Commentary

Allen Iverson's legacy: a quitter?

This is not the manner in which an icon's career should end: giving up on the 76ers

Originally Published: March 5, 2010
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

We shouldn't be surprised that Allen Iverson's return to Philadelphia didn't quite work out. Truthfully, when hasn't Iverson's path been an exercise in difficulty?

When Iverson re-signed with the 76ers on Dec. 2, it gave him the opportunity to return to the team he took to the 2001 NBA Finals and reconcile with a city that mirrored his toughness and soul. To some, this was supposed to be the career move that finally presented Iverson with the chance to leave the game as a celebrated hero.

[+] EnlargeAllen Iverson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesOne of Allen Iverson's enduring characteristics is his fearlessness on the drive.

It won't happen now. The 76ers announced on Tuesday that Iverson is done for the season, meaning his last game as an NBA player probably came against Chicago on Feb. 20, when he scored 13 points and Philadelphia lost by 32.

Regardless of whether you think Iverson was a ball hog or an incredibly gifted scorer, he carried at least one quality throughout his career that endeared him to almost everyone: his refusal to quit. He's been an underdog for most of his life; and even if you hated his cornrows and sometimes childish rebelliousness, you at least respected that he always was true to himself.

Iverson wasn't going to change no matter what.

And yet, that's what seems to be doing him in now, and it's disappointing. Even more disappointing is that it feels as if one of the NBA's great warriors will leave the game with the word "quitter" on his prolific résumé.

There is no question that Iverson has/had one of the great careers in NBA history. But the way that career is coming to a close could rank among the all-time worst finishes for an athlete who was once a cultural icon.

The 76ers didn't get into specifics regarding his departure, but there have been numerous reports that Iverson's 4-year-old daughter is suffering from an undisclosed illness. Making matters worse, it was reported on Thursday that his wife of eight and a half years, Tawanna, whom he has known since junior high school, has filed for divorce.

Family drama aside, Iverson's professional legacy has been unraveling since his last days in Denver. When the Nuggets traded him to the Pistons for Chauncey Billups in November of 2008, Denver coach George Karl was among the first to point out that Iverson -- with whom the Nuggets won 50 games  had lost a step. And Karl said Iverson's shoot-first mentality had kept the team, most notably superstar Carmelo Anthony, from blossoming.

"We have contested-shot charts, bad-shot charts and cheap defensive possessions," Karl said within a couple of weeks after the trade. "I would say that when A.I. was here, we had most games in the teens of contested, tough shots, sometimes in the 20s. And I don't think we've had a double-digit one since [Billups has] been here.

"I don't think there's any question coaching a team for many minutes, without a passing and point guard mentality, is frustrating for a coach. Sometimes I saw something, but I couldn't get it done on the court because I didn't have a playmaker out there."

Iverson apologists were all over Karl. But then came Detroit, Memphis and now Philadelphia, Round 2. Iverson quit on the Pistons. He quit on Memphis. And although there are the family issues to consider in the 76ers case, it looks as though Iverson, to some degree, has quit on Philadelphia. In a statement about his departure, the 76ers didn't mention his daughter, just that "after discussing the situation with Allen, we have come to the conclusion that he will not return to the Sixers for the remainder of the season, as he no longer wishes to be a distraction to the organization and teammates that he loves very deeply."

What happened to the little guard who would go into the paint no matter how many taller, bigger bodies stood between him and the rim?

What happened to the guy who lived to excite fans night after night by playing harder than anyone on the floor?

[+] EnlargeAllen Iverson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesIverson was hit in the face against the Bulls on Feb. 20. It might have been his last game.

What happened to Allen Iverson, the consummate fighter?

The problem is that Iverson's most appealing traits are also his greatest weaknesses. Fans loved that he refused to change, but that refusal to adapt is also the reason that late in his career he was, at best, just a fit for bad teams.

"I'm not a bench player. I'm not a sixth man," Iverson said during his brief but disastrous stint in Memphis. "Look at my résumé, and that'll show I'm not a sixth man. I don't think it has anything to do with me being selfish. It's just who I am. I don't want to change what gave me all the success that I've had since I've been in this league. I'm not a sixth man. And that's that."

Iverson didn't know how to change, which is why his legacy today is complicated instead of simply great. I used to contend that Iverson was one of sports' most misunderstood icons. But as his career comes to a close, it's evident that he isn't the man he used to be, and he's never going to be the man I hoped he'd be.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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