Questioning The Answer

By John Smallwood
Updated: November 29, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — Let’s work from the assumption that Allen Iverson has retired and played his last NBA game. What is his legacy? How will he be remembered?

Strictly from a basketball standpoint, Iverson is a clear-cut Hall of Famer. Along with Isiah Thomas and Nate “Tiny” Archibald, the barely 6-foot Iverson is one of the best little men in basketball history.

A 10-time All-Star, Iverson averaged 27.0 points in 13-plus seasons to rank sixth all-time in the NBA.

With a resume that includes four scoring titles, the 1996-97 Rookie of the Year Award and 2000-01 Most Valuable Player Award, Iverson should be a first-ballot selection for enshrinement in Springfield, Mass.

But nothing involving Iverson is that simple. I’ve never met an athlete as complex and intriguing as Iverson. It is impossible to reflect on his greatness without considering his faults.

For all of the thrills and excitement he delivered during his decade with the 76ers, I always felt cheated by Iverson. As electrifying as Iverson was, I never felt he maximized his potential.

There was a higher level Iverson could have reached, but he never willed himself to go there.

Iverson’s legendary determination was his greatest strength and biggest weakness.

His competitive nature allowed him to dominate as a David in a sport ruled by Goliaths.

Of the hundreds of highlights Iverson created, my favorites are from his rookie season.

One was when he nearly broke Michael Jordan’s ankles with one of his killer crossover moves, and the other was when he slammed home the follow of a missed shot over 6-11 Marcus Camby.

I’ll never forget the war he waged with Vince Carter, then with Toronto, in the 2001 Eastern Conference playoffs.

Iverson scored more than 50 points twice and Carter scored 50 once. In Game 7, Iverson showed what kind of point guard he could have been – had he wanted to – by handing out 16 assists in an 88-87 victory over the Toronto Raptors.

Of course, Iverson’s strong will also fueled his disdain for authority.

In a lot of ways his “I’m going to succeed doing it my way” attitude made Iverson a cultural icon, but it hindered his ability to become the best player and teammate he could have been.

Iverson’s way was the only way, and you could go to hell if you thought even the slightest adjustment would make him a better player.

I remember telling former Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks when he got hired that the problem with changing direction was that the team could only go in the direction Iverson turned.

His infamous “We’re talkin’ ’bout practice,” rant sums up his career.

Iverson never understood there was a difference between being great and being a champion. Iverson never got that practice wasn’t about making him better as it was about making the Sixers a better team.

Iverson, now 34, is correct when he said in his retirement statement, “I strongly feel that I can still compete at the highest level. I always thought that when I left the game, it would be because I couldn’t help my team the way that I was accustomed to. However that is not the case.”

Iverson is retiring because no team wants him if he has to play the way he is accustomed to playing.

No contending team will touch him if Iverson cannot accept another role than being the ball-dominating center of attention who is going to take 30 shots a game.

And as his brief tenure with the Memphis Grizzlies showed, a rebuilding team isn’t going to cater to his needs at the expense of developing young talent.

He can’t stomach the notion that teams now view him as an aging veteran, not the guy to build things around.

It’s a shame that Iverson’s ego won’t allow him to accept that, because he still could be an impact player on a championship-caliber team. With his scoring ability, Iverson could be that explosive sixth man that every championship team has.

Spurs swingman Manu Ginobili and Lakers forward Lamar Odom are two current sixth men who played vital roles on NBA champions.

If Iverson could have emulated Rasheed Wallace, who signed with the Boston Celtics to be that super substitute, he might have finally won that elusive title.

But Iverson exits the NBA the same way he entered – the Answer who produced far too many questions.