Aug 9, 2009

Now That We've Come to the End of the Road...

I have long thought that the rise and fall of a professional baller's life can be particularly cruel. Those athletes who are good enough and fortunate enough get the opportunity early in their lives to play their favorite sport for a living. Individuals are often cited as being at the "top of their game" when they are still in their 20s, a time when most people are still struggling to get their shit together. Yet by the time these ballers have reached their 30s, they are often said to be on the downside of their career, a time when many other successful non-athletes are just starting to find their groove in life.

Sure there are exceptions to the rule. Some players have a short career, while others stretch their athletic longevity well beyond what many assume is physically possible. What is constant though is the fact that what goes up must come down. No matter how great a player might have been at the height of his career, the come down is often a painful one.

As a kid I remember hearing so much about Willie Mays, only to see him struggle mightily as an old timer in the 1973 World Series as he closed out his career. Watching Karl Malone, an iron man if ever there was one, look like a broken down horse as he limped through the first few games of 2004 NBA Finals before having to put on street clothes is but another example of how humiliating the end of one's career can be. No matter how great they once were, it always seems difficult to see the inevitable come to pass.

I mention all of this as I think about the end of Allen Iverson's career. There have been few players in NBA history more exciting to watch, yet AI is now without a team. All sorts of rumors have circulated about where he will end up but so far he hasn't ended up anywhere. Even if he does find a team soon, one wonders how much he has left in his tank?

Watching him play for my Detroit Pistons last year was very hard for me. I was such a strong advocate for AI's game for much of his career. He played the game the way it is played on the playground, yet he dominated on NBA hardwood. His skills and his swag embodies the street ethos that is at the core of the game. AI was The Answer in no uncertain terms. I often found myself defending him to the haters who said he wasn't a team player, those who said he was a bad influence, and those who called him a thug. Whereas some were offended by his now infamous tirade about "practice," I found this to be quite funny.

I once wrote a book about the connection between 'ball and hip hop. Well, AI was the human face of that connection. So you can imagine how excited I was last year when AI became a Detroit Piston. Little did I know that the AI who went to Detroit was not the same AI who had once crossed Jordan over so viciously, who once dropped a 3 on the Lakers in a Finals game and then stepped over Tyronn Lue's head on his way back up court. Little did I know that The Answer was by this point in his career begging the question.

When AI got to Detroit his flaws were all too obvious. He didn't finish at the basket. He would often drive baseline and then when there was nothing there, hurl the ball back across court resulting in numerous turnovers. There were many times when he would jump up in the air with no one to pass the ball to, resulting in more turnovers. His defense was most certainly not the answer. If he didn't get a steal he was toast. Earlier in his career, his quickness and ability to get anywhere he wanted to go on the floor at any time covered up a lot of flaws, but age can be unforgiving and so by last season as his speed advantage had diminished, these flaws were now readily evident. Without being able to pound the basketball and probe the defense for the majority of the shot clock, AI was now just another average player.

Worst still was his attitude. I know, I know, all the haters are licking their chops right now, saying I told you so. I still don't want to have to concede the haters their point, but the reality is getting harder and harder to dispute. Allen didn't want to come off the bench even though his skills were not those of a starter last season. One suspects that his unwillingness to come off the bench is the reason no team has yet signed him this off season.

AI has not dealt well with the aging process. His pride and ego are obscuring his vision. It would be a shame for no one to sign him. It would be a bigger shame if he decided to retire this year because he didn't want to come off the bench. Even going to play in Greece or some other foreign country wouldn't seem right, not for AI. If AI doesn't sign with an NBA team it will be a sad final chapter to what will most certainly still be a Hall of Fame career. Even if someone does sign him, it will be for a relatively small amount of money, considering his superstar legacy. No team is going to feature Allen Iveson now. No team is going to declare that he is their go-to guy. Those days have long passed. Either AI will accept the reality of his diminished skill set and the NBA's current financial circumstances and sign a deal or he might just disappear into post NBA oblivion too soon.

AI was too great a player to go out like this, but the reality is that the fall from greatness to being average is only a short stop before you're out of the league. Better to bow out gracefully than to be forced out on terms other than your own. Sure, in time, all we'll remember are the glory days, but for now, this is not a good look for one of the greatest ever. Just because one was once great does not mean that one will remain great forever. Age does not discriminate.

All those hard falls and what Jay-Z calls the "party life" seem to have caught up with AI. Time now to get your mind right and begin the process of leaving the game with your basketball dignity still in tact. Don't give the haters any more ammunition. Watching the aging athlete can be hard, but it need not be humiliating. Hopefully Allen realizes this and soon, or else his less than ceremonial departure from the league will be a bitter ending that didn't have come down to this.