What's the Answer Now?

May 24, 2009

Remember AllenIverson? Skinny kid from Georgetown, drafted No. 1 by the Sixers in 1996? Withspeed, swagger and a staccato crossover, he'd dart around the NBA's oak treesand drop 50, even on a bum ankle. He turned teammates into awed spectators andknocked the pessimism out of Philadelphians, which is about as easy as knockingthe water out of rain. He won scoring titles and an MVP, made nine All-Starteams, led the U.S. in the 2004 Olympics, lifted the Sixers to the Finals. Thatguy—the Answer, AI—was one of the greats of his generation.

And now? After hisdisastrous stints in Denver and Detroit, how do we feel about him now? Becauseevery time Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups—the man Iverson was traded forlast November—finds an open man or hits a big shot to lead his team deeper intothe playoffs, he diminishes AI's reputation while burnishing his own. What mustIverson be thinking as he sits on a couch, watching his old team advance? Wouldyou blame him if he rooted for the Lakers in the Western Conference finals? Ifhe secretly wished old Chaunce would put up an air ball or two? (I tried to askIverson, 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 after13 years of fearless play, that is to be expected. Rather, it's tempting now toreevaluate his entire career. After all, each team he's left has immediatelybecome better without him. He departed the Sixers after disparaging their"losing style," yet Philly made the playoffs the following two seasonswith much the same roster. Seven months after he exited Denver, the Nuggets area conference finalist for the first time in 24 years. And his new team, thePistons, went from winning 59 games without him the year before to winning 39with him, then finished the season in disarray.

Analogies are hardto come by. Sure, Brett Favre is viewed differently today than he was two yearsago, but all his re-un-retiring doesn't change opinions about his brillianceduring 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 aconversation 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 thememories 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 76ersrun to the Finals in 2001 was more the masterwork of Larry Brown, a coach smartenough 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; withoutBrown, they averaged 34. And you can blame it on the supporting cast, but keepin mind that they didn't get a chance to do much supporting: Iverson led theleague in percentage of his team's possessions used six times in a seven-yearstretch. "There was a reason he got all the credit, and that's because hescored 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 ofguys 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 savingup for the big Summer of AI free-agent run. The Pistons have indicated theywon't re-sign him, and it's hard to imagine which team will. He says he doesn'twant to come off the bench, refuses to transition into a complementary role ona contender—the way scorers such as Tiny Archibald, Reggie Miller and MichaelFinley did—and remains opposed to such exotic activities as practice andlistening 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 anotherthirtysomething guy who can't pass? "After what happened in Denver andDetroit you have to be concerned," says a Western Conference clubexecutive. "It would stunt the growth of your team, and for what? I don'teven think Boston would take Iverson now. Would he be an upgrade over [Stephon]Marbury?"

Ouch. Two yearsago, if you'd asked me who would end up having the better career, Billups orIverson, 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 sevenstraight teams to the conference finals under four different coaches and wonthe 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 Sixersshould take a chance on signing Iverson because "he's still a dynamicplayer and a crowd pleaser" or whether they should pass because "hefailed 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 waswelcomed back to Seattle as if he might bring the SuperSonics with him.

Which is to saythat people appear to know who Allen Iverson is. What's changing, with everyNuggets win, is who he was.

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It isn't merely that Allen Iverson's ability hasdeclined with age. Rather, as the Nuggets advance, it's tempting to reevaluatehis entire career.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY KAGAN MCLEOD

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