Allen Iverson is no answer for Grizzlies

Updated: September 11, 2009, 5:55 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | Page 2

Dear Memphis Grizzlies fans,

I was just like you -- hopeful, joyous and drunk with the possibilities.

I didn't give thought to the ramifications. I was in a fragile state, which is the only way I can explain the excuses and weak rationalizations.

Since admitting a problem is the first step to clarity, let me start this plea to you with a painful but truthful admission:

Hi, my name is Jemele Hill, and I'm a recovering Allen Iverson apologist.

It's important that I share my story, so you Grizzlies fans won't be misled the way I was -- even though most of this probably won't sink in until a few months from now, when you realize your team would have been better off if the young guys had continued to develop freely.

Right now, you're thinking A.I. in a Grizzlies uniform is a win-win. There are no marketable stars on the Grizzlies. Memphis was near the bottom of the league in attendance (29th), and despite eroding skills, Iverson remains one of the most popular players in the NBA. The Grizzlies finally have a much-needed storyline.

You probably already have begun the process of fooling yourself into thinking A.I. will be a good basketball fit.

[+] EnlargeAllen Iverson
AP Photo/Lance MurpheyThe music Allen Iverson makes in Memphis isn't likely to be nearly as sweet as that Gibson Beale Street Blue guitar he's holding.

Detroit and Denver just weren't the right situation.

A.I. was "hurt" last season, so he didn't perform.

Iverson can teach emerging players such as O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley how to be dominant guards in the NBA.

I so pity you.

I know the symptoms because I used to suffer from Iverson-itis, meaning I made excuses for A.I. and refused to give credence to the criticisms levied against him throughout his career.

He's immature.

No, just misunderstood.

He's selfish.

Hey, what was he supposed to do -- leave the fate of the 76ers to Kevin Ollie?

He's a ball hog.

He has averaged six assists per game in his career.

He doesn't play defense.

Did anybody on the Nuggets play D?

What about his practice rant?

Blown totally out of proportion.

Then Iverson was traded to my team, the Detroit Pistons.

It was much easier to make excuses for Iverson when he was an unstoppable offensive player. To be fair, the Iverson who showed up in Detroit this past November was hardly the same player who won the league's MVP award in 2001.

Iverson was a shell of himself in Detroit. He no longer was finishing in traffic, was a defensive liability and looked out of place because he was forced to play real team ball for the first time in his career.

There's no question the Pistons used Iverson for his expiring contract, which allowed them to rebuild without becoming a lottery team.

But Iverson was getting something valuable in return -- and wasted it. He was finally playing with a group of talented, veteran players who had a track record of winning.

But all Iverson did was confirm the criticisms. I've never believed he was a bad guy and certainly never questioned his effort. Although Iverson didn't get into any trouble off the court and was liked by his Detroit teammates, he was exposed as a poor leader who couldn't win because he wasn't the focal point.

Iverson claimed that the Pistons were his best chance to win a championship and he'd do anything to make that happen, but once A.I. was told it would be better for the team if he came off the bench, he mailed in the season under the guise of a back injury.

A.I.'s defiance was once his most endearing trait, but his refusal to accept the obvious -- that he was no longer capable of consistent but dazzling offensive production -- became a detriment.

This is not to say A.I.'s failures were the sole reason Cleveland feasted on Detroit in the first round of the playoffs. Former coach Michael Curry could have done more to help him blend into Detroit's system, but Iverson made it clear his commitment to winning finished a distant second to his ego.

Some of you probably will discount this as the ramblings of a disgruntled fan, but if Iverson couldn't make it work with Joe Dumars -- one of the NBA's classiest and most astute executives -- how could this stop in Memphis be anything but a disaster?

Considering Iverson never rubbed off positively on Carmelo Anthony in Denver and sat idly as the Pistons went through the motions the second half of last season, you would be foolish to believe that Iverson will magically provide dynamic veteran leadership for the young Grizzlies. It's not a coincidence that Denver flourished without Iverson.

Besides, Iverson is kicking the same rap in Memphis that he did in Detroit. As soon as he was traded to the Pistons, Iverson told former ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith: "I can go with the best of them. You bring a guy 21 years old to deal with this 33-year-old guy … I'm going to tear his a-- up. A lot of these guys watched me coming up, and they lick their chops when they have an opportunity to get at me, and I know that … but I'm who I am. I was built like this. I welcome all challenges."

He said essentially the same thing Tuesday in his first news conference as a Grizzly, but this time, it's a lot less believable.

"This year for me is so personal," said Iverson, now 34. "It's going to be like my rookie year again. … I turn on the TV and read the paper, I listen to some of the things people say about me … me losing a step … they trying to put me in a rocking chair already."

At this point in his career, Iverson should value winning above all else, but the fact that he's in Memphis proves he still doesn't get it after 13 years in the NBA.

If Iverson really wanted to win an NBA title, he would have accepted a smaller role on a contending team -- similar to what Gary Payton did in Los Angeles and Miami, where he finally won a ring.

Because Iverson indicated before signing with the Grizzlies that he'd rather retire than accept a reduced role, the winning teams understandably avoided him. The true sign of a champion is the willingness to sacrifice for a greater goal. Rasheed Wallace understood that, which is why he's going for his second NBA title in Boston while Iverson has yet to win his first.

Grizzlies fans, I hope you enjoy A.I.'s 8-of-21 shooting nights and needless gambling in the passing lanes. Not to worry, there will be plenty of room for you next season in the support group for Iverson-itis survivors.

Jemele Hill can be reached at

Jemele Hill | email, ESPN The Magazine