I was about 12 growing up in Connecticut when UConn became an elite basketball program, but I was already a longtime Georgetown fan. (Why? My piano teacher attended Georgetown, and they had a good team and cool-looking uniforms, and those things were more important than geography when I was eight years old).
I was also a hyper-competitive sports fan as a kid. I once walked out of a party to mope alone when Georgetown blew a game at Syracuse because some idiot player (I can’t remember who now) stupidly fouled Billy Owens on a last-second half-court heave with the Hoyas up by 2 in the Carrier Dome. I couldn’t stand to be around my Syracuse fan friends, so I just left the party room and hid somewhere for a bit.
So you can guess how I took it when everyone around me became a UConn fan just as Georgetown slipped from the elite of college hoops in the early 1990s. Suddenly UConn was making regular trips the Elite Eight behind guys like Chris Smith, Tate George and Donyell Marshall, while I was left rooting for mediocrities like Robert Churchwell to just please hit one goddamn three-pointer from the corner. Those two UConn-Georgetown games every year in the early 1990s were life and death for me. I could not watch them with my high school friends. I couldn’t even watch them with my father, a mild UConn fan who rooted for the Huskies more because it was fun to have one good team in Connecticut than out of any passionate Calhoun love. He watched the games upstairs. I watched them downstairs, and if UConn won, I sulked to my bedroom without making eye contact with my Dad.
(Aside: I was a huge brat. Sorry, Mom and Dad).
For me, Allen Iverson was a godsend. Georgetown was back. Iverson led the Hoyas to the Sweet 16 in 1995, where they pushed a heavily favored UNC team before losing by 10. They were a No. 2 seed the next season and lost to the monster Marcus Camby-Lou Roe UMass team in the Elite Eight. I didn’t care that he shot 39 percent his freshmen year and jacked 18 shots a game on a loaded ’95-96 team, or that he never cracked 70 percent from the foul line in college. Georgetown hadn’t advanced past the second round (the Sour 32) since freaking 1989 (the year of the Princeton game), and they hadn’t featured a guard who could score since Charles Smith. Iverson could have attempted 25 shots per game and I wouldn’t have cared.
But my Dad…he didn’t like Allen Iverson much. Never did, really. Not in college, not as a pro.
My Dad took one look at those ugly shooting percentages (usually around 41 or 42 percent as a pro) and the ridiculous number of shot attempts and basically dismissed Iverson as overrated and selfish. So did one or two members of my regular card-playing crew in college.
I was blind. I tried to tell them they didn’t understand Iverson’s full impact on the game. I defended Iverson even as I winced when contested 21-foot line drives bricked off the back of the rim. I’d watch Sixers games and say to myself, “Please, Allen, just shoot 50 percent this once so I can point it out to my Dad and my college buddies and prove your worth.” When he failed, I’d point to his massive number of free throw attempts as evidence that he wasn’t as inefficient as he seemed. I even trumped his steals as proof of his defensive ability, even though I knew better.
But there were just so many 9-of-27 games. In my head, I just knew there had to be a better way to play basketball. I just couldn’t bring myself to admit it or say it out loud.
Still, from a basketball standpoint, Iverson’s legacy is unclear and far too complicated for me—a Celtics fan—to address here. Yes, he was selfish. Yes, he probably took at least three or four bad shots each game. But damn if coach after coach didn’t play the guy more than 40 minutes a game every season. Sure, he was stuck on mediocre teams that needed scoring any way they could get it, but would a coach of any team really leave a player on the floor for 42 minutes every night if the player was such a destructive force?
Iverson led the league in minutes per game seven times, scoring four times and free throw attempts twice. He carried an otherwise unremarkable Philly team to the 2001 Finals.
Even the “practice” rant is not as black-and-white an issue as it might seem. Read this epic Sports Illustrated profile from 2001—Iverson’s body was already falling apart, and he believed practice was accelerating the process. (He had to wear slippers around hotels because his ankles and feet hurt too much to wear shoes, according to Gary Smith’s story).
What I’m trying to say is this: In my unending debate with my Dad and the Enemies of Iverson, I had a case through 2006, when Iverson put up a career-best 25.9 PER in his last season with Philly. It wasn’t a clean case, but it was one I could make without being completely ashamed.
I don’t have a case anymore. My Dad was right, my college buddies were right, the critics were right. The Memphis debacle confirms it. The Grizzlies acted with gross negligence in signing Iverson without vetting his willingness to come off the bench, but AI acted with a shocking—even for him—level of selfishness in demanding to start despite missing the pre-season and the first few games of the regular season with injuries. It was so absurd as to be comical.
It’s a basketball tragedy, really. Iverson is a punch line now. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports got a good laugh on Twitter today when he revealed than an assistant GM, when asked via text message about the possibility of Iverson, replied with this: “Haha.”
Haha. That’s what Allen Iverson’s career has come to on November 16th, 2009.
The critics win.