Allen Iverson vs. Denver, Dec. 07, 2009: 11 Pts, 5 Reb, 6 Ast.
FreeDarko: “Pro basketball is not 22 Pts, 6 Reb, 4 Ast.”
See that up there – Iverson kissing the floor? That’s one hell of a moment. It’s a moment I thought I’d never see and I’ll cherish it forever. And I know I’m not alone.
I had a couple of friends over last night and, as they were talking about whatever it was they were talking about, my eyes were glued to the screen for AI’s re-introduction. I sat on the floor, right up close to the TV, and excitedly yelled “He’s kissing the logo! He’s kissing the logo!” the same way I nightly yell about incredible dunks and blocks. This is, undeniably, childish behaviour. You should know that I routinely exhibit childish behaviour while watching basketball games – you might laugh at how I stand up when it goes down to the wire because somehow it makes me feel more connected to the game, or how I jump around and grin like an idiot whenever DeMar DeRozan hammers home a dunk, but it’s involuntary. It normally doesn’t hinder my ability to analyze the game – I still see how plays are developing and think about matchups and strategies, even if I look like a mindless fanboy. As I sat up close to the TV last night like I did when watching AI as a rookie, though, I wasn’t doing much of that. I can’t offer you much in the form of analysis, aside from telling you that Iguodala was amazing, Dalembert seemingly blocked every third shot in the first half, and the speedy Ty Lawson was great and caused the not-yet-in-shape AI some problems. These are things my grandmother could probably have told you if she was watching. Last night, I was just like every Iverson fan in the Wachovia Center. Every play, my eyes were on AI. When he had the ball in his hands, time slowed down. When he picked up his second foul on a questionable call, I was furious. It was all about him.
I felt the energy in that building coming right through my TV. I could sense Allen’s nervous anticipation and the excitement of the crowd before the tip. I truly didn’t care what his numbers were, or that he seemed a bit tentative, rusty, and unsure of the plays/defensive schemes his team was running. My guy was having fun. He was playing hard. He was smiling at people he recognized from his last go-round in Philly. He was soaking in the love from the standing-room only, sold-out crowd. It’s no coincidence sports columnists in both Philadelphia and Denver called Iverson’s return a “smash(ing) success”. Just as his brief retirement felt so terribly wrong, this felt exactly right. AI back home, playing against his former teammates from Denver? Perfect. Obviously, I would have loved a win, but that hardly matters to me today. What matters is AI is in Philly, Kobe is in L.A., and Steve Nash is in Phoenix. Just like in 1996.
The 1996 Draft is not only one of the very best drafts of all time; it has a personal significance for me. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been a devoted basketball fan for as long as I can remember. When these guys came into the league, I was learning more and more about the game. I was playing ball all the time and I had a few friends who were almost as into it as I was. I could argue about things such as if the Raptors made the right decision in drafting Marcus Camby (I thought they did; everyone else seemed to think they should have taken the high-scoring Shareef Abdur-Rahim). I could watch these guys play, often in person (I know, spoiled), and then imitate their moves on the court. When I was practicing my AI crossover at 10 years of age, I had no idea that a handful of these faces would become the faces of the NBA in the post-Jordan era, but I felt a connection with these rookies because I got to see them from the beginning.
So, with that in mind, here’s a text message exchange I had two weeks ago:
Me: Apparently AI is retiring and I want to cry.
Friend: Omg. Noooooo. Childhood over.
Exactly. And I wasn’t anywhere near ready for that. Especially with the way it was going to happen. I’ve already had to come to terms with the whole Marbury thing – what if AI just vanished while he still had more to give? What if he had gone out with a whimper, unwanted and demonized? The man has said he was content to leave the game if he had to because he would focus all his energy on being a great husband and father, but I damn well would not have been content. And that’s an understatement. I realize that in the next few years I’m going to see the retirements of Kobe, Nash, and AI (along with KG, Duncan, T-Mac, and Vince), but I’d like this unfortunate inevitability to approach me slowly from a distance rather than darting out suddenly and punching me in the face. That’s what AI’s “retirement” felt like – you can say I was stupid and should have expected it all along, but I really never believed it would come to that until it did.
After hearing AI’s words on the subject, I trust that he was genuinely prepared to step away from the game he loves so much, even if he knew it shouldn’t have had to end that way. Not one other team, not even the pathetic Knicks, would give this man another chance, and he didn’t want to sit around in limbo. I hate that it took a Lou Williams jaw injury to make this happen, but I’m thrilled that it has happened. I can’t tell you with any certainty that this makes the Sixers a playoff team, or that Iverson will get the storybook ending we want for him, but at least there’s a chance. At least it didn’t end with a wasted season in Detroit and 3 games with the Grizzlies. At least we’ll always have last night.
“That’s the best feeling of it all, just being appreciated. That’s all you want as a person, when you have a relationship with somebody, you want to feel appreciated. And I do feel appreciated and that’s what drives me to just keep giving everything that I’ve got out there on the basketball court.” – Allen Iverson, post-game on Dec. 07, 2009.
I love this. This is why it’s so great he’s back home in Philly, the city that embraced him from the start and the city that is more than willing to give him a second chance. Last night, he played more minutes than he thought he would and he tried his best to contribute despite being more than a practice or two away from game shape. Say what you want about Iverson’s partying or his ego, but know that he gives everything he has in his heart when he’s on the court. Especially for those adoring Philly fans.
I am positively smitten with this year’s rookie class and Brandon Jennings has quickly become one of my favourite players in the league, but this J.A. Adande piece really bothered me. I’m definitely an Adande fan, but no argument could convince me that an Iverson retirement in November 2009 is “the natural order of things”. Iverson at 34 is not the same player as Iverson at 26, fine. But I still want to see him play against Jennings at 20. If he gets crossed over, that’s alright with me. I don’t expect him to dominate like he used to, but I want to see him battle against the likes of CP3, Deron, Rondo, Rose, Westbrook, Flynn, Lawson, and Wall. When David Aldridge asked him post-game about his eventual retirement, Iverson said, “maybe my fans will miss me, but the league won’t miss me.” And he’s right – the league’s future is in great hands. If the Sixers had never called, they’d still play the games and I’d still be watching. But goddamn, his fans would miss him. Brandon is fantastic, and I think he shares many of the qualities that made a generation fall in love with AI, but NO ONE can replace Allen for me and my generation.
At some point, Allen Iverson is going to walk away from this game for good and, a few years later, he’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame as a Philadelphia 76er. When this happens, I’ll miss the hell out of him. I’ll reminisce about when he got drafted, when he crossed over MJ, when he climbed Marcus Camby’s back, when he battled Vince in the playoffs, when he stepped over Tyronn Lue, when he joined forces with Melo, when he cut his hair at All-Star Weekend, and, yes, when he came back home and kissed the floor. The great thing is that writing about this stuff doesn’t make me sad anymore because I know it’s not over yet. I can even look forward to seeing Iverson play in person in early 2010. Sometimes, things work out. Thank you, Sixers.