’96 stars beginning to see their careers 86ed

In between the Super Bowl and the NBA All-Star Game, you may have missed the following: Antoine Walker(notes), who hasn’t appeared in an NBA game in almost two years, signed to play in Puerto Rico.

According to reports coming out of the island, Walker’s deal with the Guaynabo Mets is for one month, guaranteed, as they want to see what kind of shape he’s in. He is reportedly being paid $7,000 a week. Another former NBA player, Marcus Fizer, also joined the Mets at the same time. They started the season 4-0 according to the standings posted on Latinbasket.com.

Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson were taken fourth and first, respectively, in the 1996 draft.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

Walker is the latest from the star-studded draft class of 1996 to try and resurrect his basketball career. His fellow lottery pick from ’96, Stephon Marbury(notes), finished last season with the Boston Celtics (23 games; all that he has played in the last two seasons) and, finding no takers in the NBA, found a job playing in China. Meanwhile, the No. 1 overall pick in 1996, Allen Iverson(notes), has in all likelihood played his last NBA game, after the Philadelphia 76ers broke ties with him last week.

The 1996 draft ranks as one of the best and deepest in league history. When all is said and done, there could be as many as four Hall of Famers from this draft: Kobe Bryant(notes), Iverson, Steve Nash(notes) and Ray Allen(notes).

Ten players from that draft have been selected to participate in an NBA All-Star Game. Seven have been selected to an All-NBA team. And a guy who wasn’t even drafted, Ben Wallace(notes), has been an NBA All-Star and a member of an All-NBA team.

Nine first-rounders from that draft – including the starting backcourt for the defending NBA champion Lakers – are still playing. (One from that group, Zydrunas Ilgauskus, is “between jobs,” as they say.) A few others are playing, but have the words “expiring contract” affixed to their résumés.

Then there are the three who will remember 2009-10 as their own personal Waterloos, falling out of favor, unable to secure regular work in a league that had showered them with millions over the previous 13 years. For Walker, Iverson and Marbury, 2009-10 is a bona fide annus horribilis.

Walker was the No. 6 pick in 1996, joining the Boston Celtics. As a Celtic, he was a three-time All-Star. He was traded from Boston in 2003, reacquired in February 2005 for a playoff push, then allowed to sign with Miami, where he won a ring with the Heat in 2006. But subsequent stops in Minnesota and Memphis proved unfulfilling, and Walker and the Grizzlies reached a buyout in 2009, with him never playing a game for Memphis.

While Walker hasn’t been on the floor, he has been in the news, which does not constitute good news. His former agent, Mark Bartelstein, won an arbitration judgment against Walker after Walker stopped paying the required agent fees. Walker, who earned more than $100 million in his NBA career, was cited in Las Vegas for writing bad checks totaling nearly $1 million. A comprehensive piece in the Boston Globe showed a pattern of extravagant spending on luxury items as well as a long list of “hangers-on” who hit him up for cash time and again.

Walker considered trying to play in China, which is where the No. 4 pick from 1996, Marbury, ended up. He wore out his welcome in New York once the Knicks brought in Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni (actually, even before then.) He also negotiated a buyout and then went to Boston, where he was mostly ineffective coming off the bench. The Celtics never made a serious offer to bring him back. Neither, apparently, did any other NBA team. So in January, he signed on to play with the Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons of the Chinese Basketball League. At last check, the Brave Dragons were 9-21, in 14th place in a 17-team league.

Marbury sometimes talked of playing overseas when his NBA days were done – and that is precisely what he is doing. But he usually mentioned Italy when speaking wistfully of a new start across the pond. The level of competition in China is improving, but still is not as tough as Europe, let alone the NBA.

Iverson’s popularity could probably translate into an international gig as well, should he so desire. But this season revealed how many in the NBA simply wanted nothing to do with a surefire Hall of Famer. He was viewed as selfish, unwilling to come off the bench, a bad influence on young teams. His one-season stay in Detroit ended after his contract expired, and, initially, no one stepped in to bring him back for 2009-10.

Ticket-starved Memphis ignored all those red flags and signed him anyway. It was a disaster. He was released and, at the time, it was thought his career was kaput. (Meanwhile, Memphis became a pretty good team after Iverson left.) But ticket-starved Philadelphia brought him back to where it all began in 1996.

Needless to say, the second time around was nowhere near as rewarding or successful as the first. He didn’t cause trouble in the locker room, but took two leaves of absence to attend to his sick daughter. As soon as the Sixers announced they were breaking ties with Iverson, his wife filed for divorce.

There are still some big-time players from ’96 doing it every night in the NBA, led by the Lakers’ Bryant, the 13th overall pick and MVP candidate. Nash, taken 15th, is having a brilliant year in Phoenix. Allen, the No. 5 pick, has come on strong for the Celtics after the trade deadline. Marcus Camby(notes), No. 2 overall, has helped fill a big hole in Portland, although he missed Sunday’s game in Denver with an ankle injury.

Peja Stojakovic(notes) (No. 14) is still contributing in New Orleans and Derek Fisher(notes) (No. 24) plays a big role on the Lakers. Jermaine O’Neal(notes) (No. 17) and Erick Dampier(notes) (No. 10) both are the living definition of human expiring contracts. Ilgauskus will get another chance in Cleveland in a couple weeks.

But for the No. 1, No. 4 and No. 6 picks of that draft, the present and near future remain much murkier. Walker told Puerto Rican reporters that he was hoping his latest move would get him another shot in the NBA. That sounds like a reach, but stranger things have happened.

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Updated Monday, Mar 8, 2010