The ‘most miserable’ season of his career

By Vince Ellis
Updated: July 5, 2009

DETROIT — It’s Thursday night at a Southfield eatery and two women are discussing the famous man sitting far across the bar area.

“Oh, he’s not coming back, right?” one woman said.

No, Allen Iverson isn’t returning to the Pistons. That has been apparent for months.

But Iverson, 34, remains in the Detroit area tying up loose ends (like waiting for his kids to finish summer school) and contemplating the next step of a journey that began as phenom in Hampton, Va., in the early ’90s and will end when he is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame five years after he hangs up his sneakers.

And on that day there will be scant mention of the five months he spent in a Pistons uniform, a tumultuous time that ended when the team said on April 3 that he was done for the season because of a bad back.

But the Free Press found Iverson in great spirits Thursday, and in his first extensive public comments since April 1 — when he said he would rather retire than come off the bench — he quietly reflected on the season and his future over a plate of chicken wings with a friend at a T.G.I. Friday’s.

The Pistons’ front office, players and fans were shaken as a franchise that had reached the Eastern Conference finals six straight seasons become an also-ran. And so was Iverson, who received a bulk of the criticism and became a symbol of what went wrong.

Of the season that ended with a 39-43 record, a first-round playoff sweep by the Cavaliers and ultimately the firing of coach Michael Curry, Iverson called it the “most miserable of my career.”

Great promise

That wasn’t the expectation when Joe Dumars, as president of basketball operations, decided to ship popular All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups to Denver for Iverson on Nov. 3.

The trade stunned the league, but Dumars felt it was necessary so that he could acquire Iverson’s $20.8-million contract, which expired this summer. Dumars wanted to free up cap space to begin the Pistons’ next era.

But Dumars also thought the addition of Iverson could freshen the brew and maybe energize the longtime core of Rip, Tay, ‘Sheed and Dyess for a one final title run.

After the initial shock in Michigan, there was plenty of excitement. Fans bought a slew of Iverson jerseys and tickets at the Palace, helping extend the team’s sellout streak to February (when it ended become of the economy and the mediocrity at 259 games).

And there were some good moments, like game-winning shots against the Clippers and Thunder. Iverson tried to blend his game, which features one-on-one play, with the Pistons’ style of sharing the basketball. There was even a seven-game winning streak that spanned late December and early January in which Iverson was the catalyst because Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace were battling injuries.

But that stuff won’t be remembered.

Going south

Fans will remember the Thanksgiving Day practice he skipped and, although he apologized, he declined to reveal his whereabouts or his reasons.

But that paled in comparison to the tension caused in trying to replace Billups’ locker-room presence. On the court, the burst and explosion that allowed Iverson to score more than 23,000 points over a 13-year career wasn’t as prevalent. He also lacked the defensive skills of Billups.

To make matters worse, Iverson played the same position as team leader Hamilton. After much tinkering with the lineup (Iverson at the point, Iverson at shooting guard, Hamilton at small forward with Rodney Stuckey at the point), Curry announced that Hamilton was coming off the bench — much to Hamilton’s dismay. While no one ever said anything bad about Iverson, it seemed to create more locker-room tension.

On Thursday, Iverson said it grew to be a real grind. Even victories couldn’t shake the gloomy times.

Iverson downplayed the perceived rift with Hamilton. He described Hamilton as a good friend and said he hung out with him recently.

But the team continued to struggle and at the end of an eight-game losing streak when Iverson hurt his back at New Orleans in late February, Curry had the opportunity to put Hamilton back in the starting lineup. Iverson missed the next 16 games, and when he returned he was coming off the bench.

He came off the bench for three games before proclaiming, after a loss at New Jersey, that he would rather retire than be a reserve. Two days after that comment, Dumars announced Iverson was done for the season, citing the bad back.

It set off speculation that Iverson was using his back injury as an excuse to quit on the Pistons. Iverson scoffed at that Thursday, saying if he was faking why would he have gone through the painful treatments.

“I played all those years and became known for toughness and suddenly I’m faking?” he said.

. But Iverson did not elaborate further on the events that led him to miss the rest of the season, only to say the parting was “mutual.”

So what went wrong?

Iverson declined to criticize the Pistons’ organization, although he did say that Curry “wasn’t ready.” He had never been a head coach anywhere and had been an assistant only one season before he was hired last summer.

When talking about the reasons the Pistons’ season didn’t work out, Iverson did concede that he had a big ego and that he probably shared some of the blame as his scoring average hit a career-low 17.5 points for a four-time NBA scoring champ.

But he didn’t ask to come to Detroit to replace Billups. He said it made him wonder now if there was any way for the Pistons’ combination to work — a first-year coach, an aging and injured Wallace, a new point guard and young players not ready for major roles.

“It was sold to me as we were going to go for it,” Iverson said. “I was told that things had gotten stale around here.

“Now? I don’t know. I think it may have been about the money.”

Now what?

His tenure as a Piston officially came to an end Wednesday, when he became an unrestricted free agent. The Pistons did not make him an offer, which surprised no one.

Still a popular player in the NBA — Iverson’s jersey sales rank among the top 10 — his next destination is a hot topic in league circles. He said his back is fine and he is working out every day.

The rumor Friday was Memphis had an interest. ESPN’s “SportsCenter” gave the pros and cons of A.I. in a Grizzlies uniform.

There also have reports that Miami has interest. Wherever he ends up, it will be his fourth team in four seasons, and he will take a huge pay cut, possibly getting $5 million or less. But he said he didn’t care about the money, he just wanted to enjoy basketball again.

Which led the conversation to rumors of a possible reunion with former Pistons coach Larry Brown in Charlotte. The two had notorious clashes when they were in Philadelphia, but Iverson said he would love to play under Brown again, although he let loose a laugh and shook his head saying no when asked about rumors of a house he already had bought in Charlotte.

“He’s like a father to me,” Iverson said. “He knows how to use me.”

Wherever he lands, Iverson may have to accept a reduced role. He chaffed at that prospect with the Pistons, and Thursday night he was repeating his thoughts he echoed several times during the season.

He hesitated when asked about coming off the bench. Finally, he said: “I don’t know. I think I would retire.”

In the meantime, he said he was letting agent Leon Rose field all the inquiries. He said he planned to leave the Detroit area in a couple of weeks.

That’s probably not too soon for some Pistons fans. But as Iverson has said before, he’s used to being the bad guy. He still has a sense of humor about it. He laughed throughout the conversation and had a greeting for every patron who stopped to say hello.

“I just want to go somewhere,” Iverson said, “I can be happy to go to practice every day.”