PHILADELPHIA -- In the cold, dark recesses of the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday, something just didn't feel right. One by one, friends and family of Allen Iverson filtered into the arena's lower bowl, exchanging knowing smiles and quiet laughs. From Dr. J to John Thompson, Theo Ratliff to Pat Croce, so many of those close to Iverson had come out for this: Three years after last wearing an NBA uniform, Iverson was finally ready to say goodbye.
This wasn't how it was supposed to end for Iverson, an 11-time All-Star, an MVP, a man who over 14 seasons squeezed more out of a (listed) 6-foot, 165-pound frame than anyone possibly could. He attacked the basket relentlessly, fearlessly, refusing to back down, refusing to succumb to injury. LeBron James called Iverson the best pound-for-pound player to ever play the game, and you would be hard pressed to find anyone to dispute it. He captured four scoring titles, memorably traded 50-point games with Vince Carter in the 2001 playoffs and famously stepped over the Lakers' Tyronn Lue after burying a 20-footer in the closing seconds of a Game 1 win in the '01 Finals.
That '01 team is widely regarded as one of the worst Finals teams in NBA history. It was Iverson and a bunch of guys playing defense, or so the storyline goes, but amazingly that was enough. Sixers officials fondly remember the last preseason game that year, when Iverson insisted Larry Brown leave the starters in for the fourth quarter because he believed it was important to win. Philadelphia started the season 10-0, with Iverson setting the tone.
Often lost in the controversy that enveloped Iverson was a man desperate to win. In 1999, Iverson broke his thumb. He missed 10 games, a stretch that may have been longer had Iverson not removed the cast himself. Once, in New York, Iverson was told by Philadelphia's medical staff to sit a game out with a nagging injury. Iverson declined. An equipment manager hid his jersey. Iverson said he would go to the NBA Store and buy a new one.
Iverson's aversion to practice -- practice?-- was well documented, but he did have his moments. During a late season practice in '01, Matt Geiger, who played just 35 games due to knee injuries that season -- injuries, team sources say, Iverson believed Geiger could have come back from sooner -- returned after a lengthy absence. Throughout practice, Iverson refused to pass him the ball. When he saw Geiger roll his eyes after one attempt, Iverson stopped the scrimmage. He asked Geiger if he was frustrated. Geiger said yes. Good, Iverson told him, because I've been frustrated with you not playing all year.
There was so much more to Iverson than the defiance, so much more depth than the cornrowed, tattooed thug image with which he was branded, the image the NBA despised. Team officials talk about the kindness Iverson showed their children. They laugh at the caricatures that Iverson would draw of teammates and staffers while taking a bus to an arena. One team executive recalled telling Iverson about how he planned to drive several hours to his daughter's high school graduation. Iverson offered to let him drive his Bentley.
Graceful endings aren't granted all of sports stars -- Michael Jordan is proof of that -- but Iverson should have had one better than this. When his skills diminished, Iverson could have adapted, checked his ego and tailored his game. Even a reduced version of Iverson would have been good enough to average double digits off the bench for some teams and may have kept him in the game today. But he couldn't do it -- wouldn't do it. As Iverson sat on a makeshift dais on Wednesday, a black hat twisted sideways on his head, a gold chain wrapped around his neck, a vacant look on his face, he sat there a man forced out of the game.
"Could he still play [in 2010]? Of course," said an Eastern Conference executive. "But what he pulled in Detroit finished him."
In 2008, the Pistons shipped franchise cornerstone Chauncey Billups to Denver for Iverson with the hope that Iverson would have enough left to help Detroit challenge Boston and Cleveland and that his expiring $21.9 million contract would enable the team to rebuild on the fly. But the ball-dominating Iverson clashed with the Pistons' style, and when Detroit shifted him to the bench late in the season, Iverson declared that he would rather retire than continue in the role. Two days later, he was banished, officially because of a back injury, unofficially because the Pistons could tolerate no more.
Iverson is far from alone on the list of players unwilling to accept the unstoppable effects of time. But his inglorious end was perhaps the most public, most abrupt. He was bounced out of Memphis after just three games in '09 and finished his career playing 25 games for the publicity-starved Sixers in '10.
"It's not easy to accept a lesser role when you feel you have more to give," Dwyane Wade said. "It's got to be something inside that you want to do. No one can make you do it. No one can write an article that will make you do it. You have to be OK with it. Obviously, he didn't want that."
Iverson admits he made mistakes in his career, but refuses to say he would do anything differently. "No," Iverson said. "Not a thing." His flaws define him, Iverson says; they are what make him human. "Obviously, if I could go back and change anything I would be a perfect man," Iverson said. "And I know there's no perfect man and there's no perfect basketball player. So no, I wouldn't change anything. My career was up and down at times. I made a lot of mistakes, a lot of things I'm not proud of. But it's only for other people to learn from."
At 38, Iverson's future is uncertain, his life problematic. Rumors have swirled about financial problems, which Iverson declined to directly address. He says he is happy being a stay at home dad, giving his kids the father he cheated them out of during his career. He lamented using his family as a crutch during the tough times of his career, and says now was the time to pay them back.
"I gave everything I had to basketball, and [while] the passion is still there, the desire to play is just not," Iverson said. "I just feel good that I'm happy with the decision I'm making. It was a great ride."
Off goes Allen Iverson, off into the unknown. At the end of the first quarter of Philadelphia's game against Miami Wednesday night, a montage of Iverson's greatest moments flashed on the JumboTron and he was introduced to a deafening cheer. There will always be what-ifs with Iverson -- what if he worked harder on his game, what if he had lived a quieter life -- but one thing is certain: There will never be another like him.