Thank goodness for the consolation of gold and diamonds.
I recall that Allen Iverson had plenty of both in the late fall of 1996 as he made his way through his rookie year in the NBA.
When I interviewed him after just his second NBA game, played in Chicago against the Bulls, Iverson’s jewelry quickly grabbed my immediate attention. The necklace was a chainwork of gold with nice little diamonds set between each link. It was a long chain, reaching to his breastbone, where it was anchored by a gold and diamond crucifix.
“Wow,” I remember thinking. “Quite stunning.”
The bracelet was matching gold chain link and more sparkling stones. First he fiddled with it nervously on his right wrist while trying to answer reporters’ questions in the visitors’ locker room at Chicago’s United Center. Then he moved it to his left wrist, where he fixed the clasp and left it.
There might have been matching earrings, but I don’t remember. After all, it was an evening for jewelry, and my mind could only hold so many scintillating images.
Just a couple of hours earlier, the Bulls had gotten some gaudy accoutrements of their own, the rewards for their remarkably disciplined team play. The occasion was their first home game of the 1996-97 NBA season, which meant it was time for the members of the 1995-96 team to receive their championship rings. The Bulls’ jewelry came packaged in distinctive black boxes. A paperweight of gold, with an onyx setting, encrusted with 76 sweet little diamonds, one for each of the team’s record 72 wins that season, plus another four representing the franchise’s four NBA titles.
Each ring cost about $35,000.
The Bulls received them in a coronation ceremony that included taped flourishes of horns and a stroll by each player down a long red carpet out to the spotlight at center court. After that, Michael Jordan’s Bulls raised their fourth championship banner to the rafters, then proceeded to destroy Iverson’s Philadelphia ‘76ers. Destroyed them competitively. Mentally. Physically. Probably even spiritually.
Those Sixers featured Iverson and his talented young backcourt mate, Jerry Stackhouse, but they were through by the end of the third quarter, their team down by 30 points. They sat together on the floor, leaning against a press table, looking thoroughly befuddled and embarrassed. The Bulls, of course, had a way of doing that to people, particularly spirited rookies.
As early as his junior season in high school, Iverson was telling his coaches that he was good enough to take Michael Jordan. And that confidence wasn’t completely unwarranted. He had displayed his unbridled brilliance in two seasons at Georgetown and came to the NBA as the top pick in that spring’s draft. And Iverson had scored 30 points against the Milwaukee Bucks as the 76ers narrowly lost their league opener.
That had only given Philly’s young guards confidence that they could maybe outrun the elderly Bulls.
“They’re the world champions, but they’re gonna have to keep up,” Stackhouse had told me before the game. “We’re getting out.”
Things started out smoothly enough for Philadelphia. Iverson’s first shot was a silky three-pointer. But within minutes, Bulls forward Dennis Rodman had opened Iverson’s head and climbed right in. Rodman used sly comments and physical play to challenge Iverson.
Rather than ignore those comments, the 20-year-old point guard sought to turn the game into a contest of individual skills. His quickness, unbelievable as it was, was no match for the Bulls’ veteran team play.
Instead of the Sixers getting out and running, it was the Bulls who turned the game into a track meet as one Iverson penetration after another ended badly. Soon, Iverson was so distracted and distraught that Jordan felt the need to talk to him to calm him down.
“Allen got a little frustrated tonight,” Jordan said afterward. “I can’t say that I blame him. It’s a situation where he comes from a heck of a program at Georgetown that wins consistently. At this level, you have to learn to accept losing – not accept, but accept it in a way that’s a learning experience. You utilize it to make you better as a player.
“There are gonna be a lot of other players trying to get into your head, and if you let them into your head, you’re fighting a losing battle. You forget about the overall concept of what you mean to your team and what your team is trying to do.
“Once Dennis and some of the other players got into his head it became a game of individuality for him,” Jordan explained. “And that’s the thing he’s always gonna have to fight against. He’s an extremely talented player, and a very emotive player. So there’s a lot of envy out there, a lot of jealousy, because of what he’s gotten thus far. He’s got to learn to control those emotions.”
Matched against Chicago’s Ron Harper, Iverson had little trouble penetrating.
“He’s quick as hell,” Harper said. “I’ve never seen anyone that quick in my life. He went by me about three or four times. I was like, ‘Damn!’ I thought I could play defense.”
Yet Iverson’s penetration often left him making hasty interior passes to his teammates, most of which they fumbled, leading to turnovers and seemingly endless Bulls fastbreaks.
His coaches, Sixers head man Johnny Davis and assistant Maurice Cheeks, approached the aftermath with a grim resignation.
They had seen it coming.
Maurice Cheeks said: “He has great ability, and he just needs to learn how to play the game.”
Iverson himself agreed: “It’s timing, it ’s communication, everything,” he said, fumbling with the diamond bracelet.
Another keen observer was Bulls back-up guard Randy Brown: “Once they get established as a team and he becomes more of a team player, he’ll be a much better point guard. He’s young, he’s got a lot to learn. If he’s willing to learn it, he’s gonna be a great player.
“He’s playing a position where he’s got to get his teammates involved. If he’s not willing to do that, it’s gonna be a long process for him. But if he gets better at doing that, he’s gonna be a great point guard.”
As usual, though, the best advice and observations came from MJ.
“He’s got a lot of good basketball skills,” Jordan offered. “He’s gonna improve. Johnny Davis is giving him an opportunity to gain his confidence playing on this level. And I think that’s only gonna enhance his individual talent. But just like myself, at some point in time, he’s gonna have to learn how to blend in with the team. Certainly he’s got to make his team as good as possible and keep his teammates involved. I think he’s got unbelievable talent and quickness. He’s a little runt running around. A couple of times he could have gotten hurt, but he’s fearless. And that’s how we all are when we’re young.
“It was a frustrating night for them. Very frustrating. Believe me. I went through some of these nights, going against Boston and some of the better teams when I was coming up. You learn. You try to pick little motivational factors from games like this. It’s a lot of envy being on the other side, being the ones who are getting killed by 30. So it’s a motivational situation for them.
“They can look at it in a lot of different ways,” Jordan added, “but no matter how you look at it, it was a lesson. I mean basketball teaches you a lot of different things. If you’re willing to learn it, then you’re gonna get better. If you’re not, if you continue to fight it, then you’re gonna stay at the same level.”
Watching Iverson through his years in Philly, his stops in Denver, Detroit and now Memphis, you get the strong sense that 13 years later, through hundreds and hundreds of games and every kind of experience, the warrior who is AI has managed to make himself a very rich man, just as he has been able to score lots of points. Otherwise, he seems to have failed to grasp the lesson of the jewelry.
Those fundamentals of team play, the basic mind-set of the group, remain as elusive to him today as they were those very first nights in the league.
One of the game’s greatest talents just doesn’t get the idea of team. He never really has. Now in Memphis, Iverson has taken a leave of absence to deal with personal issues, following a stormy few weeks debating his role with the team.
When Iverson returns to the Grizzlies, his pro career will be down to the final act, if it isn’t already. Redemption is still possible for him, but for it to come, he’ll have to be blinded by the light.
I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for it to happen. But if you love basketball, there’s nothing you’d love better than seeing a supreme and fearless competitor like Iverson finally get the notion of team play. Some might say that an older player, especially a scorer like Iverson, can’t make such a transition. But Jerry West made huge changes in 1972, when new coach Bill Sharman asked West to back off of all the scoring he had done for a dozen years in the league as an off guard.
West became the Lakers true point guard for the first time in his career. Instead of scoring at a high pace, West took over the job of feeding the ball to his teammates (he would still average 25 points per game).
Iverson could gain much by agreeing to play something other than the dominant role he has insisted on throughout his career.
It would be good for him, good for the game, if he finally gave himself over to the idea of team. After years of ignoring the issue, it’s time for the Answer to realize that he must face up to the Question.