- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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Allen Iverson is a therapist's dream. You never have to wonder what is going on with him -- he spills it, with no prevarication, no hidden agendas, no minced words. Ask and he shall tell. Or scream. It is, no doubt, in large part, why the vast majority root for him. He is The Answer in every imaginable way. You may not like the response, but you have to appreciate how unvarnished it always arrives.
None of which makes taking off his uniform and refusing to play against the Pistons last weekend any less acceptable. You can't tell me A.I. doesn't know that himself, that he doesn't regret letting his emotions get the better of him. That as much as he hates being jerked around by coach Chris Ford, he hates more that his response to the coach got in the way of a chance to compete. I can understand why A.I. did it -- we've all reacted emotionally like that at some point in our lives -- but I'm dumbfounded by anyone who would condone it.
Forget the quaint notion of professionalism or simply doing the job he's paid to do. Even if it wasn't under the conditions A.I. would prefer, he had a chance to play the game he loves and pursue the sensation he most craves -- winning. This wasn't a statement for a teammate or a standard of play. He sacrificed it out of spite because he wasn't going to start. So defying Ford and the Sixers meant more. It sounds too much like refusing to eat your favorite pie because the slice isn't big enough. Or because the waitress didn't ask how big of a slice you wanted.
Another part of A.I.'s appeal was you never, ever questioned how much he wanted to win. Or, at least, I didn't. OK, his preparation, by all accounts, always has left something to be desired. But he made up for that by giving everything he had once he put on the uniform. Only this time he didn't.
The 76ers, of course, had a big part in this. They had to know A.I. would not react well to being told he was coming off the bench after missing three games with a sore knee. The cynic might even believe he reacted just as they hoped, the larger scheme being to dull the fans' fervent adoration by getting him to do something foolish and thereby making the idea of trading him a little more palatable.
General procedure for bringing a superstar back from injury is to form a game plan. The superstar says how he feels, coach and general manager tell him how valuable he is and how they can't afford to risk his long-term health no matter how much they'd like to play him. The number of practices the superstar will need before he's cleared to play and the minutes he'll play once he's back are sorted out well before the superstar is ready to return.
The 76ers didn't follow that procedure because they are also a therapist's dream, a dysfunctional family deep in denial about their current state. They entered the season touting Glenn Robinson as the missing piece to their championship hopes. It wouldn't have been the first time the leading scorer of an awful team transformed into a vital cog for a championship one, because Ron Harper did just that going from the Clippers to the Bulls and then the Lakers. But Harp shifted his focus to defense, spot-scoring and general floor leadership and he was joining a team that had plenty of other cogs already in place. Besides, this was not Robinson's first crack at sacrificing his game for a greater good -- some would say Milwaukee might've gone to the 2001 Finals instead of the 76ers if he'd been more defensive-minded for the Bucks.
My guess is that Iverson has been wondering for a while if his run in Philadelphia is over. Trade rumors and speculation have swirled all season. On top of that, his body is breaking down more than ever before. Maybe that's why he took off the uniform -- because on that day, under those conditions, he knew he couldn't possibly give everything he had. How many times do you think A.I. had felt that before? I'm thinking never.
Which is why, in hindsight, I was wrong to say "yes" when asked on ESPN's "NBA Fastbreak" on Tuesday if Iverson should be fined or suspended. That was my initial response because being the Sixers' best player and choosing not to play is conduct detrimental to the team, pure and simple. But upon further review, I think the memory of having forfeited a chance to play because he felt disrespected will stay with him a lot longer than the hit of any fine or suspension could.
No need, though, to take my word. A.I. is sure to tell or show us. He always does.
You could never question A.I.'s desire, but that changed the day he pulled off his jersey to defy Chris Ford.