson. I want to grab both of his arms and shake him so violently that he looks like a bobblehead. What are you doing, man?!
Let's make this clear up front: My current gripe with The Answer has nothing to do with his recent leave of absence. A.I. and the Grizzlies say the absence is for personal reasons so, unless proven otherwise, I accept that as fact and sincerely wish him the best while he is out.
It's the week or so leading up to the leave of absence that killed me. I've never been so disappointed in an athlete.
Two months ago, on the heels of Iverson enduring what seemed to be a humbling summer of league-wide disinterest, Iverson signed with Memphis and I wrote that "Memphis is the perfect location for A.I. to bookend his career in the Sagacious Vet/Paternal Mentor role." Cynics will say that the idea of Iverson as the selfless leader of a young squad was preposterous given A.I.'s personality type and pattern of behavior. But a fan can hope, right? If you dig Iverson the athlete, you wanted this to work. You wanted him to prove critics wrong, to approach this stint with humility and become a team-first leader that took on a paternal role for a young team trying to find an identity and achieve some success.
This was his chance. Yet, within one game, homeboy was blowing it. "I had no problems (with the hamstring)," he said after playing just 18 minutes in his first game back. "I had a problem with my butt from sitting on that bench so long. That's the only thing I got a problem with."
ONE GAME! Iverson couldn't even keep a tight lip for one measly game before he went on about his lack of minutes and coming off the bench. This was coming from a man that had yet to play a real game with his Memphis teammates thanks to a torn left hamstring in an early October scrimmage. Not even Iverson haters/cynics expected for Bad Iverson to crash the party this early.
Back in the day I used to wonder how Iverson would change his game as he aged. I always thought that he'd either wholly commit to being a game-managing point guard or embrace the sixth man role. Memphis was a perfect place for this metamorphosis to take place. And if A.I. were willing to give the Grizzlies more than one miserable game, we might've seen how things would have played out. But I'm done hoping now.
Throughout his career -- and most recently with Memphis -- A.I. has established two things clearly: 1) He ain't coming off no bench, and 2) He wants to play off the ball.
That's all good if it weren't for the fact that there are only 96 minutes at guard in any given game and Memphis has two young guards (O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley) in whom they're investing their future.
What, you're going to come in and average 40 minutes a game or (even more unrealistic) send one of the young guys to the bench? Real talk, Allen: You signed a one-year contract for $3 million. Chris Wallace and Lionel Hollins are not going to jettison their team vision (if they indeed have one) to appease your ego for one season. Anyone with any type of basketball sense can understand this. I knew A.I. had an ego -- you have to, in order to have a career full of his gladiator feats -- but I didn't think he was this deluded. I mean, come on.
Given that the Summer Of Ignoring Iverson was largely due to executives and coaches not wanting to mess with team chemistry, one would think that A.I. would have used this one-year contract as an audition to show that, not only can he still wreak havoc on the floor (which he undoubtedly can) but, in his older age, he can become a team-first vet that can also play towel-waver when he's warming a bench. But this bench thing really sticks in his craw. As onlookers, this may seem to be petty, but athletes really place a lot of importance on the whole starting issue.
Bob McAdoo dealt with this in the early 1980s when he went from a career as a scoring champ and MVP to playing fewer than 20 minutes per game with the Lakers. He says that starting and what it conveys, in terms of the perception of player-value and pecking order, is ingrained in athletes' competitive DNAs.
"I couldn't take it. I hated it," McAdoo told me recently, when recalling his first year in L.A. "I know exactly what [Iverson's] going through. We just went about it in different ways. I dealt with it. He doesn't seem to be dealing with it too well."
McAdoo says his situation was easier than Iverson's because he wanted to win a championship and, as he put it, "with the Lakers, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel." A.I. is playing low minutes for a struggling team behind two players that, as of right now, aren't as good as he is. So his frustration is valid and it is probable -- perhaps even likely -- that the personal issues he's dealing with while on leave were adding to this frustration.
Still, you'd expect for a 34-year-old pro, a 14-year vet to deal with the situation with considerably more patience and tact. Before his leave, Iverson didn't even see it fit to approach Hollins and have a man-to-man conversation about his predicament. "That's probably why it's at this point right now. We've just never had a conversation, so it's probably going to always be hard for me and him to see eye-to-eye, because we've never even talked to each other," Iverson said. "Obviously that's what you do if you're trying to accomplish the same goal."
Say what you want about the Grizzlies organization being a rudderless ship, wag a finger at owner Michael Heisley for what appears to be him thrusting Iverson upon Wallace, Hollins and this young and unsure roster. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Iverson marriage was doomed from the start -- I get it.
In the midst of all that is the inescapable fact that Iverson held the power to make this work. Thus far, he's chosen not to. Now we have GMs across the league speculating that he's killed any chance of landing with another team and the rumor mill is charged with predictions that Iverson is going to retire rather than return to Memphis. How depressing would that be? Iverson would go from being a generational icon, one of the greats of his era, to spending his final two years getting shooed out of Detroit and then walking out on Memphis without even winning a game. Tragic.
The ball is still in his court. He can come back to Memphis and do/say all the right things, restore his value, land with a better team next season and end his exceptional career playing meaningful ball on a team of consequence. But for me to believe that is to ignore a career pattern of behavior. I did that this summer. I want so much to do it again.
But this time, I'm just going to err on the side of history. I hate this.
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