Eighteen years too late, I watched Pistol: The Birth of a Legend for the first time this summer. Mostly the story of Pete Maravich‘s teenage years, partly a ball-handling instructional tape, the movie came to mind when I found out Allen Iverson was signing with the Memphis Grizzlies.
In Pistol, Maravich is a middle-school prodigy playing on a high school varsity team where the coach doesn’t like his style (too “Black”) and the older players don’t like him for being so good so young. Glued to the bench despite his talent, Pete just wants a chance to play, and when he finally gets it, predictably becomes a superstar and leads the team to glory. Ultimately, all that time he spent not playing was a colossal waste of time rooted in old-school values and silly stubbornness.
This is how the Iverson-to-Memphis scenario has played itself out so far. The Grizzlies only get better by signing Iverson, both on the court and at the cash registers. They stink and they don’t have any money; Iverson gives them a backcourt upgrade and he’ll sell a ton of jerseys and t-shirts and bobbleheads. It’s really a no-brainer, which made this whole review process of acting like Memphis was in a position to not take on A.I. look increasingly comical the longer it went.
This isn’t an on-the-verge title team we’re talking about with a small margin for error. As good as Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo and Marc Gasol could be as the Grizzlies’ core, you know at least one of them, probably two, are bolting town ASAP, and the Grizzlies will never be a championship threat until they’re willing and able to spend championship money. So this whole idea of Iverson potentially ruining their future is and always was bullshit. If anything, the only hesitation Memphis had would be actually spending another $3.5 million, and wondering if A.I. would bring them bad publicity.
Iverson, like young Pistol Pete, just needs a platform to prove himself. He was treated like Michael Vick on the free agent market because of his own reputation as a killer: of coaches, of chemistry, of the development of young players. And because you’re only as good as your last game in the NBA, most of that rep stemmed from the Detroit disaster. The Pistons got alarmingly worse after trading Chauncey Billups for A.I., their coach (Michael Curry) got fired after the season, and supposed-to-be stars like Rodney Stuckey didn’t seem to get any better with A.I. around.
In Memphis, Iverson has his opportunity prove he can play within a system and help youngsters like O.J. and Rudy on their path to stardom. (Even better if A.I. could help Mike Conley hone his incredible handle into something useful during games.) If you’re an Iverson fan, you don’t want The Answer to average 25 points a night while the Grizzlies win 20 games; you want A.I. to get about 16 points and 8 assists while the Grizzlies win closer to 35-40 games. You don’t want any “practice” incidents or beefs with coach Lionel Hollins. You want the Grizzlies to make an inspiring run at the playoffs, while A.I. gets all the credit for bringing a “culture change” similar to KG in Boston a couple years back.
Iverson got a bad rap for what happened in Detroit. Remember, A.I. came into ’08-09 as the NBA’s third-leading scorer, having averaged 26.4 ppg the season before with Denver. And he did that while shooting 19.0 field goals per game, well below his typical Sixers season where he’d fire up 23-27 shots a night to get his 30 points. In his second-to-last game with Denver, Iverson dropped 25 points on the Clippers on 19 shots. So it’s not like he lost his game on the flight from Denver to Detroit. As he showed throughout his Pistons tenure, he can still get it done: 30 points vs. Sacramento in November, 38 vs. Utah in December, 31 vs. San Antonio in February, plus six other games of 25-plus points. Contrary to what you might’ve heard, Allen Iverson wasn’t bad last year. He just landed in a terrible situation where certain teammates weren’t willing to accept his arrival, his coach didn’t know what to do with him, he had some injuries, and he just didn’t mix with his new team.
While going to the Grizzlies is admittedly a case of Iverson running out of options and simply taking what he can get, the signing does in a way represent a first step in Iverson proving he’s not an insufferable diva. How many 34-year-old former MVPs and future Hall of Famers would accept a $17 million pay cut to play for one of the worst teams in the League? (Not to mention a team on which he may be asked to come off the bench?) At this age and stage of their careers, most players like Iverson either demand more money than they’re worth, or only want to play for a contender. They don’t settle for less on both fronts. Iverson didn’t say one word about “I need to play for a ring.” He didn’t refuse to come off the bench. He didn’t hold out to demand a lifetime appreciation contract.
Both sides win here, but Iverson ultimately has more to gain, and more to lose. The Grizzlies were headed to the Lottery without A.I., and will most likely be in the Lottery again with him. Either way, they’ll make some money off the deal and get some mainstream exposure.
Iverson will either self-sabotage his career in Memphis, or he’ll change people’s opinions of him. If he does the latter, he’ll go into next summer as a 35-year-old free agent able to find a proper way to play out his last games. It could be in Philadelphia. It could be with a contender in L.A. or Boston or Cleveland. It could be with a random team like Houston or Dallas.
However it works out, next summer should be better than this summer. Iverson at least deserves that, but he’s got to earn it first.
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