Saturday, May 14, 2011


Back when I still cared about the NBA, my favorite player was Allen Iverson. When I tell people that, it sometimes takes them by surprise. First they're surprised that I ever followed the NBA to begin with, since I don't come off as a sporty person myself. Then they're surprised that my favorite player would have been such an outspoken thug type as Iverson and not more of a respectable straight shooter like Ray Allen or Tim Duncan. True, my all-time most admired (former) professional athlete is probably David Robinson, because of his well-documented humanitarian efforts. (If you don't know David Robinson's story, I won't get into it, but please read about it here, because he is one of the few true role models in sports.) But as a player—we're talking what happens on the court—there was, for me, no one more exciting to follow than Allen Iverson.

In a league largely populated by freaks of nature (relative to the rest of humanity), Allen Iverson was one of the most anomalous players precisely because he wasn't abnormally tall. By many accounts 5'10''-5'11'', he was officially listed at 6'0'', which is admittedly still taller than the average person. But he was nearly a midget by NBA standards.

Most boys, growing up, at some point dream about becoming a professional athlete. The dream doesn't usually last long or grow serious enough to make it too heartbreaking when they have to give up on that to set their minds on something more practical. Basketball can be harsher in that respect, however, because kids can make it all the way through high school as the best player on their local squad. They may feel themselves able to compete, and their game may even be legitimate to an extent, but if they're not a certain height by a certain age, then they have no realistic chance of making a career out of it. Their best prospect is to make it as a point guard, playing more of a supporting role by knowing when and how to pass the ball to the team's designated scorers. This is more of a specialized position that virtually does not exist in the schoolyard, where most kids just want to hit the big shots, and nobody keeps track of the assists stat. To be an effective point guard in the NBA also requires a strong grasp of the fundamentals of court vision and ball-handling, which most young dreamers are unlikely to practice to the same extent as their jump shot and layup.

It is a rare and driven personality that is able to commit from an early stage to develop toward becoming a dedicated point guard. But what is rarer still is the six-foot-nothing hopeful who can aspire toward anything else and actually succeed. More than any other player in history, Allen Iverson was that rare individual who had what it took.

Iverson was technically his team's point guard, yes, but he never played the supporting role. No, he was his generation's most prolific scorer, four times the league's scoring champion, sixth all-time in terms of points-per-game average in the regular season, and second (only to Michael Jordan) all-time in points-per-game average in the playoffs. These results were absurd, unthinkable for a player of his size and physique. And the numbers alone don't do justice to the reality of his scoring ability. Seeing him in action was to witness quite possibly the sport's most unstoppable phenom on the offensive end, able to drive and penetrate at will. He was incomparably quick, the rookie who made the still-dominant Jordan and Pippen look foolish when they tried to take on the impossible task of defending him. In the post-Jordan era, I truly believed Iverson was the league's brightest light and its future.

I was never more mesmerized by the game than when watching his duels with fellow rising stars Vince Carter and Ray Allen in the 2001 Eastern Conference playoffs. Then, when his Philadelphia 76ers managed to steal game one from a stacked and believed-to-be unbeatable Los Angeles Lakers team in the NBA Finals, it was one of the most inspiring efforts I ever saw. Of course, Iverson and the 76ers would not manage to win another game against the Lakers, but his one win still meant more to me than the Lakers' four.

No, not even Iverson could single-handedly stop the unstoppable Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers. Ultimately, only Shaq and Kobe themselves and their infighting could bring the Lakers' winning days to an end. But, even in losing, Iverson suggested that maybe “impossible” was not always what it seemed, because his own career was something theretofore unimaginable, and if he couldn't quite tear down its walls, he at least chipped away at “impossible” and inspired me at times to believe in the unbelievable, which, really, is what is best about sports. He defied the odds, defied common sense, defied nature itself, defied what everyone else thought it meant to be an NBA superstar.

And this tiny David, in a sport of Goliaths, so upset the established order and balance, so upset everyone's preconceived notions of what the NBA was supposed to be, that the league actually changed the rules of the game specifically to contain him by lifting the prohibition on zone defense, after he had proven consistently that no single player could defend him man-to-man. Yes, for some reason, thinking that the natural handicap of his small stature was not enough, they felt the need to institute additional artificial handicaps to keep him low. Maybe I'm an Iverson apologist, but I still believe that they did it just because they didn't have the guts to face what he represented, which was an overturning of basketball as they understood it. He had changed the game, but everyone was so stuck in their old ways that, instead of embracing that change, they just tried to shut it down and forcibly fit him into the old system they already knew and understood.

So what did Iverson have that made him so exceptional? Yes, he did have extraordinary God-given talent and athleticism, regardless of his size. But the qualities that really drew me to him, made me admire him as a man and not just a spectacle, were his indomitable will, his unflagging ambition, and, perhaps most of all, a certain unbreakable pride, stubbornness, refusal to compromise on his ambition. Yes, it was his pride that appealed to and touched something within me in a way that Tim Duncan's cleanness never could.

Duncan is the quiet and steady giant, who plays within the rules and exemplifies the game's fundamentals. He tells us how we should play, modeling the game perfectly by being the model student of the game. Iverson, on the other hand, was the brightly burning candle lighting a view beyond any existing model and toward new frontiers of what a person could be, if only they wanted it badly enough and, against all reason, never stopped wanting it. His ambition was to be the best, and nothing—not his physical limitations, not the common sense offered by armchair analysts, not any amount of coaching or advice from others—could ever deflate his dream or his ego. Simply put, he was too stubborn to submit to his own limitations, and so instead he overcame them. It was in that way that he “had what it took.” Well, at least for a while . . . .

Where is Iverson now? Well, his 76ers were never again able to equal the success they had in the 2000-2001 season. What followed instead were a number of disappointing years where he butted heads with coaches and management and got traded around from one mediocre team to another until virtually no one was willing to take him anymore. Although his skills were still elite, his personality made him intolerable, and nobody cared any longer to build their team around him. In 2009, he announced his sudden and premature retirement from the NBA, following his statement that he would rather retire than play off the bench as a support player. He came back briefly when his old 76ers gave him one more chance, but he lasted only 25 games before departing the NBA again. By that second time, seemingly everybody had given up on him, even the news, and this former league MVP just quietly faded into oblivion. Now he's off in some second-tier European league in Turkey. I wouldn't even know if he's getting playing time, let alone starting over there, because nobody cares what goes on over there.

Seeing him wasting away the last vital years of a once luminous career is frustrating. He just seems like a fool now, a petulant child who refused to grow up. Reading his comments about refusing to come off the bench—basically, refusing to operate according to anyone's plan but his own—my initial reaction was that he was being ridiculous. I thought that he should have been more willing to compromise for his own sake, to simmer down and listen to reason. It was better than not being able to play at all, right?

And yet, wasn't it his refusal to compromise that made me admire him in the first place? His pride made him unreasonable and eventually impossible to work with, but wasn't it also what drew me to him? If he had been less proud and more willing to compromise at any point earlier in his career, he never could have become that favorite player of mine. He's just being consistent now with those same qualities that made him strong originally, sticking to his guns all the way to the ultimate and bitter end. A part of me wants to insist that pride is the young man's stimulant, but humility the mature man's sustenance. It's sad to see what his hubris has led him to. But another part of me would actually be disappointed if he did change now, if he did compromise. Because there's a part of me that values the personal commitment in one's own pride over the chance of success won through compromise, over the possibility of peace, over hope, over happiness, over anything else. And that part of me wants to see that a man will break before he bends.


Czardoz said...

"the chance of success won through compromise."

Does that describe how the Admiral finally won his championships, by taking a supporting role in the Duncan-led Spurs?

Henry said...

It was compromise in the sense that it required playing nice with others, not so much in the sense that it required him to give up anything of himself. I think, especially by that point in his career, Robinson took naturally to being a team player. Same goes for Duncan, actually.