Answering his detractors

Dan Wetzel

INDIANAPOLIS – Maybe it's because there is no one else. Maybe it is the realization that in the Eastern Conference anything, after all, is possible. Maybe it is being healthy again, or the lessons learned from Athens.

Most likely though, it is the understanding that (gasp) Allen Iverson isn't getting any younger.

"I used to always hear you get better with age," the 29-year-old Iverson said with a shrug after dropping 40 on the Indiana Pacers to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a 102-90 road win on Wednesday.

In Iverson's case, he is getting better. Which is one heck of a surprise, isn't it? This was supposed to be the ultimate slash (to the hole) and burn (his career) kind of guy. A life-in-the-fast-lane sensation that could last only as long as that crossover dribble made him as good of a player as the NBA had.

But here he is, still as good of a player as the NBA has. Only now, it's as much for his understanding of the game as his unbridled ability to master it.

In his last three games, Iverson has scored a career-best 145 points (a 48.3-point average). Over his last six, he is averaging 40.0 a game to go along with 7.0 assists and, most importantly he'll tell you, a 4-2 record. Philly has won three consecutive road games.

"I don't think anyone in the league is playing better," Sixers forward Kyle Korver said.

Probably not. Iverson's problem is that he has been playing for a loser – Philly is just 11-14, which is not a good record even in the weak Eastern Conference. You can't be the MVP playing for a sub-.500 team, but it is entirely possible A.I. is better now than during his 2001 MVP season.

"I think he is underrated in his complete game," 76ers guard Willie Green said. "You see his line some nights and it is 20 points, 10 assists [and] he'll grab five, six rebounds. The guy can do it all."

But all anyone wants to talk about when it comes to Iverson is the flash – the ankle-breaking moves, the outlandish jewelry, the tattoos, the tabloid-sensational private life and the nose for trouble.

For years he's been a pariah to some NBA fans, some of which he earned. But time changes people and if you can't appreciate the brilliance of Iverson right now, you aren't much of a basketball fan.

"The average fan," veteran Corliss Williamson said, "likes seeing something entertaining. But his teammates know his understanding of the game. All the things he can do on the court overshadow his knowledge of the game."

Iverson was a captain on the U.S. Olympic team that famously failed to win gold in Athens. He certainly wasn't perfect, but he came out of the Games with an improved reputation as a stand-up guy who shouldered the blame for tough losses.

His leadership has carried over onto the Sixers. This is a young, not-very-talented team that needs him to do spectacular things or else …

"Or else, shoot, we're lost," Williamson said.

Even as the point totals have soared, it has become more than just points with Iverson. On Wednesday, he dominated – hitting 14 of 16 free throws, dishing five assists and drawing all of the Pacers' attention – but he spoke mostly about reserve guard Kevin Ollie's contributions (eight points in 18 minutes) in an obvious attempt to build team confidence.

"Kevin Ollie, honestly, won this game for us," Iverson said. "Y'all don't know what it's like to deal with Kevin Ollie in practice everyday. He prepares me to go out and do things on the court."

That's leadership. The leadership, perhaps, of a man who realizes youth doesn't last forever.

"My career is going by so fast," he said. "Seems like just yesterday I was a rookie. Now I'm nine years in the league, been to the finals once. When you draw it up, [you] think [you'd] be there four, five years."

It hurts to think about it.

"Winning championships," he said, "is the greatest thing in all sports."

Iverson, deep down, knows he won't win one this year.

That he won't stop competing like he might is just one reason he never has been better.