Grizzlies, Iverson off to rocky start
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Allen Iverson(notes) made his debut with the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, and it went about as expected.
He spent much of the night on the sideline. And he wasn't happy about it.
Nor, it seems, was his rear.
"I had a problem with my butt from sitting on the bench so long," Iverson said. "That's the only thing I had a problem with."
Iverson made his first appearance in an NBA game since April 1, and not much had changed in the seven months in between. The Grizzlies brought him off the bench just like the Detroit Pistons tried to do, and Iverson didn't like it. Not after watching the Grizzlies lose 127-116 in overtime to the lowly Sacramento Kings. Not after he played just 17 minutes – an effective 17 minutes in which he scored 11 points – and not after seeing his new team fall to 1-3 while he sat idly on the sideline.
Upon signing with the Grizzlies this summer, Iverson said he would have no problem coming off the bench – provided he was given a chance to compete for the starting job. That, however, was then. This is now. Iverson is a tremendous competitor and fiercely proud. Not even missing Memphis' first three games – along with the entire preseason – with a hamstring injury seems to have tempered his distaste for bench work.
After the game, Iverson had no problem stating matter-of-factly and loudly – just so everyone in the locker room could hear, including starting guards Mike Conley(notes) and O.J. Mayo(notes), who was seated next to him – that the Grizzlies would need to make a change if they continue to lose.
Specifically, they'd need to start him.
"I'm not a reserve basketball player," Iverson said. "I've never been a reserve all my life and I'm not going to start looking at myself as a reserve. That's something for the media to talk about. It's only a big issue when the media talks about it. The subject never came up in my career until everything happened in Detroit. No one talked about me being a sub or anything like that until last year.
"In all the other years of my career, it's never come up. I've been a starter on All-Star teams, Olympic teams and NBA Finals teams. It's just a big deal now. I think it is something people should let go. To answer your question, no, I'm not a bench player or the sixth man. Go look at my resume, it will show you that I'm not a sixth man."
For all of Iverson's accomplishments, however, the Grizzlies were the only team to show any significant interest in him when he became a free agent this summer. They ultimately signed him to a one-year, $3 million contract.
Iverson's stock dropped, in part, because of his experience with the Pistons – an experiment gone bad. From his arrival into the NBA to the end of his tenure with the Denver Nuggets early last season, Iverson had started 827 of 832 regular-season games. Iverson says the Pistons' rookie coach, Michael Curry, promised him when he joined the team that he would continue to start. After Curry eventually relegated him to the bench, Iverson openly complained about his reserve role and said he would rather retire. The Pistons, citing Iverson's back problems, sent him home for the remainder of the season.
Iverson was hoping this season would provide a fresh start. He made his first appearance on Monday with 4:39 left in the first quarter, but took only one shot in the first half and missed. Kings fans heckled him by saying he should retire.
When Iverson returned in the second half, he looked much more like "The Answer" of old. He scored 11 points in the half, even making a key 3-pointer, and didn't force the action. His cross-over mid-range jump shot looked as pretty as ever.
"I felt like me," Iverson said. "I've been playing basketball for 26 years. It felt like riding a bike. That's what I do. I'm a professional. I felt like me out there. I haven't played in a long time, so obviously I had a lot of time to rest. So I wasn't tired."
But with the game tied at 94 with 4:49 left in the fourth quarter, Memphis coach Lionel Hollins replaced Iverson with Conley. Iverson was visibly upset while heading to the bench and begrudgingly slapped hands with Hollins. With 1.4 seconds left in regulation and the game still tied, Hollins put Iverson back on the floor.
In the past, Iverson would have been almost certain to take the final shot. Instead, Zach Randolph(notes) threw away a bad pass to send the game into OT while Iverson stood alone in the corner, unguarded.
"I went to the bench and told my teammates that I didn't think they knew I was in the game," Iverson said. "They didn't. They didn't even think I was in the game and that was a bad thing. I was like, 'Man, I was wide-open.'
"Obviously, [the Kings] didn't think I was in the game because someone big ended up on me. I guess [the Grizzlies] got used to me sitting so long that I didn't even get in the game."
Iverson wanted to clarify that he wouldn't complain if the Grizzlies were winning. But they didn't, and they aren't.
"If we're winning, I can play 10 minutes and I'm happy," he said. "When we're losing, that's when I trip out."
Iverson never said whom he should replace in the lineup. And the way Mayo is playing (22.3 points per game), Iverson isn't likely to get his job. Conley, however, is shooting 41.9 percent while averaging 9.3 points and 6.3 assists.
Hollins downplayed questions about Iverson's role before the game and was no longer available to reporters when Iverson complained after the loss. Memphis assistant Johnny Davis, who coached Iverson in Philadelphia, said the possibility of a lineup change wasn't discussed by the coaching staff after the game.
"I do believe Allen will do what he feels is in the best interest of the team," Davis said. "And I don't know that one game is a true indicator of anything relating to starting or not starting. But we love having him, I know that. He's going to be good for our kids."
The Grizzlies can't say they're surprised by Iverson's complaint. He didn't like coming off the bench for the veteran-heavy Pistons. Odds were he also wouldn't like doing it for the young Grizzlies, especially as they struggle. Memphis owner Michael Heisley figured Iverson, at the least, would improve ticket sales. So he signed him, leaving Hollins to manage the hard-nosed guard.
For the Grizzlies, there is a simple choice: Start Iverson; or prepare for the circus to follow them from town to town. Yes, this was just one game, but Iverson has already seen enough.
"It's not about me being selfish or anything like that," he said. "It's just the fact that this is who I am. I don't want to change what gave me all the success when I came into this league."