Is There Room for Allen Iverson in the NBA?

By: 07.13.10

Allen Iverson, Dime #6

For editing purposes, The Allen Iverson Story would flow so much better had we gone straight from February 1993 to Summer 2010.

In that version, we open with a phenomenally talented high school ballplayer whose hoop dreams are derailed by a moment of rage and a history of racism in the South. Then end with the same ballplayer, now an old man in sports terms, frantically trying to convince an NBA team — any NBA team — to give him a chance before his skills become just a memory. We can reconcile that version of the story: The talent was always there, but that hubris, that stubbornness, and the breaks of life were ultimately his downfall. A dream that lived and died in VA.

But when we stick the middle part of the script into A.I.’s story, things become muddled and make less sense. There’s no flow. It becomes the basketball version of Vanilla Sky. The talented dude who’s a god on the playground but a nobody in the League is the story of 10,000 ballplayers from Paris, France, to Paris, Texas. It’s Cory Hightower. Tyrone “Alimoe” Evans. Jimmie “Snap” Hunter. Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell. It’s men we know, mistakes we know, and we warn our kids not to emulate.

But what if that ballplayer gunning for his last shot at an NBA life brings with him a resume that leaves no doubt he is one of the greatest players the League has ever seen? What if he is a certified MVP, four-time scoring champion, three-time All-NBA First Team? What if he is only two years removed from dropping 26 points, seven assists and two steals per game for a playoff team?

In that case, how do the roadblocks to NBA employment still stand in Allen Iverson’s way? How, in a summer where LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson have dominated free-agency talk, is A.I. rarely mentioned? How did Jordan Farmar and Steve Blake become more coveted than Allen Iverson? How do teams peg A.I. as undisciplined when he’s led eight teams to the NBA playoffs? How is he still considered selfish when he’s averaged 6.2 assists per game for his career — higher than Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and famed distributor Walt Frazier? How do you say he only plays playground D when he ranks 12th all-time in steals?

It doesn’t make sense, A.I. being treated like an unproven headcase when he’s spent his entire career proving he can succeed against the odds. And yet, it absolutely makes sense.

Iverson never has been and likely still isn’t ready to bend nor break. The same confidence that allows a 6-foot wisp to grind his way to more than 24,000 points against NBA defenses geared to stop him breeds the same cockiness that chokes out a man’s humility. If we can look into Allen Iverson’s young-ish face and see the same kid who flew over Marcus Camby‘s head and sent Jordan’s head spinning, odds are he’s also looking in the mirror and believing he’s still got It.

But you have to take a step back. That’s why Derek Fisher has five NBA championships, why Mike Bibby is still a starter in the League, why Anthony Carter is more likely to get signed this summer than Allen Iverson. They have a willingness to step back and be Just Another Guy instead of The Guy.

Please believe, Anthony Carter was not born a role player. He came from the same bleak circumstances in Atlanta that A.I. emerged from in Virginia. His mother was on drugs, and seven of his uncles did time. Carter dropped out of high school as a freshman and ran in pay-for-play games funded by local dealers before getting his act together, getting back into school and eventually carving a path to the NBA. And all along, he was The Man on his teams. But when making a living became more the priority, Carter accepted his perception and took a different role.

After a season split between Memphis and Philadelphia that may have done irreparable damage to his reputation, Iverson wants to play again. On July 5, while LeBron and D-Wade and the rest were in the middle of being wooed by any team that could conceivably afford them, A.I. posted on his Twitter page: “I want to return to the NBA this season, and help any team that wants me, in any capacity that they feel that I can help. I’m disappointed, and I owe my fans more than what they have seen of me the last couple seasons. However, now that my family is healthy and rock solid, I can concentrate fully on doing what I do best!”

But he’s said the right things before. He said them when he signed with the Grizzlies, an experiment that lasted three games before falling apart. He said them when he returned to Philly, where his tenure also ended quietly.

If he gets one more chance, this is A.I.’s time to prove he can adapt. Even if he truly believes he can drop 26-7-2, just play the role. Agree to come off the bench, get signed, THEN you can make them remember how good you are with how you play. But you can’t impress the boss if you never get in the door.

And we all know people like that: Fiercely stubborn ones who don’t want to conform, if only temporarily, even if it will ultimately provide them with what they want. That strength of conviction is what made Allen Iverson a Hall of Fame athlete, but it is also what may end his career earlier than it should have ended.

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