Friday, January 29, 2010

All-Star Disaster


Back when Allen Iverson was holding the Philadelphia 76ers hostage with his unique brand of bionic wrist shooting, a clever saying circulated among the wily wags who covered the team. It went like this:

“They say there’s no ‘I’ in team, and there’s no “team” in Iverson.”

Great stuff, no? Anyway, the point was pretty clear. So long as A.I. was getting his, it didn’t matter what else was going on. The Sixers would win some with him, and in 2001, Iverson (with a bit of help from Larry Brown) lifted the team to the NBA Finals. But that was the limit for Iverson, whose selfish game never allowed the franchise to surround him with other top-flight players, because they knew they wouldn’t see the ball.

If only Iverson had used his powers for good, he could have been one of the greatest point guards ever to pull on an NBA uniform. Just imagine how others would have lined up to play with a ridiculously quick guard who could penetrate at will, was unstoppable in the open court and looked to pass first. It didn’t happen, and last year, age finally caught up with Iverson. No longer able to carry a team on his narrow shoulders, he was asked to take on secondary roles with first Denver and then Detroit. His response in both cases was an upraised middle finger, and after the season he was cast off into the discount bucket, where only Memphis – make that the Grizzlies’ nitwit owner – was interested in claiming him.

You know what happened from there. Iverson was injured during training camp, and when he got healthy, he blanched at coming off the bench. Memphis dumped him, the Sixers picked him up, and his creaky body turned him into the type of complementary player that used to surround him during his prime. In these cases, players generally drift off into obscurity, either as afterthoughts on rotten teams (like the Sixers) or as reserves on winners. They don’t, however, become All-Stars.


It’s impossible to blame Iverson for his ascension to the starting lineup of the Eastern Conference All-Stars. He didn’t concoct a computer program to stuff the e-ballot box – as far as we know. Nor did he go door-to-door soliciting votes. He merely forced his way out of Memphis – where “God” told him to go, if you believe AI’s mid-summer revelation – resurfaced in Philadelphia, shed a few tears, kissed some hardwood and then proved that he isn’t the player he once was.

Since joining the Sixers, Iverson has scored a modest 14.9 ppg and dished out 4.4 apg. He’s playing just under 33 minutes a game (a far cry from the 40-plus he used to average) and has missed some time due to arthritis, not exactly a condition that afflicts younger men. Iverson will be 35 this June, and his days of embarrassing rivals with his signature crossover and jet streaming the opposition in the open court are certainly over. The Sixers knew that when they signed him, as did the rest of the NBA, which passed on his services during the off-season. To his credit, Iverson is coping with his creeping mortality, making concessions to his diminishing physical skills by trying to be more of a (gasp!) team player.

Kudos to him for that, but his willingness to junk the me-first approach that made him equal parts thrilling and maddening is not reason for inclusion among the game’s best. It’s especially not worthy of a spot on the starting five. Iverson achieved that status solely due to fan ignorance that spawned a tidal wave of support. Boston’s Ray Allen received flak from all corners when he called for an end – or at least an amendment – to the process of selecting All-Star participants by fan vote. Those who back the system argued that since the game is an exhibition, staged solely for the fans (and to make a fat profit) the NBA’s loyal customers should choose the participants. That makes sense until you realize that making the All-Star team is more than just an opportunity to spend 48 defense-free minutes. Many players have clauses in their contract that give them bonuses for reaching that milestone. Others are judged Hall of Fame-worthy by the number of times they are selected.

As bad as Iverson’s election was, the fact that Tracy McGrady, who has played all of six games this year and averaged 3.2 ppg, almost received enough votes to join the West’s starting lineup was an even greater travesty. Thank goodness a late surge pushed Steve Nash past McGrady. Why couldn’t Me-Mac have done like Yao Ming and removed himself from the ballot? Ming, who won’t play this season, understood that millions of Chinese fans would have pulled his lever, so he bowed out, gracefully. McGrady lacked that kind of class.

The solution should incorporate fan voting, but it should also let players, coaches and/or media have a voice, the better to eliminate future fiascos like the Iverson selection and the McGrady near-miss. That way, perhaps the game will feature the best of the best, not the products of election fraud.

There’s no ‘I’ in team, and there shouldn’t be an Iverson in the All-Star Game.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Golfers descended on Torrey Pines this week for a continuation of the “Who Gives A Crap Tour,” and no matter how much officials protest, Phil Mickelson and Scott Piercy can’t generate the same interest as Mr. Hot Sex. There’s no truth to the rumor PGA bigwigs are offering a $1 million bonus to the first rehab therapist who gives Tiger Woods a clean bill of health…Joel Branstrom, the Kansas high school hoops coach who was pranked by students who promised him Final Four tickets if he made a halfcourt shot (he made it, but they had no tickets for him) will be a guest of the NC2A at this year’s Final Four. After hearing about the organization’s generosity, Texas coach Rick Barnes asked for the same treatment – and wanted to know if he could bring his team with him…Wait a second. Cowboy Quarterback threw a stupid pass? Nooooo way! As much fun as it was to watch Brett Favre blow it in the last seconds of regulation last week against New Orleans (check out the radio call; it’s classic: ), you have to be impressed with his toughness. The Saints treated him like a piƱata, and he kept coming back, albeit a little too dramatically. Now, we get to wait months to find out whether he’s returning. That ought to be a lot of fun.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? It’s amusing to hear people try to figure out how much responsibility Sixers’ coach Eddie Jordan should take for the team’s awful, 15-30 record. The answer? None. When GM Ed Stefanski hired Jordan, he talked about how great it was going to be watching the Sixers run Jordan’s “Princeton Offense.” Stefanski conveniently forgot that the team had no point guard and that its highest-paid player, power forward Elton Brand, is a pick-and-pop type with few of the intuitive basketball skills needed for the scheme. Worse, by giving Andre Iguodala a huge contract and Jason Kapono nearly $13 mil for two years(!), Stefanski created one of the nastiest salary cap situations around. The Sixers may have to trade Iguodala and others for an ugly expiring contract just to get under the cap next year and avoid paying the luxury tax. And somebody wants to blame Jordan for that. Sure, the coach could have won a few more games if he had decided on a rotation earlier, but the team he has been handed is not prepared to run his offense, lacks a go-to scorer, doesn’t play very good defense and shoots poorly from outside. Brand is a shell of his former self, and the Sixers didn’t realize that a big reason he looked so good a few years back with the Clippers is that Sam Cassell was hurt, and Brand took a lot more shots than he usually did – yielding more impressive numbers. Jordan isn’t the best coach, but he has been given a nightmare of a roster. The best thing for the Sixers would be for a regime change. Sell the team, Mr. Snider, and let someone who cares about basketball take over.

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AND ANOTHER THING: The NFL has been largely bulletproof when it comes to marketing itself over the past couple decades, but the league has made a huge mistake with the Pro Bowl, no matter how much commissioner Roger Goodell tries to convince us otherwise. About 48 of the 76 players initially announced to play in the game will be suited up and ready to go Sunday night in Miami, where upper deck tickets are reportedly selling for $20 bucks below asking price. Okay, so the Pro Bowl is a joke anyway, and no one should really care – other than the players, who loved going to Hawaii – whether the market for tickets is suffering. The real travesty is that the league is forcing Pro Bowlers from the Colts and Saints to make a special trip to Miami ahead of their teams and stand on the sidelines for the first half of the game, instead of preparing for the Super Bowl, which is only the main goal of every player in the league, except for Me-O. It’s asinine to torpedo your championship game so that an exhibition can have a little more tube appeal for espn. The NFL can try to spin this any way it wants, but it loses big. Let’s hope Goodell has the brains and guts to reverse field next season.


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