Commentary

Is this Iverson's final answer?

Originally Published: November 25, 2009
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Allen IversonRocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images Iverson won four scoring titles and led the Sixers to the 2001 Finals, but never won an NBA title.
The day before Thanksgiving seemed to begin with some rare and genuine hope for Allen Iverson.

There on the pages of the morning's Boston Herald were some unexpectedly promising quotes from a longtime Iverson fan named Danny Ainge, confirming that the Celtics had recently held "internal discussions" about signing the four-time scoring champ at a time when so many of us believed no team in the league was prepared to have those kinds of discussions.

Yet it was only a few hours later that Iverson, through his longtime confidant and our former ESPN colleague Stephen A. Smith, announced to the world that he intends to retire effective immediately at age 34. Why so abruptly?

Forget, for a moment, that pretty much no one who follows this sport thinks he's serious about staying away if the phone rings. Let's try to ignore the fact that Iverson's retirement statement, as one of my editors cracked, reads more like a job application than a farewell, with claims that there's "a whole lot left in my tank" and Iverson's strong belief that he "can still compete at the highest level."

I can think of at least three reasons the most famous No. 3 of his generation would try to convince us that he's sincere about walking away.

1. Iverson wants us to spend a good bit of our Thanksgiving holiday thinking and talking about how much we miss him since his stunningly brief marriage to the Memphis Grizzlies was annulled.

2. Iverson wants to give the impression that he's the one controlling whether he plays or doesn't play, when it's clearly the refusal of 30 teams to promise him starter's minutes that has left him unemployed after 13 seasons and change.

3. This is who A.I. is at this stage of his career.

Amazingly Impatient.

Iverson missed almost all of training camp with a slightly torn hamstring, played 18 minutes in his Grizzlies debut after missing the first three regular-season games, then complained immediately and loudly about coming off the bench and playing a reduced role.

The Answer's unforgettable prac-tiss routine made more sense.

No player on Earth goes from an injury that severe straight into heavy minutes … especially not after missing all of camp with his new team. You'll note that even the most desperate team on Earth -- New Jersey -- has been bringing Devin Harris off the bench since the Nets' lone All-Star returned this weekend from his groin troubles. Chances are Iverson would have cracked Memphis' starting lineup fairly quickly, but he couldn't muzzle himself. Not even for one night.

No reasonable NBA observer thought Iverson's signing in Memphis was a good idea for him or for the impressionable young Grizzlies. It was the biggest non-secret in the league that Grizz owner Michael Heisley, believing Iverson could be the first ticket-selling personality in franchise history, forced his basketball people to sign A.I. But I don't remember even the most hardened skeptics saying Iverson would vanish by Thanksgiving. Surely he'd hang around at least until Christmas.

Right?

Wrong.

Not this Answer.

Guess we should have listened more seriously back in the spring when he told us he'd rather leave the game entirely than come off the bench.

As someone who enjoyed his offensive fearlessness and relentlessness and liked interviewing him even more, I really hope this isn't the end for A.I. And I tend to expect him to get a chance to make a comeback with an NBA team eventually, because a desperate contender or three is always bound to surface, just like Boston last spring when the Celts gambled on Stephon Marbury.

Yet it's an ongoing struggle to understand why Iverson can't bring himself to even consider re-inventing himself, no matter how many Bob McAdoo-like examples you wish to present in an effort to convince him that it's OK for NBA legends to go out as role players.

In a fine November column from my ESPN.com colleague J.A. Adande, there are quotes from an Eastern Conference executive who wonders why Iverson can't accept the same gig Gary Payton took in Miami. In his 17th season, Payton came off the bench in 56 regular-season games, averaged a pedestrian 7.7 points and 3.2 assists … and wound up helping the Heat win the championship with some savvy contributions in the playoffs.

That's an extreme example, because Iverson wouldn't have to scale back that much, but his conscience simply won't allow him to do anything close to what McAdoo or Payton did late in their careers.

So …

Applaud Iverson for his usual honesty and that staying-true-to-himself stuff, if you wish, but be advised that basketball historians will make a very clear distinction between gamer and winner when it's time to write A.I.'s legacy.

For all his unique offensive gifts as a little guard, coupled with that unmatched ability to absorb punishment, Iverson consistently put his own agenda ahead of his team's. The only truly successful Iverson team -- Philadelphia's NBA Finals team in 2000-01 -- was built on the premise that A.I. would take all the shots and the other four guys on the floor would cover him on D and chase down all the misses. In short: Iverson has always wanted to play more than he wanted to win.

And maybe that's why his recent flirtations with the New York Knicks have driven Iverson into, well, let's call it indefinite seclusion.

As recently as last week, New York was offering everything Iverson dreams of at this point. Lots of minutes. Lots of shots. Big stage to flaunt those luxuries.

Then the Knicks took it all away in an instant. New York ultimately decided to abandon the idea of signing Iverson for the rest of the season, instead of hiring him as a five-month gift to the long-suffering fans who are agonizingly counting the seconds until free agency starts July 1, when it appeared to be a lock.

Shock and anger, I'm told, were the prevalent reactions in Iverson's camp. One source close to the situation told ESPN.com that Iverson and his advisers regarded an offer from the Knicks to be a "done deal," which is said to be one of the main reasons Iverson was so willing to leave Memphis with the modest take-home sum of $437,609 from the $3.1 million contract he originally signed with the Grizzlies.

Except that now you have to amend the list of reactions to stretch to shock, anger and more of A.I.'s increasingly unstoppable impatience.

Ainge's acknowledgement that the Celts have given real thought to the idea of rescuing Iverson from exile would appear to validate the suggestion from A.I. loyalists that good teams are still willing to at least consider the possibility of bringing him in as an extra scorer for the playoffs. But he just couldn't stifle an emotional response to the Knicks' snub, issuing a retirement decree that -- even if you, like me, don't take it too seriously -- moves him further than he's ever been from a Payton-esque epiphany.

The incredibly stubborn Detroit Iverson and even more stubborn Memphis Iverson are not the two I want to remember … but A.I. is making it tougher and tougher to look past that new quick trigger of his.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics