This story appears in the May 25, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated.
Remember Allen Iverson? Skinny kid from Georgetown, drafted No. 1 by the Sixers in 1996? With speed, swagger and a staccato crossover, he'd dart around the NBA's oak trees and drop 50, even on a bum ankle. He turned teammates into awed spectators and knocked the pessimism out of Philadelphians, which is about as easy as knocking the water out of rain. He won scoring titles and an MVP, made nine All-Star teams, led the U.S. in the 2004 Olympics, lifted the Sixers to the Finals. That guy -- the Answer, AI -- was one of the greats of his generation.
And now? After his disastrous stints in Denver and Detroit, how do we feel about him now? Because every time Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups -- the man Iverson was traded for last November -- finds an open man or hits a big shot to lead his team deeper into the playoffs, he diminishes AI's reputation while burnishing his own. What must Iverson be thinking as he sits on a couch, watching his old team advance? Would you blame him if he rooted for the Lakers in the Western Conference finals? If he secretly wished old Chaunce would put up an air ball or two? (I tried to ask Iverson, but he passed on an interview request.)
Think about it. Has the perceived value of any star ever plummeted more in such a short time? It isn't merely that Iverson's ability has declined with age; at 33, and after 13 years of fearless play, that is to be expected. Rather, it's tempting now to reevaluate his entire career. After all, each team he's left has immediately become better without him. He departed the Sixers after disparaging their "losing style," yet Philly made the playoffs the following two seasons with much the same roster. Seven months after he exited Denver, the Nuggets are a conference finalist for the first time in 24 years. And his new team, the Pistons, went from winning 59 games without him the year before to winning 39 with him, then finished the season in disarray.
Analogies are hard to come by. Sure, Brett Favre is viewed differently today than he was two years ago, but all his re-un-retiring doesn't change opinions about his brilliance during the Packers' Super Bowl years, just about his personality. And yeah, Barry and Manny and A-Rod have lost their Cooperstown glow, but that's a conversation about chemistry as much as baseball. With Iverson it's different. When I think back on all those great AI moments from his Philly days, are the memories selective? What about all the awed teammates left stranded (and open) on the wing, and the sidekicks he ran out of town and the fact that -- oh, yeah -- his was the Olympic team that finished with a bronze medal?
Maybe that 76ers run to the Finals in 2001 was more the masterwork of Larry Brown, a coach smart enough to minimize the liabilities of a 6-foot, ball-dominating two guard. After all, with Brown, AI's Sixers averaged 45 wins in full seasons; without Brown, they averaged 34. And you can blame it on the supporting cast, but keep in mind that they didn't get a chance to do much supporting: Iverson led the league in percentage of his team's possessions used six times in a seven-year stretch. "There was a reason he got all the credit, and that's because he scored most of the points," says Eric Snow, AI's backcourt mate in Philly. "But that team was much better than people gave us credit for. A lot of guys aren't willing to make the sacrifices we made."
As it happens, Iverson's contract is up, and let's just say that teams aren't exactly saving up for the big Summer of AI free-agent run. The Pistons have indicated they won't re-sign him, and it's hard to imagine which team will. He says he doesn't want to come off the bench, refuses to transition into a complementary role on a contender -- the way scorers such as Tiny Archibald, Reggie Miller and Michael Finley did -- and remains opposed to such exotic activities as practice and listening to his coach. Hell, if Iverson wanted to play on my rec league team, I'd have to think twice. Sure we'd kill everybody, but who needs another thirtysomething guy who can't pass? "After what happened in Denver and Detroit you have to be concerned," says a Western Conference club executive. "It would stunt the growth of your team, and for what? I don't even think Boston would take Iverson now. Would he be an upgrade over [Stephon] Marbury?"
Ouch. Two years ago, if you'd asked me who would end up having the better career, Billups or Iverson, there's no question I would have chosen AI. But two years from now? The way it's going, it could well be the 32-year-old Billups, who has led seven straight teams to the conference finals under four different coaches and won the title in 2004. Even those who loved Iverson most now question the Answer. When The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a poll last week asking whether the Sixers should take a chance on signing Iverson because "he's still a dynamic player and a crowd pleaser" or whether they should pass because "he failed with the Nuggets and the Pistons," 66.1% opted for the latter. That's a far cry from other sports heroes such as Ken Griffey Jr., who was welcomed back to Seattle as if he might bring the SuperSonics with him.
Which is to say that people appear to know who Allen Iverson is. What's changing, with every Nuggets win, is who he was.