When my Clippers season tickets arrive every October, I grab the accompanying schedule, head over to our kitchen calendar and write down the following nine teams and their corresponding dates on the schedule:
CELTS, CAVS, SUNS, SPURS, MAVS, LAKERS, MIAMI, MINNESOTA, PHILLY.
Those are the only must-see Clipper opponents for me. Two of the teams are self-explanatory: Boston (my favorite team) and Cleveland (LeBron, who’s worth seeing even if he might coast through the game). The other seven teams feature players who can’t be fully appreciated until you see them live: Duncan (the consummate pro), Dirk (one of a kind), KG (criminally intense), Kobe (the best scorer alive), Nash (the perfect offensive point guard), Wade (the closest thing to MJ since MJ) and Iverson (for reasons about to be explained).
With those seven players, your ticket guarantees you a professional, first-class performance, no different than reservations at a particularly good restaurant or hotel. They always deliver the goods. Always. Now it looks like one of them might be switching teams: Iverson, the relentless Philly scorer who could be shipped out of town as soon as today. Three Saturdays ago, I watched him finish 12-for-31 in an overtime loss to the Clips, hampered by Quinton Ross’ defense and an atrocious group of teammates who couldn’t assume any of the scoring burden. You could tell it was only a matter of time. He was going to snap at some point.
Know what else? He still played his ass off. Breathtaking to watch as always, Iverson remains the quickest guard on the planet, one of the few who routinely draws “oohs and ahhs” from the Staples Center crowd. Although he’s noticeably smaller in person (no taller than 5-foot-11), Iverson attacks the basket in waves, almost like an undersized running back ramming into the line of scrimmage for four or five yards a pop (think Emmitt Smith). He takes implausible angles on his drives — angles that can’t be seen as they’re unfolding, even if you’ve been watching him for 10 years — and drains an obscene number of layups and floaters in traffic. And he still plays with a “f— you!” intensity that only KG and Kobe can match (although MJ remains the king of this category). There isn’t a more intimidating player in the league.
Yup, even after 10 punishing seasons, even on an off-night slumming for a crappy team, Allen Iverson is still worth seeing. And now that he’s about to be traded — about six months too late, by the way — I’ve been astonished by the lack of respect for his abilities in so many written and spoken reports. Writers and talking heads keep painting Iverson as a past-his-prime, banged-up head case who can’t guard anyone, a significant risk with sizable baggage, someone who’s too selfish to coexist with quality players. There’s a generational twinge to the anti-Iverson coverage, pushed by media folks in their 40s, 50s and 60s who can’t understand his generation and don’t seem interested in trying. Most media members would rather mention his infamous aversion to practice (overrated over the years) above describing the incredible thrill of seeing him in person.
Well, ask yourself one question: How could a coach-killer who allegedly monopolizes the ball, hates to practice and can’t sublimate his game double as one of the most revered, respected players in the league? Why did the ex-players on “NBA Coast To Coast” (Anthony, Legler and Barry) trade Iverson war stories last night like they were trading stories about Keyser Söze? Why are Philly fans overwhelmingly heartbroken that he’s leaving town? How can anyone blame Iverson for anything when he’s been saddled with an incompetent front office and decidedly mediocre supporting cast for the past decade?
Consider the following:
Fact: He played with only two All-Stars in Philly (Theo Ratliff in 2001 and the soon-to-be-decrepit Dikembe Mutombo in 2002), as well as a host of overpaid role players (Eric Snow, Aaron McKie, Kyle Korver, Kenny Thomas, Marc Jackson, Brian Skinner, Greg Buckner, Tyrone Hill, George Lynch, Corliss Williamson), overpaid underachievers (Derrick Coleman, Keith Van Horn, Sam Dalembert, Joe Smith), overpaid and washed-up veterans (Todd MacCulloch, Toni Kukoc, Chris Webber, Glenn Robinson, Matt Geiger, Billy Owens), and underachieving lottery picks (Jerry Stackhouse, Tim Thomas, Larry Hughes).
Fact: Other than Mutombo, Iverson’s four best teammates were Coleman (the signature head case of the 1990s), Stackhouse (a selfish scorer who’s been traded three times), Ratliff (a shotblocker with no offensive skills) and Andre Igoudala (a talented athlete who hasn’t improved in two years).
Fact: Since Larry Brown left in 2003, he’s played for four coaches in four years (Randy Ayers, Chris Ford, Jim O’Brien and Mo Cheeks)
Fact: Thanks to the C-Webb trade and their botched salary cap, the Sixers can’t trade for an impact guy unless they keep rolling the dice with somebody else’s problem … a strategy that hasn’t worked for them in five years.
Can you blame A.I. for wanting out? Hell, no. That’s why we’re knee-deep into one of the weirdest weeks in recent NBA history — Philly effectively putting a future Hall of Famer on eBay for a three-day auction, with a trade expected to be consummated any second — and I’m not sure anyone fully understands the ramifications here. This isn’t just any All-Star player. This could be the basketball bargain of the decade.
Here’s what you get if you trade for Allen Iverson …
• One of the best 30 players of all-time, a future Hall of Famer, a ferocious competitor and someone who’s still in his prime as an offensive player (thanks to multiple rule changes that made it impossible to contain quicker guards who can beat players off the dribble). He’s good for 30-35 a night. Pencil it in.
• One of the most influential African-American athletes in sports history, a true trendsetter who single-handedly pushed the NBA into the hip-hop era (whether the league was ready or not).
• One of the most fascinating, complex athletes of my lifetime: a legendary partier and devoted family man; a loyal teammate who shoots too much; a featherweight who carries himself like a heavyweight; an intimidating competitor who’s always the smallest guy on the court; an ex-con with a shady entourage who also happens to be one of the most intuitive, self-aware, articulate superstars in any sport. If I could pick any current athlete to spend a week with for a magazine feature, I would pick Allen Iverson. This is an absolutely fascinating guy, in every respect.
And if you can’t get excited to follow him on your favorite team, seriously, stop following sports right now. You’ll get 2-3 memorable seasons from him (maybe more). You’ll have a chance to beat anyone on any given night. He’s worth the risk as long as your team doesn’t mortgage its entire future for him, which would be foolish because of his onerous contract ($40 million owed in the two seasons after this one), the number of miles on his odomoter (significant) and his value dipping from a curious lack of interest from most teams — which would be more curious if 75-80 percent of those teams weren’t poorly run.
Still not sold? Remember four points over everything else:
1. Philly isn’t dealing Iverson because he’s washed up. They’re dealing him because Billy King did a preposterously bad job building this team and antagonized his only real asset in the process. Big difference. King even choked last summer when he could have landed Carlos Boozer and Boston’s No. 7 pick for Iverson, choosing instead to bring the Answer back for another, inevitably frustrating season (and killing much of his trade value in the process). Not only should Sixers season-ticket holders be outraged, they should figure out a way to sue this team for negligence. Iverson should have retired as a Sixer; it’s not happening because King stinks at his job. These are the facts.
2. There’s an eerie precedent here: Charles Barkley’s situation deteriorated in the same city for the same reasons (he was too much of a handful, he was tired of losing, they had saddled him with too many below-average supporting cast members, their GM sucked just as much). Just like Barkley in ’92, he’s one of those overlooked veteran stars who finishes every All-Star Game, commands respect from his peers and watched his value artificially decline because he spent too many seasons on too many bad teams. Just like Barkley, Iverson has something significant left in the tank and desperately needs a change of scenery. And just like Barkley, he’s about to become the dollar in the proverbial “three quarters for a dollar” trade … which never works when you’re the team getting the three quarters.
3. Trades always rejuvenate great players, especially if they left their old team under bad terms. Just in the past few years, we saw this happen with Shaq in Miami, Nash in Phoenix and Kidd in Jersey. Give an elite player something to prove and he usually ends up proving it. Barkley remains the most famous example because he celebrated the trade by becoming the dominant non-MJ player on the first Dream Team, then ripping through the league in Phoenix, winning an MVP and nearly winning a title. Could this happen with Iverson? Absolutely. He’s that good.
4. Just like there will never be another Barkley, there will never, ever, ever, ever, EVER be another Iverson. In fact, here’s the short list of players from the post-Russell era who will never be seen again for genetic or physical reasons, all of whom can be identified with one name:
Bird + Magic: For obvious reasons.
Barkley: A 6-foot-4 power forward with a weight problem who somehow doubled as a dominant rebounder and low-post player, as well as the greatest runaway train on fast breaks there ever was. Nobody took a charge from Barkley from 1985 through 1996. It never happened. Nobody ever caused more players to cower for their lives than Barkley on a fast break.
Nimphius: Imagine Jon Bon Jovi’s middle part from the “Wanted: Dead or Alive” tour merged with George Clooney’s extended mullet from “The Facts of Life.”
Gervin: I just can’t see anyone else scoring 30-40 a night on bank shots, runners and finger rolls when he’s 6-foot-8 and about 110 pounds. He was skinnier than a supermodel. Incredible to watch in person.
McHale: A genetic freak. When will we see another 6-foot-11 forward with his low-post moves, shot-blocking skills and arms that are six inches too long for his body who was able to dominate games while wearing Richard Simmons’ shorts? If his feet hadn’t betrayed him, he could have played until he was 45. I will always believe this.
Maravich: For reasons that can’t be adequately described in a single paragraph. He’s in my top five for “Athletes who most desperately need an HBO Sports documentary about them.”
Kareem: I just don’t see anyone replicating the skyhook in my lifetime. Or his general ninnyness.
Iverson: Other than Bo Jackson, the most incredible athlete I’ve ever watched in person.
Well, why aren’t more people mentioning that last point this week?
You really think somebody THIS GIFTED could be washed up in the next two years? He has better balance than everyone else. He’s more coordinated than everyone else. He’s faster than everyone else. He’s feistier than anyone else. He takes a superhuman pounding and keeps getting up. He’s an athletic freak. Iverson could have been an unbelievable soccer player. He could have been a world-class boxer and a remarkable defensive center fielder and base stealer. He could have picked his sport in track and field and competed for an Olympic spot. I can’t fathom how much ground he could have covered on a tennis court. We already know that he was one of the greatest high school quarterbacks in Virginia history. And I don’t care how much partying he’s done, how much of a pounding he’s taken over the years, how big a posse he has, how difficult he’s been at times … you can’t change somebody’s genetic makeup. He’s not even close to being washed up.
More importantly, could you go to war with him? Would you want him out there in the last five minutes of a Game 7? Could he carry a good team and make it great? If one of your guys got slammed into a basket support on a drive, would he be the first guy who ran over to get in the offending player’s face? Would the other team’s fans be terrified of him every time he had the ball? Would he come through when it mattered?
Would you really bet against Allen Iverson?
There’s another aspect to Iverson’s brilliance, something the ESPN guys tried to describe last night: Quite simply, he’s the most menacing player in the league. There’s just something different about him, a darker edge that the other stars don’t have. Once I was sitting midcourt at the Fleet Center when Iverson was whistled for a technical, yelped in disbelief, then followed the referee toward the scorer’s table and screamed, “[Bleep] you!” at the top of his lungs. The official whirled around and pulled his whistle toward his mouth for a second technical.
Simmons: SEATTLE -10
Sports Gal: San Fran +10
And I swear on my daughter’s life, the following moment happened: As the official started to blow the whistle, Iverson’s eyes widened and he moved angrily toward the official, almost like someone getting written up for a parking ticket who decides it would just be easier to punch out the meter maid. For a split-second, there was real violence in the air. Of course, the rattled official lowered his whistle and never called the second T. By sheer force of personality, Iverson kept himself in the game.
Look, I’m not condoning what happened. It was a frightening moment. At the same time, I haven’t seen a player bully a referee like that before or since. And that goes back to the “seeing him in person” thing. Iverson plays with a compelling, hostile, bloodthirsty energy that the other players just don’t have. He’s relentless in every sense of the word. He’s a warrior. He’s an alpha dog. He’s a tornado. He’s so fast and coordinated that it genuinely defies description. He’s just crazy enough that officials actually cower in his presence. And none of this makes total sense unless you’ve seen him.
Now Philly is holding a freaking tag sale for him, replete with a leverage-killing deadline and a “40% OFF — EVERYTHING MUST GO!” sign. Since one of the worst GMs of the decade (King) will decide where he goes, it’s impossible to predict what will happen. Just know these four things.
First, as soon as this trade happens, Iverson will play out of his mind coming out of the gate, followed by a series of stories and features from his new teammates saying things like “I can’t believe how good this guy is” and “He’s completely transformed this team, we think we have a chance to win every night now,” followed by the Sixers fans flipping out and demanding King’s departure. I wish there was a way to wager on this scenario in Vegas. I can’t believe softer contenders like the Magic, Nets or even the Mavs have underestimated the undeniable force of his personality, the potential of his crunch-time scoring if there were other scoring threats on the court, or even the fury he’ll unleash on a new team. He will practically KILL HIMSELF trying to haunt the Sixers over the next three season. Mark my words.
Second, in the ironies of ironies, Isiah Thomas kept stockpiling dreadfully expensive contracts and waiting for a superstar tag sale, finally giving up this season and buying out Jalen Rose’s deal. Now he probably could have had Iverson and C-Webb for Rose’s expiring contract, Channing Frye, Nate Robinson, Marbury and the Bulls’ pick. Classic. Even when Isiah isn’t involved in a major story, he still comes off terribly.
Third, the best situation for Iverson should have been Minnesota, but the Timberwolves’ own candidate for “Worst GM of the Decade” screwed up their roster to the point that they don’t have enough appealing contracts/assets to make a respectable offer. Imagine Iverson and KG together? What a shame. Plus, King and McHale collaborating on a deal would have been practically historic, like seeing Frankie Muniz trying to post up Haley Joel Osment in a celebrity game. We were cheated here.
And fourth, the teams that match up best happen to be the teams I know best: the Celtics and Clippers. For three years, Boston has been stockpiling assets and waiting for someone like Iverson to become available. Now they could probably get him for Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green (that part would kill me), their 2007 No. 1 and Theo Ratliff’s corpse, er, contract (which expires in 2008) and make immediate noise in an awful conference. Remember, in a league where only a few teams have more than one good perimeter defender, the Celtics could exploit matchups every night by playing Iverson and Pierce at the same time. I also believe those guys would refine their games to make room for the other, because that’s what stars do when they hit their 30s — they sacrifice shots for a chance to win, whether you’re talking about Shaq in Miami, Aguirre in Detroit, Monroe on the Knicks, Stackhouse on the Mavs, etc.). This could work.
On the other hand, they won’t compete for a title with Doc Rivers at the helm for the same reasons that “Bobby” won’t get an Oscar nomination with Emilio Estevez as director. But the struggling Clippers could compete with Iverson AND have the assets to acquire him (some combination of Corey Maggette, Chris Kaman, Cuttino Mobley, expiring contracts, their own No. 1 pick and/or Minnesota’s No. 1 pick, even the rights to the Greek center who looked great in the World Championships last summer). They need him and he needs them. It’s the logical destination.
For the Celtics, Iverson provides instant credibility, some headlines and maybe even some playoff wins. For the Clippers, Iverson provides a legitimate chance at the 2007 championship. For me, he becomes a bigger part of my life — a chance to follow a once-a-year treat on a nightly basis, either on television with my favorite team or in person with the team that plays 20 minutes from my house. Either way, I can’t lose. Well, unless he goes somewhere else. And that’s when I FedEx a turd sandwich to Billy King.
In the meantime, we should be celebrating this moment: A truly great player getting ready to plug himself into the Juvenation Machine. Maybe it doesn’t matter where Allen Iverson ends up, just that he’s going somewhere at all.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.