You see, once Iverson steps onto a basketball court, it no longer matters what he did in Memphis. It doesn't matter that he sat on the back of the team bus and screamed for coach Lionel Hollins to hear that he'd played for a dumbass last year (Michael Curry) and was doing it again this year. It doesn't matter that he quit on the Grizzlies after only three games, or that he did the same last season in Detroit. It doesn't matter that he hasn't been able to handle taking a backseat to his teammates, or to take the instructions of his coaches. Once he's on that court, Allen Iverson is simply one of the most breathtaking playmakers to ever grace the hardwood.
Don't get me wrong; Iverson has disgraced the game of basketball. He's taken a sport that is supposed to be based in team play and he's made it all about himself. He's shown disrespect to his coaches, to his teammates, and to the game he loves, the game he's played so well for so long. He's made people re-think his spot in history, to wonder whether he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with all the game's other legends.
But I'll tell you one thing: He does deserve to be a part of those legends. In his prime, Iverson was the single biggest attraction in all of basketball. When AI was playing, you had to tune in… you just had to. He was as explosive a scorer as there was. He was as gritty a player, as exciting a player, as any in the Association. He was capable of carrying a team on his back, of leading them farther than they should have gone, and it seemed as if he was always on the verge of a scoring outburst… even when he wasn’t playing well.
And, more than anything else, that’s why Allen Iverson is still must-see T.V. You never know when he’s going to bring back vintage Allen Iverson, when he’ll start scoring in bunches, attacking the basket, and making you admire his heart with every dart into the lane, every collision with an opponent almost double his weight. No matter what you thought about Iverson – his aversion to practice, disregard for public image, ball-hogging style of play – you couldn’t help but admire the way he played with his emotions on his sleeve, the way he always bounced right back up ready to attack his opponent one more time. You had to admire the way he fought, battled, and never backed down from anybody.
As legends grow older, you keep watching them for that one game they remind you of the player they used to be, that one spurt where you can look at that aging legend and say, “Remember when he used to do that all the time? Man, he was unbelievable in his prime.” You keep watching, even through all the struggles, because you want one last glimpse into the player he used to be.
That’s why I was looking forward to seeing Iverson play. Not because he’s great now; he’s not. Not because he’s a role model or perfect teammate; he’s not.
No, I wanted to see Iverson play to be taken back to a time when he was carrying a team full of Eric Snow’s and Aaron McKie’s to the NBA Finals, a time when Iverson was the most exciting player in the NBA, possibly the most exhilarating athlete in all of sports. I wanted to see him take over a game one more time and make me remember his 50-point scoring binges, his emphatic step over Tyronn Lue, and his killer crossover.
As stars grow older, all you get are glimpses of the players they once were. But when those glimpses come, as unexpected as they may be, they take you back to a time when that star ruled the NBA, when you would be afraid to miss that star’s game because you never knew when he’d do something truly special.
That’s why I wanted to watch Allen Iverson scrap and claw against my Boston Celtics tonight. I know he’s not what he once was, but all I wanted was a reminder – one scoring spurt, one crossover, one scamper into the paint and devastating finish. Even at just six feet tall, Iverson used to be the most-feared player in the NBA, and I wanted him to force me to remember that time.
Alas, he won’t play tonight; arthritis in his left knee won’t allow it. In his place will be Jrue Holiday and Willie Green. They may be better role models than Iverson, they may be better teammates, but neither of those players will ever be legends.
They’ll never remind me of a time when a six-feet tall scorer ruled the NBA.