Monday, March 2, 2009

The Crucible of AI

The phenomenon that has been known as the Answer since 1996 has slowed to halt, between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He came into the League as a six-foot wonder, a kid out of Georgetown with a penchant for street life, or at least the look of it. He wowed, physically befuddling arguably the greatest defender of his era and many others en route to a 23.5 ppg average and 7.5 apg average in his inaugural year. In fact, let's pause to commemorate said befuddlement:

Such moves acquired the eyes and hearts of basketball aficionados and pundits everywhere. Some would call the concentration of style over substance poisonous, others call it art. A few called it both. But Iverson is in the NBA. Style over substance is limited. He was one of a kind, but he was "common" at the same time in his ability to allow the defense to ignore the other four players on the floor. His early Philly teams were filled with fellow lottery picks (Jerry Stackhouse, Tim Thomas, Derrick Coleman, Larry Hughes), but were still unsuccessful.

His best season was 2000-2001, where he won the NBA MVP and led his talent-deprived team to the NBA Finals (while putting a scratch on LA's three-fo-fo-fo hopes.) In retrospect, it seems that that was the pinnacle of his career. His fifth year in the NBA and he had already reach his zenith. Doesn't seem right. In the ensuing years, his career has been a blur of highlight sublimity, awe-inspiring toughness and interminable postseason failures. When he was traded to Denver to be united with 'Melo, many wondered what that would produce. They did go to the playoffs for the two seasons AI was in the Rocky Mountains, but nobody was surprised when it ended in an early dismissal.

Then he was traded to the Pistons, and the results have been disastrous. Detroit decided to start A.I. and bring Richard Hamilton off the bench, and the results were abysmal, culminating in an eight-game losing streak. A.I. goes out, Hamilton comes back in and the Pistons win two on the road against the Celtics and Magic. Now everybody knows what should have been obvious in the first place. This doesn't preclude a partial account of his stature and dexterity; in fact, it spurs it.

He is a prisoner of his adroit zig-zags and grit. Those who criticize his self-centered game, the ball-controlling, the idle teammates standing around watching him do his thing fail to put together the fact that it is because of those hardwood peccadilloes that he is the individual marvel that he is. Fearless. Undaunted. Competitor. His minuses are his strengths run amok; the essence of diminishing marginal utility. The Pistons' two impressive road wins against the Magic and Celtics without Iverson in the lineup makes that ever clear. Placing him at point guard won't work for the same reasons that forcing an artist into dentistry won't work.

A man must know his role. As Tony Kornheiser said, he is a player that needs four lesser players around him. Sounds kinda shallow, huh? A man needing inferior talent around him to augment his own worth? This makes it much easier to bash him as a person, because as they say, the way one is on the basketball court is an extension of their personality.

But to embrace that mindset is to miss the bigger point and the enigma that is AI. He is illusion incarnate, the anti-efficiency while at the same time being a force that is inexplicable by the laws of orthodox thought. A HOF talent that doesn't lend himself to slowing down for the sake of an easier "shot" for himself or others, because he knows only one way: Go Hard. These past 13 years showed that he is the Exception, not the Answer. Historians will misconstrue his place in history because they will see his numbers, his body shape and his (formerly) trademark cornrows and say "he squeezed everything he could out of that frame," and they will be right. Partially. Because the truth is this: only a kamikaze Allen Iverson (flaws and all) could have survived the rigors of the NBA this long. Curb his game just a smidgen and you're left with a street-baller who may have succumbed to the perils of the urban jungle. Playing his way was his adjustment to nature; dealing with the cards he was dealt, if you will. Call him stubborn, but don't called him selfish, there's a subtle difference. It's who he is: why in the world would you forsake something that saved your life?

A captive of his own talents, yet freed from his own limitations.

So what does this mean to 2009 Detroit? You have an opportunity to do something special to salvage this season. Bring his butt off the bench.

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