By J.A. Adande
Allen Iverson’s retirement announcement didn’t unleash a powerful emotional reaction from me because I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him and because, as it dawned on me Wednesday night, we’ve already seen the next of him: Brandon Jennings. And in order for Jennings to truly grow into that role, Iverson has to go. It’s the natural order of things.
I tuned in to Milwaukee’s game in New Orleans (that I’d even consider watching a Bucks-Hornets game knowing full well Chris Paul wasn’t playing is a testament in itself to Jennings) and there was the Iverson phenomenon all over again. The most compelling player on the court was a scrawny little guard wearing No. 3.
Perhaps I’ve been watching too much “Lost” or other time-traveling science fiction shows, but I believe you can’t have the past and future versions of the same person actually meet. It disrupts the space-time continuum. Ok, perhaps that’s speculation based on imaginary issues. On a more practical level we do know that two objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time. And we’ve seen the evolution of basketball is based upon building off a precedent, not simultaneous interaction.
Michael Jordan wouldn’t have developed into the player he became without watching Dr. J and David Thompson. And clearly Kobe Bryant is who he is because he had the MJ template to follow. Jordan’s career only overlapped with Julius Erving’s for three years. Kobe only had two years in the league with the real Jordan (Jordan’s time in a Washington Wizards uniform isn’t a part of the official Jordan canon), and it’s not a coincidence that he’s the closest approximation to Jordan that we’ve seen. Notice how none of the so-called Next Jordans who played against him in his prime actually fulfilled that promise? That’s in part because Jordan wasn’t having any of it, and still had a way to stomp them back down into their place. But they also bore the burden of being compared directly to him, rather than merely being reminiscent of him.
Kobe has the benefit of space. Enough details about No. 23 have slipped from our minds, enough people new to the game have popped up for some to suggest Kobe is better than Jordan. It’s the same mistake people make in picking Iverson over Isiah Thomas as the game’s greatest small player. Never would have happened if Iverson played in the 80s. But the passage of time allows the new generation of players to have their moment, to blossom in our view. No harm in it. Do we really want to go forward thinking the game’s greatest days are locked in the past, that we can never have someone better come along?
If Jennings is to have his own legend, sooner or later Iverson had to make way for him. It might as well be now.
Iverson could be an injured point guard or two away from returning to the NBA. But Iverson as we knew him is done. Even if he comes back he won’t be a 30-per-game scorer anymore. He won’t be the all-star game Most Valuable Player again (as a two-time winner of the award he’s on a short list with Dr. J, Magic, Isiah Thomas, MJ, Karl Malone , Shaq, Kobe and LeBron as the multiple winners in the past 40 years).
Maybe that’s why I’m not choking up at the prospect of Iverson actually retiring. It’s like the difference between Johnny Carson’s death and Michael Jackson’s. When Carson passed away we mourned, but we didn’t feel a sense of loss because he had been gone from our lives for years, disappearing from public view after he stepped off the Tonight Show set. Michael Jackson’s death hurt us because he was on the verge of performing a series of comeback concerts. We were denied another look at the greatest entertainer of our time.
Iverson retiring at 34 doesn’t deprive us the way Jordan’s first retirement at 30 did. We knew Jordan had more championships in him. Does anyone think Iverson can re-do his 2001 MVP season and drag another team into the NBA Finals?
One of the reason’s Jordan’s 1993 retirement was so jarring is because the succession plan wasn’t in place. There wasn’t another star capable of taking over for him. He upset the natural order, and the league suffered as a result. But by the time Jordan took off the Bulls jersey for good in 1999, Shaq was established, Kobe was emerging and Vince Carter was on the scene to bring in the next level of dunking.
Now the small man lineage that went from Nate Archibald to Isiah Thomas to Iverson is in place and splitting into branches, giving us Chris Paul and apparently Jennings to carry it forward. Wednesday was a night of rookie learning lessons for Jennings, but also provided a glimpse of what he can become. New Orleans’ Darren Collison, filling in for the injured Paul, swiped the ball from Jennings in the backcourt and was fouled for go-ahead free throws, and drove past Jennings for the game-winning basket in overtime. In between Jennings had his moment, a slow-motion version of Tyus Edney’s end-to-end dash in which Jennings started with the inbounds pass 90 feet from the basket, paused just past midcourt to survey the floor, then exploded down the middle of the lane, splitting David West and Darius Songalia and making a layup to tie the score.
It’s like that already with Jennings. Anytime he has the ball in his hands you think he can make something incredible happen. Even his hair is fascinating. In the short time he’s been on the scene he’s given us everything from high-top fade to twists, from early Kenny Walker to late Charles Oakley. And if he keeps growing his hair out and braids it, you know who that would be, right?