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Five Thoughts (03/07)

March 5, 2010
AI's Last Game?
Watching a Faded Star

by Bradford Doolittle

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It was just another Saturday night NBA game. Sixers at Bulls. United Center. The Sixers were well out of the playoff chase and the Bulls were playing their best basketball of the season. It was an interesting game from the perspective of a Bulls fan. They all are. But there didn't seem to anything about it that would be memorable even a few days after the fact. That's because we did not know that we were likely watching Allen Iverson's final NBA game.

I'm not big on seeing heretofore great (or just popular) music acts perform in monstrous venues, years past the point when they ceased to be creatively relevant. I cringed watching the Who during the Super Bowl. Even though I'm a big Stevie Nicks fan, I had no desire to see Fleetwood Mac in Kansas City last year. I still listen to "Dark Side of the Moon" at least once a week, but Pink Floyd has been dead to me as a live act since I was a little kid. What's the point? Just so I could say that I've seen them? No thanks.

There was an undercurrent of that attitude with me that Saturday, when the Sixers visited Chicago for the first time since Allen Iverson returned to the team. I had never seen Iverson perform in person, but I couldn't help but feel like I was watching Johnny Rotten miserably slogging through a set at a Vegas lounge. Now that I've had a chance to think about that game, and have read the news that has come out since, I still canít honestly say that I'm just glad I got to see him play, if only once.

I was hanging out in the Sixers' locker room before the game, even before most of the players had filed in. For greenhorns like myself, NBA locker rooms before games are a little awkward. You don't know who will talk and who won't. Some players don't like to talk before games. Others sit on benches in front of their lockers singing along to music piping directly into their ears through oversized headphones. Many others are preoccupied with divvying up their allotment of tickets, writing names on the backs of envelopes, sealing them up and sending them along with locker room attendants. Some pick through the pregame spread, usually fruit. (Though I did see one player wander into the press room this year and get a beef sandwich. I'm not tattling on this player.)

The Sixers had already been to Chicago this season and the only thing that had really changed, no doubt to the chagrin of Philly fans, was the return to the franchise of Iverson. I knew Iverson was the only player I had an interest in speaking to, but his locker was empty. A few Sixers were sitting around. Jason Smith was staring off into space. Samuel Dalembert was messing with tickets. Lou Williams was goofing around with Willie Green.

Iverson arrived with the second wave of players, wearing one of the trademark outfits that caused such a flap a few years ago. Even at 34 years old, he pulls it off. (I on the other hand ... could not.) He's small, I thought, as if that should have come as a surprise. There wasn't any noticeable stir when Iverson walked in, talking to someone on his cell phone. Nor should there have been. But I couldn't help but think that Iverson would have been the story, just a few years ago. His entrance would have meant a tangible feeling of nervous apprehension among the other media vultures hanging around, waiting to see if Iverson would speak and knowing that he was always capable of offering up a headline-generating sound bite. That night, Iverson went to his locker, finished his call, got dressed and disappeared into the training area. Other than a couple of fist bumps with teammates, no one said a word to him.

Later, after the game, I asked young Bulls star Derrick Rose about Iverson. Rose has said that he didn't pattern his game after any one player, but instead took on the traits of the many players he competed with on the Chicago playgrounds he frequented while growing up. Also, at 6'3", 190 lbs., Rose is physically very different from Iverson. Still, Rose is at the just age that when Iverson was at his peak as a ballplayer and cultural icon, Rose was just buying into the game.

Rose was on his way out when I nabbed him. It always seems to happen that way. But he perked up when I asked him about Iverson, and while Rose didn't give any thought to the fact that he answered me in the past tense, I took notice of the fact that he did.

"He was a guard that was always on the attack and controlled the game," Rose said. "He was definitely the kind of guy you wanted to model your game after."

The Sixers were coming off a big win against San Antonio, a victory that really didn't mean much but served to stoke the dying embers of Philadelphia's playoff hopes. The Sixers shocked the Spurs with a spirited 23-4 run beginning at the 8:55 mark of the fourth quarter.

Not so long ago, you would have assumed that such a run by the Sixers meant that Iverson had caught fire. There have been few players harder to stop when they get rolling. Despite measuring in at 6'0" and 165 pounds, Iverson has put up 11 games of 50 or more points in a 14-season career. Seventy-nine times, he's gone for 40 or more. For fans of streak shooting, of players who can carry a team all by themselves for extended stretches of a basketball game, or just fans who like big scoring numbers, Iverson has been a must-watch player since the day he rose to national prominence during his college days at Georgetown

No more. Against San Antonio, Iverson left the game with 4:51 to go in the third quarter. He did not return. The Sixers won without him.

Iverson's performance had not had much of an impact since he returned to the Sixers. He started 24 of 25 games, but topped 20 points just six times. His shooting percentages were below his career averages. His assist and steal rates were at career lows. His usage rate--the hallmark of his game during his prime--was barely average for a guard.

Iverson's game was built from a foundation of otherworldly quickness. Before the game, I pulled up some You Tube clips just to refresh the images of the young Iverson in my mind, the one that used to send helpless defenders to tumbling backwards or turned completely around in their feeble attempts to defend his crossover dribble. That Iverson used to pull up for uncontested jumpers as those same defenders would literally be lost, trying to figure where he had gone.

This was also the same Iverson that used to hurl his undersized torso into the lane time and again, taking a fadeaway pull-up that left him flat on his back as often as not. The pounding was bound to catch up with him. Had to. Iverson's body looks childlike amongst the Adonises that grace NBA locker rooms. Even when he was in his prime, it seemed like he spent as much time on the floor as he did in the air. The only wonder is that it didn't take a toll a long time ago. Perhaps because of the pounding, the quickness has faded. Oh, he's still fast--faster than the average NBA player. But the cushion he once commanded is gone, the jumpers he used to take unfettered are now taken with a hand in the face.

Despite the quick fade on the court, Iverson hasn't lost much, if any, popularity. In the pregame introductions, his name caused a noticeable stir from the United Center crowd. And he of course was elected to the starting lineup for this year's All-Star game. The skills have faded, but the love of the fans has not. This enduring popularity is as much a product of Iverson's status as an icon as it is his standing as one of the best small players in NBA history, a fact that may contribute to Iverson's stubborn unwillingness to become a role player in the waning stages of his career. Icons don't come off the bench.

Against the Bulls, Iverson was isolated on the wing against the Bulls' Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter. Hinrich is Chicago's top perimeter defender, but at one time, Iverson would once have left Hinrich spinning like a top. But now, his crossover didn't shake Hinrich. He couldn't get past him. The Bulls didn't bother to rotate over a help defender. There really wasn't any reason to. Iverson gave up and flipped the ball to the top of the three-point circle for Andre Iguodala, who had to forced a contested bomb. Airball.

Iverson had a nice first quarter though, which made me happy. There was just enough of that old bounce to help me reconcile what I was watching with that hypnotic figure from the You Tube clips I'd studied a couple of hours earlier. Iverson got into the lane a couple of times and drew in the defense, before kicking out to open shooters. He hit a bucket of his own on a jumper off the dribble. He had five points and three assists with four minutes to go in the period. Should have had one more assist, too, but Thaddeus Young mishandled a drive and leave, which would have been an uncontested dunk.

Late in the first half, Iverson returned to the game after a long rest. His stats hadn't changed. By then, the other Sixers were doing their own thing. Iverson was running up and down the floor, but that's all he was doing. The Sixers' attack isn't designed for him. He's just a guy, a guy that's 1-of-4 from the floor, with two turnovers. Finally, he gets a pick on the wing and tries to shake Chicago's Flip Murray on a crossover. He can't create any separation and rattles out a 15-footer.

To be fair, the whole Sixers' team is off its game, which has been the case too often this year--it's one of the NBA's most disappointing teams. In the third quarter, Iverson hits a jumper. He was wide open as the Chicago defense focused its attention elsewhere. But there are those flashes. On one play, he got Rose off balance, crossed him over and created an open look, which he drained. That pushed him to nine points on the night, but the Sixers trailed Chicago by 23 points.

Though the game had gotten away from Philadelphia, Iverson showed signs of heating up. He hit a shot from the corner. Then a couple of possessions later, then drove into the lane, drew contact from Hakim Warrick, and hit a fallaway shot for a possible three-point play. It's a shot we've seen Iverson hit over and over again. It pushed Iverson to 13 points on the night. It may have also been the last shot Iverson will ever make as an NBA player.

Iverson missed the subsequent free throw. He later missed a couple of jump shots before departing the game for good, replaced by Jason Kapono with 9:53 to play in the fourth quarter. Down the stretch, Iverson was on the bench, cloaked in white towels. There was no point for him to be in the game. The Sixers were down by 30 points and Iverson still has too much cachet to be a mop-up player. He watched with his chin buried in his palm. You can't help but wonder what was going through his mind.

After the game, I camped out once again the Sixers locker room, after paying a visit to the Bulls and checking in with both coaches' postgame remarks. I knew Iverson would be one of the last players to emerge from the shower area. The star players always are. There are only a handful of reporters around. The Bulls are the story. Their 122-90 win was their fourth straight and Chicago is moving up the East ladder. All the postgame action is in their locker room, with big huddles around Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Rose because he's a star. Noah because he always is a good interview.

In the Philly locker room, the players gradually file out and it's pretty quiet. Iverson emerges with a towel around his hip, his body still chiseled but somehow frail. I stand around chatting with a reporter, near Iverson but not too close. I hear someone mutter something and I realize that it's Iverson. He's telling us he's ready to talk. I'd planned on talking to him, but the other reporters seem pretty ambivalent whether he says anything or not. There are only three or for media members left and we look at each other for a moment sort of confused. Iverson is ready to talk. A press conference has been called. No one really seems to care to listen.

I step forward and start asking dumb questions. The questions that I really want to ask are too hard. He doesn't know me and I just flat out don't have the kind of gall to challenge him. At the same time, I've learned that you can redirect an answer from a dumb question and kinda sorta get the answer for what you really want to know. That's not going to happen with Iverson and I know it. I want to know why he's playing for the Sixers. I want to know what could possibly be his motivation for still playing. I want to know why he won't just accept a bench scorer's role and try to win a ring that way. He's not going to tell me any of these things.

Instead, he tells me he feel good. He tells me that trying to get into the playoffs, the longest of shots for the Sixers by that point, was his motivation. He tells me that they have to just take them one game at a time. Yeah, it was that kind of an interview. After I walk away, I think about whether I should have asked him those harder questions. Probably should have, I decide. But there was something about him that made me not want to pile on.

I watched Iverson's face as he answered. The lines are deeper than you'd think. The face almost too mature--I don't want to say old--for that body and, possibly, for the clothes he wears. It may also be too mature for the game he plays.

A couple of days later, it was announced that Iverson was leaving the Sixers for the rest of the season to be with his sick daughter. When I read this, I almost immediately recognized that I may have seen Iverson in his last game. Iverson has been unwilling to accept the only role he has left, unwilling to be a bit player. And after the scenes in Detroit and Memphis, what championship-caliber team would even want to mess with him? Even if he said he was willing to play a role, who would believe him? My suspicion is that we've seen the last of Iverson the player, if only so he can save as much face as possible.

In the days subsequent to the announcement of Iverson's departure, ugly news began to circulate across the Web. The Sixers asked him to leave. His wife is filing for divorce. He spends too much time in casinos. He's being sued. He has a drinking problem. There is no way to know from our vantage point what is true and what isn't, but with each report that leaks out, it's becoming harder and harder to remember Iverson as a star player. The off-court news that dogged him so often is all that is left.

At some point, we hardcore basketball fans can forget all of the nonsense. We'll be able to get to the task of determining Iverson's place in the on-court history of the NBA. We know that he was a great scorer--four titles in that category will attest to that. We also know that he was a difficult player to build around. Two 50-win seasons in 14 years will attest to that. Still, there is something about Iverson, something about him that stirs me to write 3,000 words about what may or may not have been his last game.

As for me, there have been ongoing rumors of a Led Zepplin reunion on and off for years. It'll probably never happen. Zepplin is probably the only band for whom I'd break my policy of not paying to see has-beens. Watching Jimmy Page play those great songs live would probably be worth it. Or would it? I'm not sure. It's not the same with sports. I go and who plays, plays. I haven't gone to a game to watch a specific player since Michael Jordan retired for the last time.

If I was a paying fan, I wouldn't have gone to see the Sixers and Bulls that night just to see Iverson. That might have been different if I'd been given the foreknowledge that it would be his final game. Might. The thing is, I'm not sure it was worth it, to be reminded what time does to us all. Since I was there, I guess Iím glad I got to see Iverson play in person and I'm glad it was in a Sixer uniform and I guess Iím glad I might be able to say I saw Allen Iverson in his final game. Nevertheless, I have to confess that the whole experience left me mildly depressed.

Follow me at twitter.com/@bbdoolittle.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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On the Beat (03/05)
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Five Thoughts (03/07)

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