BLOG: In search of The Answer

John Finger
York Dispatch

One of my favorite stories happened a few years ago when Allen Iverson, the former Philadelphia 76er who was voted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last week, signed a contract to play Beşiktaş of the Turkish pro league.

Allen Iverson.

Beşiktaş played its home games in Istanbul, a gigantic city of more than 14 million residents and nearly 600 square miles. But as we came to learn thanks to some intrepid reporting by Dan Roche, the producer of CSN’s, Philly Sports Talk, Istanbul was home to one T.G.I.Friday’s.

Now anyone who remembers following Allen Iverson’s basketball career in Philadelphia knows that if anyone ever wanted to find the diminutive point guard, the T.G.I.Friday’s on City Avenue was where he held court.

It was almost a cliché. When Iverson was arrested in the summer of 2002, we joked that the Philadelphia police could roll into Friday’s, pick up Iverson and head down to the Roundhouse at 8th and Arch to book him.

Matt Barnes, a 13-year veteran of the NBA, claims Iverson typically would spend $30,000 or $40,000 in strip clubs back when he was coming up. Iverson, however, shot that figure down saying, “they didn’t have strippers at T.G.I.Friday’s.”

So when Iverson was playing in Turkey, he uncharacteristically went radio silent with the press. Granted, Iverson rarely did one-on-one interviews unless it was for a few of his favorite reporters like CSN’s Dei Lynam, but he was always an open book in post-game media sessions. Iverson approached those media tête-à-têtes with the same all-out style that defined him as a player. Here was this 6-foot, 160-pound little guy going after anyone and everything with no fear. All he did when he played basketball or did post-game interviews was open up and let everyone watch him bleed.

It was all there, no secrets.

That’s why that period in Turkey was so weird. We weren’t getting any news on Iverson in Philadelphia, which is something we counted on like the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. Even when he was traded to Denver in December of 2006, he never really left. We still got almost daily updates on everything Iverson as he headed into the twilight of his career.

In fact, it was so quiet on the Iverson front that the Inquirer and Philadelphia Magazine sent reporters to Istanbul to try and get an interview with him. The Inquirer came back empty handed after Iverson blew off a reporter after practices and games, but Philly mag came back with a slight bit more when the reporter smartly staked out the T.G.I.Friday’s. Sure enough, after a day or two of stuffing himself full of endless appetizers at the Istanbul Friday’s, Iverson strolled in and held court.

A leopard never changes his spots.

And if there was anything that could be said about Iverson the basketball player it was he was uncompromising. Since the announcement that he will be headed to the hall of fame this summer, there has been little written or debated about his legacy. Yes, he was exciting and yes, he was one of the few players in NBA history who was worth more than the price on the ticket to watch play. His 2001 season is up there with the greats and there was a stretch from 1997 to 2003 where watching Iverson was just as exciting as it was during the era that featured Doc, Bird, Magic and Jordan.

Throw in the fact that he is built more like a middle-distance runner than an NBA MVP and it made Iverson even more intriguing.

Intriguing and talented is pretty much all Iverson was during his career. He was never the self-proclaimed “Answer” he claimed to be despite carrying the Sixers to the NBA Finals on his narrow shoulders in that magical 2001 season. Oh sure, Iverson made his teams competitive, interesting and a threat. He was truly had Hall of Fame-worthy stats and talents.

But he never made his teams a contender.

Actually, Iverson was a lot like a middle-distance runner on a track team or a collegiate wrestler. In those competitions the focus is on the individual result with the team a secondary thought. With Iverson the only way to discuss his game was to talk about the numbers.

His numbers.

For instance, Iverson was a lazy team defensive player but always seemed to poach enough steals to make the league-leader lists and even crack the All-Defensive charts a few times. Meanwhile, Iverson averaged 27.6 points per game during his career on nearly 22 shots per game. Compare that to Julius Erving (24.2 points/18.8 shots), Larry Bird (24.3/19.3), Michael Jordan (30/23), Charles Barkley (22.1/14.5), LeBron James (27.2/19.7), Steph Curry (22.4/16.6) or the newly retired Kobe Bryant (25.0/19.5) and it’s clear that Iverson is the perfect NBA player for the video game age.

For a historical context, perhaps the best comparisons are notorious gunners Bernard King, Alex English, Dominique Wilkins or George Gervin… without the finger roll.

Or the ring.

That last part is hardly Iverson’s fault. Actually, Iverson was always adamant about winning being his top priority. It’s just that winning is more than playing hard in the regular-season games scattered on those nights between November and April. Winning is an everyday thing. It’s a summertime time. A weight room thing. A get-to-bed-early-so-you-can-recover-for-the-next-one thing.

Yes, we’re talkin’ ‘bout a practice thing.*

Iverson might be most famous for the “Practice” press conference he gave at the end of the disappointing 2002 season when the Sixers were bounced out of the playoffs in the first round by Boston, in which he infamously downplayed the importance of his practice habits. However, former Sixers coach Doug Collins once told me that Michael Jordan was so adamant about the importance of practice that he treated them like the seventh game of the NBA Finals.

“If you never saw Michael Jordan in practice,” Collins said, “you never saw him.”

Of course winning also takes a commitment from the front office, too, and oftentimes it appeared as if the Sixers weren’t putting team together with the correct pieces. Whether that’s a by-product of having Iverson on the team or the state of the modern NBA is for smarter people to figure out, the point is that if Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, LeBron James, Steph Curry or Magic Johnson needed the right teammates, Allen Iverson certainly needed them, too.

Why he didn’t get the help, though, is up for debate.

But let’s not pile on the criticisms of Iverson and the 76ers because that’s not totally fair. Surely Iverson was an inspired player and tons of fun to watch. His talent and uniqueness was unmeasurable, just like his popularity in Philadelphia.

However, it’s hard not to wonder if there was something more with Iverson. Did he get the most out of his ability and talents or was some of it wasted? Make no mistake about it, Iverson gave us everything in games and in interviews when he chose to do them.

But it’s hard not to wonder if there was some more left.


* I was there the day Iverson gave his "Practice" press conference. It was an all-timer and one of the most memorable ever, but there are parts of it that got lost in the shuffle. Iverson's exchanges that day with Michael Barkann and Phil Jasner were spellbinding and amazing -- as candid and reactive as any modern athlete could be. My old pal (and former intern!) Dan McQuade summarized it deftly in Philadelphia Magazine.