On the John: What’s rings got to do with it?

On the John

What’s rings got to do with it?

Originally completed December 8, 2009

Greatness.

Allen Iverson is a 76er.

The franchise’s most controversial star since Sir Charles asked out. Its most exciting since Doc hung ’em up. Its most dominant since Moses was exiled. The man responsible for its best season since Fo-Fi-Fo.

Welcome back!

Number 3 got the start for Philly last night. He was greeted with maniacal love upon his introduction. He scored 11 points on 11 shots. He chipped in a team-high six assists. The 76ers lost by ten.

Let the bashing begin.

Many moons ago, back when A.I. was a retired Memphis Grizzlie, I told a friend that I was heading home to write an Iverson retirement column. He didn’t flinch:

“Iverson retirement column, huh? What are you writing—that he was a selfish player who bitched his way out of a contract, screwed the Memphis fans, and cemented his legacy as a me-first guy who cared more about taking all of the shots than winning a title?”

I have much to write about Iverson. He is one of the great athletic performers and competitors of my time. He starred in the greatest NBA All-Star game I ever witnessed. He is a player with whom I have felt a kinship since I first saw his photo in Sports Illustrated in 1993.

But I would first like to address the argument made by that friend of mine, a reading of Iverson’s career as common as it is misguided, the unreasonable assessment that Iverson is a “me-first ball-hog who cares more about shooting than winning, whose teams are only successful when they suit his strengths.”

Unreasonable? There is, after all, enough surface accuracy in that complaint to warrant serious discussion. He does take a lot of shots. His teams do perform best when he is surrounded by hustling role-players who possess minimal offensive aspirations. He reached the Finals only once and never escaped the second round again.

To the loyal detractors, Iverson “does not care” about winning a ring. If he cared, they say, he would shoot less and pass more and sign on for a bench role with a contender. That’s the argument, anyhow.

My guess is not that he “does not care,” but rather that he does not care in the way you care. And if that is the case, if his basketball values differ from yours, is it he who is stubborn and wrong, or you?

And so I ask you to consider Michael Jordan. Because there is no more useful player than MJ to help us reasonably evaluate The Answer.

Take the ball-hog accusation, for instance. During his five-season prime in Philly (1999-2003), Iverson averaged nearly 25 shots per game. During his six championship seasons, Jordan averaged just over 23 per game. True, Jordan shot 50% from the floor for much of his Bulls career, while Iverson shot 42%. But it is easier to get a clean look at the rim when you are 6’6, not 6’0.

Iverson is also slammed because his teams only won when they were molded perfectly around his skills. But of course, that is exactly how Jordan succeeded.

Who surrounded MJ? Glue guys. Rebounders, defenders, three-point specialists, low-maintenance bigs, hustle players, the game’s greatest coach, its shrewdest GM.

And he had Pippen, the uniquely-skilled, do-it-all forward who freed 23 from the burden of defending the opposition’s best perimeter player.

So imagine this: Jordan is still JORDAN, the same mind, the same wiring, but he is six inches shorter and without Pippen. How many titles would a six foot, Pippen-less MJ win? Maybe one or two compared to Iverson’s zero, but six? And if it didn’t happen, if the Jordan-only Bulls could not surpass Ewing’s Knicks or Reggie’s Pacers, would the short-and-alone-and-ringless Jordan “fall in line” and change his game just to win a title? Would he give up shots and play second fiddle to O’Neal in Orlando or Barkley in Phoenix?

And if he didn’t, would you call him selfish?

And if Iverson were six foot six instead of six foot nuhtin’…if Iverson entered the ’01 Finals with Mike Bibby, Shawn Marion, and Brian Grant instead of Eric Snow, Jumaine Jones, and Tyrone Hill…

But then he would be Kobe or Michael and not Allen Iverson, and the point of A.I. would be lost. Having followed the man’s career for 16 years, I came to believe that for him, athletic competition is personal. That he wants just as badly to be “champion” but would rather be himself. That his approach and style are essential to him, and demanding he “fit in” on a championship team is demanding he uphold your value system, not his.

There is more to basketball than championships. More to the NBA than the pursuit of the ring. We don’t slam Tom Waits for not writing the pop songs that would allow him to sell more records or win more Grammys. We don’t demand Spike Lee produce summer blockbusters or Oscar darlings. Just because your favorite writer does not sell books at a Tom Clancy rate does not make him a lousy writer. And it does not make you foolish for knowing he is great.

Copyright 2009, jm silverstein

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