Wednesday, 25 November 2009

This should not be Iverson's final bow

Allen Iverson claims he's retiring. Is it for good? We have, as yet, no answer. This time, only questions remain. How did a four-time scoring champion of the NBA end up in such a predicament? Why did the penny (or dime, if you prefer) not drop that sometimes, no matter how great you've been, you have to take a step back and let youth shine?

If the last image on a court we have of AI is the tetchy, wayward, hapless character that could not contemplate coming off the bench in that basketball backwater known as Memphis, it would be a tragedy. Not just for those who admired the little guy that could. But, most of all, for the man himself.

There was the young Allen, all petulant and foreboding, the rebel with a cause celebre. The raps, the tattoos, the corn rows that struck such fear into the heart of the NBA's marketing men that they commandeered the airbrushes and pulled a Kate Winslet on this bright young punk of Philadelphia.

They didn't understand him. Neither, in truth, did we. He didn't seem to care. Surprisingly, deep down, he did. At some point, everyone needs a hug and an embrace. Like anyone else, he just needed a little love plus the wisdom of years. To embrace responsibility, parenthood, even - just occasionally - practice.

The transformation didn't happen overnight. The mutual appreciation society granted membership by stealth over a long period. We got to know him. He began to open up. We saw this funny, passionate character beneath the shell. The punk lived on. But like Johnny Rotten, he buttered us up and won both hearts and minds.

And the thing is, he knew it - and he enjoyed it. We always admired his guts on the court, throwing his fragile frame where behemoths feared to tread. That ability to excite with the unexpected. At some point, we saw past the flaws and saw the human within.

It took effort on both parts to achieve that rapprochement. Which is why this may not be the last act in the play. Memphis was always ill-fated. The wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. In modern America, that is sadly so often the prefix to a premature final scene.

But AI is no longer on the mean streets. Just 34, there is a place for him, somewhere, on the right side of the tracks that mark out the four edges of the parquet. Greece will surely come calling. In his statement, he declared only that he had retired "from the NBA". Josh Childress would be a mere blip if the Athenian coffers were opened up. Let the Euro rumour mill begin.

"I still have tremendous love for the game, the desire to play, and a whole lot left in my tank," he said. "I feel strongly that I can still compete at the highest level." No-one is calling, yet. The Knicks let the phone ring off the hook. Others have passed. It will only take an injury for Iverson's name to be floated once more.

You'd like to think AI will spend his 'retirement' asking himself the tough questions. Can he embrace a new role on the terms of others, rather than his own? Will he realise that teams, in the NBA at least, will no longer bow to his whims? The answer, you hope for all our sakes, is yes.

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