Allen Iverson: free agency's other side
Two years ago, he averaged 26.4 points per game. So why isn't his phone ringing?
Atop every team's wish list in the ballyhooed free-agent class of 2010 is LeBron James. Toward the bottom, perhaps with the same unanimity, is Allen Iverson.[+] EnlargeGarrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty ImagesAllen Iverson and LeBron James shared the All-Star Game court as recently as 2009, but they're at opposite ends of the NBA's culture spectrum now.
While LeBron is assured maximum money, last offseason's open market yielded Iverson around $3 million. Then, having told the world he'd save his legacy in Memphis, he jumped ship after three games. He is no longer good enough to start but refuses to do anything else. For the same money and results, the Grizzlies could have bought a real circus, with two lions, three tigers and a live bear to serve as mascot.
Iverson's fall is startling. In 2007-08, he averaged 26.4 points per game for the Nuggets, a 50-win team. Now, as James, the so-called "King," moves closer to his throne, Iverson, the pauper-turned-reluctant-prince, is becoming a memory so quickly that most haven't even noticed it might be time to say goodbye.
But it makes sense that LeBron and A.I. are positioned on opposite extremes. From the beginning -- and especially now -- James has been the answer to Iverson, the response to an era of NBA basketball (and accompanying bad press) that Iverson defined, an era that has disappeared just as he has.
James is designer suits and trendy cardigan sweaters. Iverson is the reason James -- and the rest of the NBA -- must wear those suits to the arena.
James is a self-promoter surrounded by friends, advisers and friends-turned-advisers primarily dedicated to building the brand of LeBron James, molding what people think of him and turning that into a billion dollars. Iverson was the biggest star in the NBA without really trying, a commercial entity who made money because of his indifference to opinion and refusal to smooth the rough edges that made him so polarizing. The people around Iverson quite likely cost him more money than they made him.
LeBron's business is the NBA's business: global expansion. Iverson's business wasn't really business at all, and it didn't come with a persona. It was his life, the parts his face and voice couldn't hide in spite of his desire to keep the world out. It was his uncommon sincerity, even if that meant avoiding the easy and obviously "right" answer.
And his business, from his braids to his dreams of being a hard-core rapper, certainly was not the NBA's business.
James dreams of being the biggest thing in China and its marketplace. He is the star the NBA had been waiting for, and the league has been his ever since he made the transition from high school hype to professional phenomenon. He's charming, affable and, most importantly, prepared. The heights he's reached have been foreseeable for a decade; most of the past 10 years were spent getting ready for the moments when the world's attention would be on him. Aside from predictable fits of self-absorption, James has handled megastardom as smoothly as a man his age could be expected to. For the first time since Michael Jordan, the NBA has a player whose personal ambitions match its own, and a renaissance of NBA basketball has transpired with James as its willing and able spokesman.Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesEven as a fresh-faced rookie in 1996-97, Iverson was more concerned with his identity than his image.
Iverson was the star the league got without asking for it. While nearly every player with a little star power and lots of polish was anointed "the next Michael Jordan," Iverson became MJ's successor at the NBA's forefront without his sophistication but dripping with the same edgy charisma that made Jordan so magnetic.
Iverson scared the hell out of people, and that fear partly obscured a near-decade in which he filled the house in Philadelphia, a notoriously demanding city, and single-handedly returned a proud franchise to relevance, if not glory. He was a different cat than most Philly sports fans, in color as well as disposition. But he connected with the town and earned its respect. Iverson proved to be just as "blue-collar" on the court as Philly sports fans purported themselves to be off it. Without having to say so, he was one of them, even while he also was one of so many others who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in the boom-or-bust 1980s. In every way, he was an underdog, a man who went from chains to a championship series in eight years.
Not only was he unprepared for megastardom, he was averse to it. Jordan's agent, David Falk, represented Iverson when he entered the league. Quickly, Falk learned that someone this singular and uncompromising could never be Michael Jordan. Iverson would never try to fit the mold that worked, not when his identity was so much more important to him than his image.
Coaches learned that just as quickly. What makes him in life is often what breaks him in basketball, which is why his phone in all likelihood stayed silent at 12:01 ET Thursday morning when free agency officially began. For all his talent and undeniable desire to win, Iverson is a basketball soloist -- a 35-year-old soloist who insisted on starting this past season although the world could see the sand in his braids. That's a struggle few want to see and even fewer want to add to their payrolls.[+] EnlargeJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThis tells the story of Iverson's 2009-10 season. Was it his last?
Basketball players come and go, but few have meant more than Iverson. Where people stood on him was taken as a reflection of where they stood on a generation of athletes, a generation of people, the music they listened to and the circumstances they came from. His mere existence raged against the machine with little concern about whether that emotion fit the situation. Iverson didn't represent a particular cause, but he became a social barometer like no athlete since Muhammad Ali, a polarizing representative of a new generation.
Look at the NBA right now. From James to Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, nice guys in nice suits rule the day. Fourteen years after Iverson went No. 1 overall, the Wizards took John Wall, whose body is tattoo-free because, in high school, he and his advisers decided that look would be bad for his image.
Even if he gets another chance to play, Iverson's day is done.
That he's reached this point of irrelevance is sad. But it's appropriate that this time comes during the coronation of all things LeBron. It might not have happened by design, but rarely are coincidences so fitting.
Bomani Jones contributes to the Page 2 blog and hosts "The Morning Jones" from 7 to 10 a.m. on Sirius 98, Hardcore Sports Radio.
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