Friday, November 13, 2009

It Ain't Hatin' If It's True


Back in the early 1990s, a movement started among sycophantic media and fans that branded anyone with the temerity to criticize an athlete a “hater,” particularly if said performer was talented and entertaining. A cottage industry of products, publications and videos sprouted, celebrating pure ability and shucking aside inconvenient sporting tenets like team play and fundamentals. If someone could thrill, that was enough. Failure to lionize that was a sin punished by ridicule from fawning supporters, who deemed the critics unable to recognize the new way and branded them hopelessly old school and out of touch.

One of the faces among the vanguard of this new phenomenon was Allen Iverson, whom the Sixers drafted first overall in 1996. The jet-quick guard was a powerful intoxicant for the new fan order. He dazzled with his talent. He scored in bunches. He even looked the part, what with his ever-expanding canvas of body art, myriad hairstyles and ubercasual wardrobe. If there was anybody who was begging to be “hated,” it was Iverson.

There were indeed some people who couldn’t stand him for how he looked. There were plenty of people who couldn’t handle such an out-front manifestation of the hip-hop culture. To them, Iverson’s look – ball cap askew, oversized sweater/sweatshirt, baaaaaggy jeans, Tims – was an insult to society and proof that the rap culture was not only infiltrating everyday society but threatening it. Of course, we heard the same thing in the ‘70s, when Bill Walton was wearing tie-dyed shirts, growing that mangy beard of his and leaving tickets for Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir at Trailblazers games.

Those who protested Iverson’s look weren’t going to debate his basketball worth honestly. To them, he was a nightmare in high-tops and an emblem of the league’s imminent demise. They were every bit as unreasonable as the Other Side, which glorified Iverson’s talent, to whatever end he put it, and labeled anyone who dared to criticize him as a “hater.”

The short story of Iverson’s time in Philadelphia goes like this: Lots of points, lots of excitement, one thrilling playoff run, plenty of acrimony with coaches, the legendary “Practice?!” rant and a departure a year or two too late. Since that time, he has played for Denver, Detroit and (briefly) Memphis, with sketchy, unsatisfying results. Today, he sits at home, ostensibly sorting out “personal matters,” but mostly pouting over his role as a reserve on the dog-ass Grizzlies. Iverson still believes he should be a front-line NBA star. The apologists out there who care little about winning basketball agree.

Anybody who knows the game, and that includes executives from the 29 teams who wouldn’t go near Iverson, think differently. And therein lies the problem with Iverson today and throughout his career. It has always been about him and only him. Never once has he volunteered to sublimate his own numbers for the good of the franchise. Just as he thinks he has never committed a foul in his life (try to find a time when he was called for one and didn’t complain), Iverson is not about to listen to anybody who says he must adapt in order to be attractive to teams. To him, basketball is a game about scoring points, and if Iverson gets 40 minutes and 20 shots a night, he can produce big numbers. Whether that helps a team win or not has nothing to do with it. Nothing.

Back in the fall of 1997, El Hombre was at Big East basketball media day in New York. In a cramped hotel ballroom, coaches from the league’s teams sat at tables and fielded questions from the media huddled around them. The crowd near John Thompson was about three deep and eager to hear everything he said. Thompson began by giving assessments of his players and the coming season, delivering answers in his bottom-of-the-well baritone. Then the topics started to veer a little, offering El Hombre the opportunity to ask about Iverson, then a second-year Sixer, and the speculation that he would eventually become a distribute-first point guard. Thompson, who had gone out of his way to get Iverson to Georgetown, to the point of visiting him in jail while Iverson served a sentence for his part in a bowling alley riot, was one of Iverson’s staunchest defenders. His comments that day reflected two years (Iverson left after his sophomore season for the NBA) of dealing with a me-first player.

“You can’t change a zebra’s stripes,” he said.

The message was clear: Iverson is a shooter first, second and third, and those who dreamed of his becoming a lethal point man were wasting their sleep time. Since that day, Iverson has proven Thompson correct every minute he has been on the floor. And now that he is clearly no longer wanted as a first (or even second) offensive option, Iverson has taken his ball and gone home. What is so amazing about this guy is that only one team wanted him during the off-season, and that was Memphis, which needed someone to put a few posteriors in the seats. Yet Iverson is acting as if he chose the Grizz from a long list of suitors. (Actually, he said at the time that “God” chose Memphis for him.) This is a guy who has become so irrelevant and proven himself to be such a detriment to a winning team that nobody wants his talents. They know he has no commitment to winning basketball, rather only to himself. And they know after this recent tantrum that he has no desire to help a team. So, Iverson sits at home and waits to hear that he’ll get a chance to start and play 40 a night. It won’t happen.

The saddest thing about all of this is that he could be a huge piece on a title team, if only he understood what it took to win. Using him 20-25 minutes a night to penetrate and kick or blast through plodding defenders on the break would be a contender’s dream. Instead of embracing that opportunity, Iverson wants to pump up his own numbers. Worse, he still has a choir of voices behind him extolling his ball-hogging virtues. If a team wanted to build around him, he would be employed. None does. So, he’s a Grizzly, solely to sell a few tickets. What did he expect?

Sorry for hatin’, Allen, but you need to get a bit of reality in your life. If you want to play in the NBA, you had better become a team player.

If you can change your stripes.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: On the surface, LeBron James’ announcement that he is giving up his number 23 in honor of Michael Jordan seems like a magnanimous gesture, but trying to get the NBA to “retire” MJ’s number pales in comparison to Majoke League Baseball’s decision to shelve Jackie Robinson’s number 42. Jordan was great, but he didn’t break barriers. If players want to choose other numbers, fine. It shouldn’t be a league mandate…Jeez, why is Roger Goodell so mean. All Chad Ochocrazy did was mention the word “bribe,” in connection with a referee, and the NFL commissioner slapped him with a $20,000 fine. He was just having some fun, is all. Right. Shut your mouth, Chad, and write the check…How tough must the last 10 years have been for Jim Riggleman? He can’t stop telling people how happy he is to be a manager again after a decade out of the main chair, but he’s leading the Nationals. That’s barely an MLB team. Things must have been pretty tough, Jim…The NASCAR Chase for the Cup is getting wilder and wilder, thanks to Jimmie Johnson’s problems in Texas last week. Why, if things get any more exciting, the other 90% of the country might start paying attention. Might.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Phillies’ decision to let Pedro Feliz go, rather than pay him $5.5 million next season (there was a $500,000 buyout), is risky business. Although we have heard about all the candidates for third base out there, few could be considered an upgrade. Those who are may cost too much. Placido Polanco will be 34 and is coming off a shaky season. Plus, he has played two games at third since leaving Philadelphia. Chone Figgins hit five homers last year and wants about a five-year, $50 million deal. We’re not sure how old Miggy Tejada is. Adrian Beltre has injury questions and a huge price tag. Mark DeRosa is a possible solution, but he might be better as a utility bench guy. Yes, Feliz didn’t hit lefties well, but he’s a strong fielder who knocked in 82 runs from the seven spot last year. Even if the Phils bring him back at a discount, will be he be upset, and perhaps hurt the team’s chemistry? The team gets a huge benefit of the doubt for what it has done the past two years, but this was a curious start to the post-season.

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AND ANOTHER THING: In his never-ending quest to show how ridiculous the BCS (Big College Swindle) El Hombre submits this week’s polls as exhibits S and T. One week after tearing apart the USC defense for 613 total yards in a 47-20 romp, Oregon lost to Stanford. So, the Mensa candidates who vote in the Harris and USA Today polls decided to drop the Ducks four (Harris) and six (USA) spots behind the Trojans, even though the teams have identical records and Oregon thumped ‘SC. USC’s win over Arizona State last week wasn’t even all that impressive, so it’s impossible to say the Trojans rebounded in style. It’s heinous that the world’s greatest sport is being hijacked by a “system” best suited for chimpanzee skateboard racing.


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