While we’re all still awaiting his trade, I’d be remiss if I didn’t do some Iverson stuff.
Iverson is one of the most interesting and polarizing
figures in sports.
He's presented an interesting challenge for sports commentary for a long time. His troubled past, his tattoos, his cornrows and offensive rap lyrics fit into classic stereotypes about the contemporary NBA player (the insufficiently “Americanized” type, in Mad Dog Russo’s parlance). He also refuses to practice and battles with coaches. For many, all of this makes Iverson the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the NBA today and its problems, as a predominantly African American league, marketing to a predominantly white audience. On the other hand, he’s nearly universally respected for his energy, heart and fearlessness on the basketball court. Awful Announcing sums up the two images of Iverson well:
“I'm an unabashed A.I.
lover (as a basketball player).........take away the cheating on his wife, the
affair with admitted sex hound Carmen Bryan (700 Level), and the whole
"getting into a racial fight at a bowling alley in Hampton, VA and hitting
a woman in the head with a chair" thing......and he's a pretty good guy.
Seriously though despite his flaws he's been an amazing basketball player for the city of Philadelphia. He fits the "Rocky" mentality perfectly. If Dwayne Wade is to "Get Knocked down 7 times get up 8".....AI is to "Get knocked down/out, broken, dragged, and maimed 400 times. Get up 401."
Bill Simmons, himself an unabashed Iverson fan, says that part of the reason that AI gets negative coverage from many quarters is due to a generational divide:
Yup, even after 10 punishing seasons, even on an off-night slumming for a crappy team, Allen Iverson is still worth seeing. And now that he's about to be traded -- about six months too late, by the way -- I've been astonished by the lack of respect for his abilities in so many written and spoken reports. Writers and talking heads keep painting Iverson as a past-his-prime, banged-up head case who can't guard anyone, a significant risk with sizable baggage, someone who's too selfish to coexist with quality players. There's a generational twinge to the anti-Iverson coverage, pushed by media folks in their 40s, 50s and 60s who can't understand his generation and don't seem interested in trying. Most media members would rather mention his infamous aversion to practice (overrated over the years) above describing the incredible thrill of seeing him in person.
Well, ask yourself one question: How could a coach-killer who allegedly monopolizes the ball, hates to practice and can't sublimate his game double as one of the most revered, respected players in the league? Why did the ex-players on "NBA Coast To Coast" (Anthony, Legler and Barry) trade Iverson war stories last night like they were trading stories about Keyser Söze? Why are Philly fans overwhelmingly heartbroken that he's leaving town? How can anyone blame Iverson for anything when he's been saddled with an incompetent front office and decidedly mediocre supporting cast for the past decade?”
Unsurprisingly, Simmons finds himself on the opposite side of the fence on this issue from the Globe’s Bob Ryan – a generation older than Simmons (and with whom Simmons has sparred before on the nature of sports journalism in the new century):
“Basketball is a delicate proposition. Virtuosos are not easy to accommodate, and there is no greater example than Michael Jordan. I think we'd all agree he had more raw talent than anyone in the history of the game. But it was only when Michael was able to calibrate his on-court relationship with the other four players (or 11, actually) that he was able to play on a championship team.
Having too much talent can be a curse. It tends to work out better if I have some, you have some, the other guys have some, and we all dedicate ourselves to blending our talents while leaving, as they say, our egos at the door. The most useful players are those who can either complement or highlight the other talented players. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. And, of course, Michael Jordan.”
When one can get off a shot anytime one wishes and when one can (or thinks he can) dribble through entire teams, and one can pretty much pull off any athletic feat one wishes during the course of a basketball game, one all too often arrives at the conclusion that one should, in fact, act on one's impulses at any given point in time. Team dynamics be damned.
What is the recurrent story of Allen Iverson's NBA career? Simple. It's the ongoing attempt of general managers and coaches to find players who might be compatible with him. From this search, we've learned one thing, if nothing else. It doesn't have to be especially high-level players. Modest talents will do. The apparent trick is to hope Allen will accept and respect them.”
It’s interesting to note here that what Ryan views as a management strategy to accommodate AI by surrounding him with modest talent, Simmons views as incompetence. I tend to side with Simmons here. In some ways, Ryan’s discussion of AI reminds me of what was said about Rasheed Wallace before the Pistons traded for him in the winter of 2004. Rasheed, of course, was (and is) a supremely talented, temperamental and heavily tattooed player who smacked of “attitude problem.” Notorious for his annual league-leading technical foul totals, ‘Sheed was, like AI, seen by many as the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the NBA today.
It was surprising, then, that Wallace subordinated his talents and game for the good of the team, becoming a tremendous defensive presence on a defense-first basketball team and playing a pivotal role in the Pistons’ surprising run to the NBA title that year. His offensive statistics have not been the same since he’s come to the Pistons, and he’s still technical-prone. But, contra Ryan, I think it’s a good bet that AI would prefer not to play for 37-45 teams just to be top banana, rather than move to a contender even if it meant becoming a second fiddle.
Speaking of Rasheed and the Pistons, Chad Ford had an interesting interview with Joe Dumars yesterday (via True Hoop).
Ford asked Dumars about Iverson and the apparent wariness about trading for him. Ford suggested that:
“race may be a factor his…practice habits, off-the-field issues, posses, maybe these are coded terms…that Allen Iverson is too black…and that black athletes who identify themselves with hip hop don’t have the value that Black athletes who don’t identify with hip hop do.”
For his part, Dumars demurred about the race issue, saying that Iverson not practicing was really a management issue more than a race issue, though later Dumars seemed to suggest that the chemistry and management issues did have a racial tinge to them.
At the end of the interview, Ford asked Dumars, an apparent “political junkie” who he would prefer in 2008, Obama or Hilary Clinton. While Dumars said he’d prefer Obama because he’s “less polarizing” Dumars described himself as a Hilary “fan.” I can say with confidence that you’ll find very few major sports personalities who would admit to such a thing. I’ll never forget Gary Myers of ESPN once telling Rudy Giuliani, when he was still running against Hilary for US Senate back in 2000, that “we all” hoped he would beat her.
In any event, Dumars analysis of politics (2008 is two years away and “isn’t two years in politics like fifty years”) was a sober and impressive as his analysis of basketball (he’d earlier told Ford that twenty games was just not enough time to evaluate what kind of team he had).
I’m off the topic of AI now, but I can’t resist noting that, in spite of the one historic blunder Dumars made in the 2004 NBA draft, Knicks fans can only weep at what it would be like to have someone like him running the basketball team at the garden, as opposed to his one-time Pistons’ backcourt mate.