Thirteen months ago, Allen Iverson(notes) made a compelling case for change at the dining room table of Joe Dumars. He made something of a stump speech to the Pistons president, understanding what a champion wanted to hear, what would play to this audience.
Over dinner, Iverson suggested that the public had such bad ideas about him, and he wanted to change it all with Detroit. He wanted the structure, the responsibility, the culture of the Pistons’ winning program. His children were older, and he wanted to reshape the legacy he left for them. Iverson has been the showman of his time, forever playing to the circumstance and crowd.
“They’re dedicated to winning,” Iverson told me a few days later. “Me being at the end of my career, that’s what I’m all about. All I care about is winning.”
Iverson has turned into the worst kind of basketball con man now. He knows what people want to hear, and he delivers it on cue. He couldn’t last the full season in Detroit, and he couldn’t last a full week in Memphis. Now, Philadelphia meets with him, hears it and coach Eddie Jordan marveled of Iverson, “He’s a charming individual.”
Always. And yet, when it comes to Iverson, there’s long been no use judging him on word. Just deed. This is a different Sixers' front office and coaching regime, but they ought to know: Allen Iverson has been the most relentlessly consistent player in the NBA for a decade. He’s about A.I., and that will always be true.
Here’s how this is going to with the Sixers: Once they let him back into the gym, this will be different than Detroit, different than Memphis. After all, Iverson has history in Philadelphia. He was a forever athlete in Philly, and always will be. He transcended basketball there, and become a cultural phenomenon.
Perhaps he can be the starter over Jrue Holiday(notes) until Louis Williams(notes) returns from a broken jaw, but what then? Think A.I. willingly gives back that job? What happens when this barren arena starts to replenish with fans wanting to see Iverson again, when the No. 3 jerseys rush through the turnstiles? What happens when Iverson doesn’t want to run the coach’s Princeton offense? What happens when he starts to humiliate assistant coach Randy Ayers on the team bus, like he did when Ayers was his head coach there?
This happens: Iverson will test his popularity with that of a general manager, Ed Stefanski, that the public only knows for overpaying a broken down Elton Brand(notes). What happens when Iverson takes on his coach, Eddie Jordan? He wins, because what does the public know about Jordan except that he’s lost a lot of games in Philly so far?
“He will be the only one there with a love affair history with that city,” one Western Conference executive said. “He’s the one person who can stand up and speak to the fans of Philly, and he will do that. He will talk about how much he needs them, and they will give him the benefit of the doubt before anyone else there.”
The case for signing Iverson is purely business – selling seats and jerseys – because he becomes a full-time job for the coaching staff. There will always be an issue to iron out, an attitude to placate, a crisis coming and going. People will call for it to happen, because it gives an irrelevant franchise an immediate identity. Everywhere else in the NBA, they’re having throwback jersey nights. The Sixers want a throwback star. Only, they’ll go back into time and find that for all the angst that Iverson brings, it comes without the dominance. It comes without the game-changer.
Iverson comes back to Philly believing he’s the player who left there still a franchise star. He can’t see himself the way the rest of basketball does, because fading legends seldom do. They’re always the last to know, and that’s Allen Iverson now. Nevertheless, he’s smart enough to play along with the process, to tell Stefanski and Jordan that he gets it now, that he had his epiphany, and he just wants to come home, just wants to fit in, just wants to win.
“Charming,” Eddie Jordan said, and deep down, he knows the truth, too. This is a con game, and no one plays it like Allen Iverson. The blame doesn’t go to him now, but the Sixers. They’re bringing in the most relentlessly consistent player in the NBA – all about A.I., all the time – and they need to understand something:
Once they let Allen Iverson back into the gym, back into the waiting arms of a desperate Sixers fandom, well, good luck getting him out.