After Allen Iverson’s dalliance with the Memphis Grizzlies flamed out (I had the under at a dozen games. He lasted three), the 34-year-old baller found himself back on the streets looking for work. Same as before over the summer when Iverson was a free agent following a very short and unhappy season on the bench of the Detroit Pistons, he found his phone wasn’t ringing. The problem then and now is even with as much talent-starved teams as there are in the NBA, they aren’t lining up to hire a ball-hogging, shoot-first 6-footer who can be poison when he’s pissed out and refuses to consider any role where he isn’t a starter.
So when Iverson announced he was retiring after the Grizzlies cut him loose, the general consensus was pretty much, “Yeah, sure thing, A.I.” Nobody bought it. Every general manager from Boston to Sacramento knew Iverson wasn’t hanging it up as much as he was hanging out the “have headband will travel” sign to any team willing to take on his $3 million salary and hand over the keys of the franchise to an unquestionably talented basketball player, but also one of the most unrepentant gunners ever to step on the court. Iverson’s unwillingness or incapability to change his game made him toxic and untouchable.
In 2006, the Philadelphia 76ers, the team that originally drafted him and where he played for 10 seasons, shipped A.I. out to the Denver Nuggets for what exactly nobody remembers anymore. Iverson’s selfishness had worn out Maurice Cheeks, whom he had claimed was his a dream coach, and was retarding the progress of the Sixers’ younger players. It was like a beautiful marriage that had gone sour. Iverson wanted out and the Sixers couldn’t wait for him to be gone.
So what happened? Nothing much really. Iverson couldn’t help Carmelo Anthony bring a championship to Denver and though the Sixers have made it to the NBA playoffs, they’ve only been first-round roadkill for the better Eastern Conference teams.
The Sixers have started this year’s interminable NBA season at a lousy 5-11 record as they are an uninspired blend of players too green (Louis Williams, Jrue Holliday, Mareese Speights,Thaddeus Young), too middle-of-the-road (Andre Iguodala), all wrong for a system they don’t fit in ($80 million man Elton Brand) or just have no game (Samuel Dalembert). Williams was plugged in at point guard this year, handed the ball by new coach Eddie Jordan and told, “Make with the magic, kid” and pushed out on the floor. He hasn’t been great, but he’s been the MVP of a team that in the City of Brotherly Love isn’t getting much of it as the Sixers rank 29th in attendance.
The other day the 6’1″, 175 lbs Williams had a close encounter with Antwan Jamison, the 6’9″, 235 lbs power forward of the Wizards and came out on the losing end with a broken jaw and looking at eight weeks of eating his meals through a straw. The Sixers, who only have a rookie and a journeyman backup to turn immediately put out the “help wanted” sign in search of some veteran to step in before the whole season ended up in broken pieces like the teeth Willams was spitting out.
Well, hello there Mr. Iverson. Cue up “Starting All Over Again,” if you please.
I was a 76ers fan when the likes of Dr. J. and Moses Malone were balling for the team and then when Sir Charles Barkley was moving his big mass up and down the floor of The Spectrum. The Sixers haven’t done much right since . They traded away their best players and tried to build around Great White Dopes like Shawn Bradley. That might have been when I jumped ship on the Sixers. Bradley, a 7-foot 6-inch stringbean was paid millions by the Sixers, Nets and Mavericks to stand under the basket and end up getting facializied as players half his size lined up to throw down some of the nastiest dunks in NBA history right in his grill.
Drafting Iverson in 1996 was the last time I felt any interest in the Sixers. Aided immensely by Larry Brown’s coaching, Iverson dragged the team into the 2000-01 Finals against Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’ Neal’s vastly more talented L.A. Lakers, where they stole one game from the inevitable champs before succumbing four games to one.
All of the usual A.I. red flags are flying high; he’s a selfish ball hog, an indifferent distributor and passive defender and when he’s unhappy, everybody in the world knows it because Iverson is not the type to suffer in silence.
But really, what can he hurt for a dogshit team that’s watching the season circling the drain? The Sixers are already boring and nearly hopeless. With A.I. back in town, at least they won’t be boring. He’s still one of the fastest guys in the league and Jordan wants the Sixers to get out and run, run, run. Brand and Dalembert are two mismatched parts in Jordan’s system as Brand is a plodder and Dalembert virtually useless though he’s paid like a superstar.
I’m not one of those purists who get bent out of Iverson’s shoot first, shoot last and shoot always approach to basketball. In David Stern’s NBA great teams have given away to great individual play and even a diminshed Iverson is a great individual player. If he doesn’t embrace the team concept it’s because A.I. trusts in his own talent than that of anyone else.
It doesn’t take a Herculean effort to make the playoffs in the NBA. Not when there are at least a dozen other teams who are even more horrid than the Sixers such as the New Jersey Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves who between them have played over 30 games and won only one.
There’s a lot of good reasons not to bring A.I. back to Philly but the undeniable fact is the Sixers aren’t going anywhere without him. They might be at least watchable with him because even now with Iverson’s all-out, sweat blood approach to the game, he’s entertaining and an attraction for a team that doesn’t give fans much reason to cough up $3500 for a top-tier ticket package.
An Iverson return trip to the land of cheesesteaks holds both risks and rewards for the Sixers, but really, what do they have to lose. It’s not as if they were raising any sand without him. If I were living in Philadelphia, would I go see this team? No. I would not. If Iverson were wearing a 76ers uniform would I reconsider. Yes, I would.
Before he became just another NBA nomad drifting from team-to-team, Iverson’s nickname was “The Answer.” A second go-round with the Sixers could be disastrous or just what this team without an identity needs. Without pulling off a major trade or dumping Brand or Dalembert’s insane contracts, this team is going nowhere but the draft lottery. With Iverson, there’s at least a chance of sneaking into the playoffs as a seventh seed. If that turns out to be the case, A.I. might have to start calling himself “The Solution.”