Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Classic (Better Than He's Ever Been)
You know, it's funny, and it's a sign of the changed times: When the Nuggets hosted the Cavs on Monday, the man that has become synonomous with the post-Jordan NBA was mostly an afterthought. Understandable and explainable. This isn't 2002. Kobe, T-Mac, Duncan, and KG are all at their peaks, and Shaq will always be Shaq, but with the emergence of all these new, young stars, they aren't really the focal point of the NBA anymore. When SLAM magazine was at it's peak five years ago, they were The Guys, the torch-bearers; now, it's Carmelo, LeBron, Wade, Dwight, and Paul. Two of those guys were playing Monday night. They are special and important, no question. LeBron for being LeBron, the perfect hoops creation: guard skills, power forward body, unreal athleticism, inborn basketball intuition, etc. Carmelo, with the Larry O'brien-sized chip on his shoulder caused by being the most underrated superstar in the sport, continues to improve. First his shot selection, now his passing, next his rebounding and defense. He will make himself a complete player. Carmelo cares - about entering the discussion with Flash and LeBron, about his standing in the game, and about his legacy, and he goes about earning the respect he deserves the old fashioned way: no talk, just hours in the gym. He's gonna make people appreciate him. He's gonna leave them no choice.
And both he and his '03 classmate were impressive. Carmelo is the second best pure scorer in the game behind Kobe, and showed flashes of why he is while not having a huge game (22 points). And the game comes so easily to LeBron it's downright surreal; he was born to play basketball. But the dominant player of the night was the old guy, Allen Iverson, the man who continues to be defiant. First it was against conformity, now Father Time. Against Cleveland, Iverson put up 37 points and 8 assists on 14-20 shooting in a 122-100 victory; for the year, he's averaging 26 and 8, to go along with three steals, on 46 percent shooting. Maybe he's not quite as quick as he used to be, but he's still too quick for any mere mortal to handle, he still plays the passing lanes better than anyone else, he still doesn't get tired, and he's still fearless and relentless. If anything, the advancing age is only helping him: he plays smarter and more under control now, which has brought him closer to being a pure point guard than he's ever been before. You watch Iverson and hope that Gilbert is Arenas is watching too, taking down notes.
At 32, in his twelfth year, on the most talented team of his life, still with most of his unmatched physical gifts and a heightened understanding of the game, Allen Iverson is as good as he's ever been. To put him in perspective, Isiah Thomas, his only real challenger to Best Little Man Ever, played his last season at 32. Allen Iverson is a freak. Nothing short of amazing.
Then again, we knew than already. They (mainstream basketball media) keep expecting him to slow down, he hasn't, and they shouldn't be surprised at all. He's never played by their rules. The bigger story here is that The Answer has given us The Answer: Yes, he is a team player, yes, he can integrate his individual brilliance. For the first 10-plus seasons of his professional career, Iverson was the NBA's Lee Harvey Oswald, the Lone Shooter on some pretty mediocre Philly teams, one of which he willed to the Finals with the help of Larry Brown. Ballhog, that was the perception. And that was the huge subplot for me, what made the whole trade to Denver so intriguing: Allen Iverson had never played with another great scorer before. Suddenly, he was going to be playing with a guy that was good for thirty a night. Could he defer? Could he accept less shots? Would he be okay with not being The Man for the first time? This was the first fair oppurtunity at assessment. I needed to know for myself: Is Allen Iverson really an unforgivable gunner who can't assimilate his game to mesh with others, or were all of the shots he took in Philly a result of circumstance? Obviously, it's the latter. Allen Iverson is a fierce competitor, a historic warrior, he will always fight to survive and he will do whatever it takes to win. If that means jacking it up 28 times a game on a team where 34 year-old Derrick Coleman is your second best scoring option, then so be it. If that means taking 18 shots a night as the second option behind Carmelo, then so be that. Whatever gets him closer to the W, baby.
And so continues the saga of Allen Iverson the basketball player, the part of him that has been overshadowed over the years by his all-around thuggishness. 10 years from now, when he's all done, I'll remember AI for the tats, the cornrows, the practice ("Practice?") like everybody else. But not before I remember what he was on the court: a coldblooded assassin that played every minute with the intention of eventually killing you, ripping your heart out, eating it, and then leaving the rest of you there for all to see; a scrawny package of determination, toughness, and fire that was the smallest man on the court but played the biggest and made his living in the forest; a guy that treated his body with the same recklessness and disregard as Matt Hardy, all in the name of winning; someone who hit the floor (hard) countless times and always got up; an expert ball-thief; an And-1 worthy ballhandler who possessed a move so unstoppable that even Michael Jordan himself got embarrassed by it, so deadly that the league was forced to ban it; a man with a jumper that kept you honest all of the time, and slit your throat when it was really going; the man that, when Ray Allen elbowed him in the mouth in Game 4 of the 2001 East Finals ("They tried to knock my m---------n' tooth out," he said at the time), swallowed his own blood to keep from coming out of the game; the man that hit a big jumper over Tyronn Lue right in front of the Lakers bench during overtime of Game 1 of the Finals that same year, on the road, then stepped over him in mock fashion as he handed L.A. their only loss of the postseason; 2001 league MVP; 7-time All-Star and 2-time ASG MVP; three-time All-NBA first team; four-time scoring champ; three-time steals champ; and counting; someone who got better as he got older; the fastest player ever.
l'm gonna remember Allen Iverson as a basketball icon because of his style and ability as a basketball player. Isn't that the way it should be?