Coming To Terms With The End Of Iverson

For the past few days, while the Iverson controversy has simmered, I've tried to remain pretty apathetic, at least in writing. But with rumors surfacing that Iverson may retire, it's impossible to keep on ignoring it. The surprise isn't that a player like Iverson--with nothing left to prove and having banked $100 million at least--might consider retirement. But that someone who was once so iconic would be reduced to an ending like this.

I mentioned elsewhere that it's difficult to write about this situation because it's just so damn depressing. Like writing a profile of the city of Detroit, I joked. And while that was just me being a sarcastic dick, it's also a little bit true.

Detroit's a city that is dilapidated in practically every sense. Politics, economy, crime, the freakin Lions... Hell, even the weather is depressing. And relatively speaking, the landscape directly mirrors the Memphis Grizzlies franchise over the past few years. Let's see... Their owner doesn't want to own a pro basketball team, they have one of the more hapless GMs in the league, their attendance is among the worst in the league, they have a team full of selfish players, and... well, you get the point. They traded an All-Star Center for Kwame Brown and Javaris Crittendon. As far as the NBA landscape's concerned, Memphis=dilapidated.

But what makes it even more difficult to write about this situation is that Iverson mirrors Detroit, too. That city's trajectory over history--from prideful beacon of American evolution to a sad symbol of our decline--is disturbingly similar to Iverson's. For most of my youth, Iverson was an icon of the post-Jordan generation. An incredibly polarizing, occasionally maddening figure, but an icon nonetheless. 

And watching his decline over the past few years has been oddly personal. He played a pretty critical role in how I came to understand basketball. AI was never my favorite player, but that's because he was so overwhelmingly popular that calling him "favorite" just seemed redundant. I remember watching him work out during his freshman year at Georgetown and returning home wide-eyed. Never in my life had I seen someone that quick.


Photo courtesy of the Hampton Roads Daily Press.

I remember watching him dominate the Big East, making other All-Americans like Ray Allen at Connecticut look downright boring in comparison. It's hard to imagine now, but Allen Iverson could DUNK back then, and you couldn't take your eyes off him when he was on the court. He defied our notions of what won basketball games--while scouts frothed over size and versatility and shooting, here was Iverson, this 5'11 kid who did nothing but score and attack people. And yet, he was such a force of nature that even the greatest cynics couldn't deny his value to a basketball team.

That continued throughout his career. But somewhere along the line, he acquired additional meaning, and became more than a basketball player. Suddenly, he was this counter-cultural figure that transcended the success of the Philadelphia 76ers--by succeeding in opposition to the stereotypes of star athletes before him, he was lionized, regardless of whether he ever actually won anything with the Sixers.

Nothing epitomizes this more than that legendary play from his rookie year, when he embarrassed Michael Jordan:


Nobody cared that Iverson's team lost that game. It was looked upon as a torch-passing moment between icons of different generations. The Bulls and Jordan may have reigned at that point, but everyone could point to that play and say that Iverson--and the Hip Hop generation--was coming. Except, it never did.

Iverson had his moments, particularly during the 2001 season, but the rise of some tattooed, swaggerific next generation player never happened. People forget, but these are the terms in which Iverson was viewed.

He was a departure from what we'd come to expect from athletes, clad in tattoos, white t-shirts and nappy hair, and disregarding the approval of others. And as a generation of superstars raised on hip-hop was coming to maturity, many believed that Iverson was who they'd become. He was seen as a harbinger of a new culture. For this, he was crucified by traditionalists, and deified by American youth. But we all sort of missed the point.

Iverson was, and is, unique. A generation of anti-authority, corn-rowed, tattoo-covered superstars never came--instead, hindsight leaves stars like Stephon Marbury and Iverson looking like history's accident, a brief blip on the radar between the Jordan era and contemporary times, with deferential stars like Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, and Chris Paul taking up the torch from Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, two guys who, in every concievable way, are the antithesis of Iverson's ethos.

Iverson never got to carry that torch, after all.

And that's sort of hard to stomach. Because however misguided we were in assigning this deeper meaning to Allen Iverson, it was very real, and he represents a generation of fans that came to understand basketball through a cultural prism that was established with him at the forefront. And yet, if this is how it ends for AI, then it sort of undermines everything, doesn't it?

I guess I'd been hoping for one last renaissance for Iverson. Holding out hope that this year in Memphis, he could carry the Grizzlies like those old 76ers teams, and even though they wouldn't advance far in the playoffs, getting them there, on the strength of a broken down body and a Herculean will, would be a testament to Iverson's greatness in itself.

And then, even though he'd never won a title, we'd always be able to look back and say, "Iverson was one of the toughest players I ever watched." Instead, we see a guy unwilling to accept a backup role even for a few games, and so frustrated by the perceived lack of respect that he'd rather go home and sit on his ass in Atlanta.

Iverson, then, just looks like a heroically stubborn basketball player that was great for a long time, and then, the second he stopped being great, became too stubborn for his own good. No deeper meaning, there. Just an overly-prideful person who made enough enemies in the NBA to wedge himself out of the league a few years earlier than expected. He was a great player and his impressive career definitely happened, but The Allen Iverson Era never did.

And for someone that spent his youth as a basketball fan waiting for that era, it's hard to accept that reality. It's like the whole experience--the Reebok Commercials, the All-Star Games, the hair, Tyronn Lue, that damn press conference... It's like none of it mattered. And Iverson's reduced to just someone that was supposed to make history, but never did.

But God damn he was quick...

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