Monday, April 11, 2011

Allen Iverson: A Tragically Talented Figure

From the practice rant in 2005 to the police tirade in 2011, Allen Iverson has been a top the head lines in recent years for all the wrong reasons. It was reported last week that Iverson was a passenger in his Lamborghini when it was pulled over for a lane violation in Atlanta. The car had a fake dealer license and was not registered. Iverson became irate, lashing out at the officers with "Do you know who I am?" and "Police don't have anything else (expletive) to do except (expletive) with me," according to the report.  

He later apologized to the police for his words and actions.

This is a long cry from the Allen Iverson I grew up idolizing, the basketball giant who stood barely 6 feet tall. The one who played with the heart of a lion and the fearlessness of a Green Beret. From 1996-2008, Iverson was David battling Goliaths every time he stepped onto the court. But, he could never shake his rocky past. Off the court drama followed him since he was a teenager. It was a 17-year-old Iverson who was involved in the highly publicized racial-bowling alley brawl that landed him in a correctional facility for four months. Trouble followed throughout his career from recording a controversial rap album and fights with then sixers coach Larry Brown to practice refusal and marijuana charges.

Before the King, there was the Answer

Despite all the off the court decisions, there's no denying he's one of the greatest guards of all time. It wasn't just his play, but his integral role in transporting basketball from the 1990's into the 21st century. Before it was Lebron and Kobe sporting the trendy shooting sleeve, it was Allen wearing it for protect an elbow injury he suffered in 2001, turning it from rehab device to fashion statement. Before the Derrick Rose crossover, it was 1996 and then rookie Allen Iverson crossing up Michael Jordan. He brought the rhyme of the game and the beat of hip-hop to a head on collision. He was a pioneer with a basketball. His one goal, playing until his heart stopped was the one constant fans could count on. The numerous injuries, but playing through them. The fractured bones, but sweating it off like a head cold on his way to dropping 50 points.

For a decade, Iverson had the most popular jersey in the world. From Rucker Park to Sherman Oaks, kids would be running around in his signature shoes, the I3's. Iverson's popularity catapulted with his exhilarating performance in game one of the 2001 NBA finals against the Lakers. Most don't remember the final score or that it went into overtime. When you think of that game there's only one image that stands out. The "answer" stepping over the supposed Iverson stopper Tyron Lue nailing a twenty foot jumper, scoring his 48th point in route to ending the Lakers undefeated run through the playoffs. When I think back, these are the memories of Iverson I choose to hold onto.

Conversation in recent years have been about where he belongs in the basketball cosmos of the greatest players, with most analysts barely having him breach the ozone layer. Perhaps it was the neck tattoos and the cornrows before it was common place or his desire to wear jerseys when he was injured rather than three-piece suits. A criticism that will never dissipate is the amount of shots he took per game. We forget his supporting cast had the talent comparable to the Temple men's team a few miles down the road on Broad Street.

Even with the lack of skill around him, he averaged six assists per game for his career, 37th on the all-time assists list, 322 more than Chancey Billups, and 407 more than Norm Van Lier and nine shy of Michael Jordan. A 26.7 career average, sixth on the all-time list only behind Jordan, Wilt, Lebron, Elgin Baylor, and the "logo" Jerry West.

Carmelo Anthony has been described as a 6'8 version of Iverson, but Carmelo's biggest weakness was one of Iverson's biggest strengths: defensive prowess. He led the league in steals three times, a feat only duplicated by Jordan, Alvin Richardson, and Michael Ray Robinson.

If there's anything I'm mad at Iverson for is the years that he left on the table, his inability to take care of his aging body.

When Iverson left the sixers in 2007, no fan thought they would see him donning a sixer's uniform again. In 2009, there he was, sitting at the same table that 1460 days prior he gave the world the moniker "practice" 24 times. This Iverson seemed different, changed, matured, and grateful for a second chance with the team that made him a household name. He played in 25 games, starting in 24. He averaged 14 points, but was not the same player that led the league in scoring four times and was MVP in 2001. He had lost his step, his explosiveness, his dynamic crossover. The knees that once allowed him to do superhuman things were constantly on the bench getting drained. Every point he scored once with ease was now a struggle.

Iverson lasted with the team only until February 22, 2010. He left the 76ers indefinitely, citing the need to attend to his 4-year-old daughter, Messiah's health issues. After no NBA wanted him, he moved east, signing a two-year, $4 million contract with Besiktas, a Turkish Basketball League team competing in the second-tier level of European professional basketball.

It's unknown if Iverson will ever get a chance again in the NBA or if his fate is sealed as an overseas side show attraction. But, when I watch the greats of today play and put on their shooting sleeves, I will always remember the man who did it first. The man who danced through the forest of big trees, who drove through the lane without fear, sacrificing his body and ultimately career longevity for his team's success.

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