Sunday, March 2, 2014

Never the Answer

Last night at the Wells Fargo Center, the increasingly embarrassing Philadelphia 76ers put on a dog-and-pony show for their remaining fans to honor one of the most polarizing and controversial stars in franchise history.

Allen Iverson, also known as "A.I." (emphasis on the "I"), was feted with the usual speeches from other players and club officials past and present, and a career highlight video. He also had his number '3' retired, with a banner hung from the rafters representing that honor.

As a part of the ceremony, one of the many gifts bestowed upon Iverson last night was a modest-sized fishing boat with another of his nicknames, "The Answer", scrawled along the side. The problem with the inscription, the nickname as applicable to the player himself, is that it just doesn't apply.

Allen Iverson proved that he was never the answer for this franchise. I feel that it's honoring of him alongside champions such as Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Billy Cunningham, and Hal Greer is preposterous, a blatant ploy to sellout the house as was a similarly undeserving player, Charles Barkley in 2001.

Every one of those first half-dozen players mentioned in the last paragraph were great individual players on the court. Every one of them was an all-star, and spent some period of time in their NBA career as one of the best at their respective position. They played hard, well, and brought honor to the 76ers logo, fans, franchise.

They also brought the franchise and we fans something that Iverson, and Barkley, never did, an NBA Championship. Allen Iverson played parts of 14 seasons in the NBA, most of them as a starting shooting guard. He played a full 10, and parts of two others, with the Sixers franchise.

He was the 76ers first round selection, the first player selected overall, in the 1996 NBA Draft following a similarly exciting and controversial college career at Georgetown University. As in individual player, he mostly lived up to that status. He led the NBA in scoring 4x, in steals 3x, and in minutes played per-game 4x in his full Sixer seasons.

His whirling dervish style of play also injected life back into a fan base which had grown disillusioned during a 5-year stretch of losing seasons which had begun when Barkley left town. The last four of those seasons resulted in the team winning 30 fewer games than it won while playing a bland style of basketball with zero on-court personalities.

Iverson certainly brought personality, and the local media bought into his "inner city", hip-hop celebrity act hook, line, and sinker. Especially guilty was the Philadelphia Daily News, a local rag newspaper with plummeting circulation that has become as irrelevant as the team, which splashed his face across the front and back pages of it's tabloid on a regular basis.

But lost in all of the flash and style was the fact that on the court there was precious little success. In just one season, the memorably glorious 2000-01 campaign, did the Sixers enjoy real success as a team during the entirety of Iverson's tenure as it's star and leader.

The team had reached the playoffs in each of the two previous seasons, won an Opening Round, but had lost both times in the Conference Semi-Finals. In that 2000-01 season, Iverson had led the NBA in scoring for the 2nd time in his career. Now for the one time in his career, he translated that game and helped lift his team to stirring post-season victories.

The Sixers again won in the Opening Round, vanquishing an Indiana team that had eliminated them in each of the two prior playoffs. Then back-to-back, they defeated first Toronto and then Milwaukee in dramatic 7-game series to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since the 1983 NBA Championship team.

In those Finals, Iverson enjoyed one more shining moment, capping this post-season run that is really the only such period of glory that he can hang his hat upon. In the opening game at Los Angeles, Iverson almost single-handedly willed the Sixers to an overtime win. Unfortunately it would be their only victory in the series, as the Lakers then stormed back to win the next four straight games and the title.

It is that season of glory that fans cling to in their memory banks, frankly because it is the only season of real glory for the franchise since Doctor J hung up his sneakers. Other than that 2000-01 season, the 76ers have won just a handful of Opening Round matchups, never advancing further in the NBA playoffs for what is now three full decades.

Now I am certainly not going to blame 30 years of non-contending on one player in Iverson. I already mentioned some of his stats, he was most definitely an exciting, all-star caliber player. But what he wasn't was the same thing that Barkley wasn't before him: a winner.

I was a huge Sixer fan during my childhood through the 70's and mid-80's, a period that included one of the worst seasons in NBA history in 1972-73 and some awful teams before the Dr. J era began, then the full glory of that period during Doc's career when the Sixers became perennial title contenders.

What did happen during both the Barkley era and then the Iverson era was that the team came to be dominated by those players and their selfish styles on the court. They never were able to attract or elevate players around them to create that perennially winning situation.

During the Iverson era, the 76ers won just that lone Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference title in 2000-01. More representative of their finish during his time were the 6th or lower records which came eight times for the team in the Eastern Conference during his career in Philly.

For the entirety of the 5 seasons following 2000-01, the team finished with exactly a .500 regular season cumulative record. For the entirety of the 4 seasons prior to 2000-01, the team finished with a cumulative record that was 36 games under that .500 mark. Bottom line: Iverson had one memorable year in Philly.

My own interest in the Sixers has unfortunately disintegrated over the last quarter century. Both Barkley and Iverson proved themselves to be colorful characters and all-star level individual players, but neither was able to deliver more than a handful of winning stretches of play. Meanwhile, in numerous post-game interviews and off-court incidents, both set horrible examples for their youthful fans.

There have been other disappointing pro athletes in Philadelphia over the last couple of decades, players whose greatness wearing their team uniform was obvious, but who never were able to elevate their teams to a championship level. But I would argue that both Donovan McNabb and Eric Lindros did far more good than harm for the Eagles and Flyers respectively. That is an argument for another article.

As for Allen Iverson, he never did prove to be "The Answer" for the Philadelphia 76ers. Last night he was rewarded for that one 2000-01 oasis in what has been a Philly pro basketball desert over the last three decades. Right now the Sixers franchise is an embarrassment on the court, and in again bestowing an honor on a player that does not deserve it, they only add to that embarrassment.

No comments: