Will this be Iverson's final tune?
- Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images After chafing at a bench role, Grizzlies guard Allen Iverson says his ultimate goal is winning.LOS ANGELES -- Allen Iverson's BlackBerry buzzed, then blasted Michael Jackson's posthumous single "This Is It."
I asked Iverson if he'd seen the concert movie of the same name. He looked at me as if I were crazy to even make that inquiry.
"First night it came out," he said.
It's a must-see if you like Michael Jackson even the slightest bit. His dance moves and singing voice in the rehearsal footage are amazing.
"He still had it," I said to Iverson.
"Still had it," Iverson said.
Can we say the same for Iverson? Is this the way the undersized guard who could score at a rate that ranked with the greatest to ever play the game will go out, toiling as a backup on one of the NBA's forgotten franchises?
I'm nervous at the thought of him playing his way out of the league. How much duller would the NBA world be without him? In a realm of carefully worded statements, Iverson has always provided a raw feed. I've been on this road with him since he was a freshman at Georgetown and I was the beat writer at The Washington Post, chronicling his dazzling moves, and I'm not ready for him to get off at the next exit.
But this isn't Iverson the phenom, nor is it Iverson the established star. In one sense he's less like Michael Jackson and more like the backup dancers we see auditioning at the beginning of the film. Whether he realizes it or not, Iverson is in a season-long tryout.
"Maybe he has a great year [in Memphis] and next year somebody says he's the final piece," an Eastern Conference team executive said.
Or maybe he keeps stepping in the opposite direction, as he did this week, when he made his first appearance of the season after missing the first three games with a hamstring injury and bristled at coming off the bench, and made executives around the league think he wouldn't be worth the headache.
Iverson's voice is just as unique as his game. And when that gravelly tone starts sounding off about playing time (or, well, you know) those sound bites will be rebroadcast, blogged on, tweeted about. The Memphis Grizzlies wanted a higher profile when they signed Iverson, and that's exactly what they got. With him, you're not just talking about a gifted scorer. So many other things come into play. It's about the rep. And the baggage.
"If his name was something other than Allen Iverson, and I could depend on him getting 14-15 points off the bench -- hell, yeah, I'd sign that guy," a Western Conference executive said. "It's everything else. He has to be the man. You're not the guy on your team anymore, AI."
It's not sitting well with him, playing behind Mike Conley, a guy who has almost 23,000 points to go to catch up with Iverson's career total. Iverson's never been a bench guy, and he doesn't like it. He said as much. Iverson even joked that sitting on the bench was worse than the hamstring injury. Didn't go over so well.
Now he can't shake it. He was honest and got punished for it. To him, not liking a role doesn't mean he won't try hard just because it's not an ideal situation. He might not like the uniform; he'll still play all-out every time he wears it. But we're stuck on him complaining, not him playing.
"Listen, enough is enough," he said when asked about it again Friday night, before the Grizzlies played the Los Angeles Lakers. "There's got to be something else to talk about when it comes to the Memphis Grizzlies beside Allen Iverson.
"I'm tired of it, man. I'm done with it. I said what I had to say about it, people are going to take it however they're going to take it. The Allen Iverson people that love Allen Iverson take it one way, and the anti-Allen Iverson people take it another way, and it's a big debate about something that doesn't mean anything. I would rather talk about us as a team, rather than just Allen Iverson, Allen Iverson. Talk about the Memphis Grizzlies.
The ultimate goal for me is to win games. I'm not trying to be selfish or anything.” -- Grizzlies reserve Allen Iverson
"I just want to win. That's the whole purpose of me suiting up night-in, night out. I hate losing more than I like winning. It's just a frustrating feeling for me to lose. I've never been a loser in my career, and I don't want to start now. I just want to win basketball games and do what I can to help this team win. Whether I say all the right things all the right time -- I doubt it, because I'm human. The ultimate goal for me is to win games. I'm not trying to be selfish or anything."
Some time between the beginning of the week and the end of the workweek he grasped the concept of saying the right thing, which is a start. He still needs to blend his way into the Grizzlies' offense. Right now he's not running the plays, just freelancing on his own, trying to get his shots in.
He'll always be the easy one to blame. He took the fall in his lone season in Detroit, even though the Pistons still went out meekly to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round without him, and even though coach Michael Curry was fired after just one year.
Iverson is lucky enough to get another chance.
"He does have to show some sort of growth," the Eastern Conference exec said. "Even if it's just cosmetic. That's what he needs to show."
There'll never been another player like Iverson. Except now he has to follow a pattern that's been set before him. The older veteran yielding, acknowledging he can no longer dominate, helping out where he can.
"Gary Payton with the Heat," the Eastern Conference executive said. "You're going to tell me AI couldn't do that?"
Payton started all but six of his first 1,266 NBA games. In his 17th year in the league he went to Miami, where he came off the bench in 56 of the 81 games he played and averaged 7.7 points and 3.2 assists in 28.5 minutes and hit some clutch playoff shots to help the Heat win the championship.
If Iverson can't be the Answer, what can he be?
Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley joined the team on this West Coast road trip and plans to discuss Iverson's role with him. He approached Iverson in the locker room to make an appointment.
"Whenever you want," Iverson said.
"Whenever you want," Heisley said.
At least there's some sense of collaboration there. Coach Lionel Hollins already got so flustered he declared a moratorium on Iverson questions.
"To begin with, I was the guy who had as much to do as anybody to bring him here," Heisley said. "We're going to be going over some of the things that appear to be problems and so on, like I would with any other player. Obviously there's all kinds of different issues, and that's why I'm here.
"I feel more involved in this team than I do in any team I've had in the 10 years since I've owned the Grizzlies. I feel like I have a responsibility to Allen because I'm the guy that talked him into coming here.
"I think Allen Iverson is one of the greatest players to ever play the game. He's my wife's favorite basketball player that didn't play a big role [in signing him], but it did play a little role. Quite frankly, we've got a better chance of winning with Allen than we did without him. My reaction is I didn't agree with [his statements], but I'm not out here to talk about that. That's water under the bridge."
If it's about what's next, Heisley should impress upon Iverson what another Grizzlies insider told me: "His career's on the line. He could be done after this."
In other words, this is it.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.
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