3.25.2008

A Watchful Part



Here's my TSN column for today, all about Iverson and his legacy. I really like it and hope you will to.

It was supposed to be more about Obama's speech than it ended up being, but then I realized that one could legitimately dislike Iverson's style of play without there being any racial overtones. Not to say that was always the case, but I myself had mixed feelings about his game while embracing his socio-cultural significance.

Here's a random, possibly offensive thought: We all know that Hoberman is bothered by the "athleticization" of the black mind, whereby writers and intellectuals liken themselves to sports figures. But isn't it possible that Obama—who is fit, relatively young, and talks a lot about basketball—is benefiting from this? Athletes are second only to war heroes when it comes to instant political mojo. If Obama can tap into some of that without mortgaging his real strengths, is that such a bad thing?

UPDATE: With much trepidation, I introduce you to Ziller's excellent piece on the NBA and Obama's speech.

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36 Comments:

At 3/25/2008 5:02 PM, Blogger Morty said...

Nice article, and I like the way you describe both the mellowing of Iverson and his critics.

But the booing Santa Claus cliche? Really? And in the first paragraph no less. You can do a lot better than that.

 
At 3/25/2008 5:08 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Guilty as charged. Though in my defense, it was really late when I finally got the article to work. It began as way too based on the Obama speech, and I spent like three hours trying to deal with the problem of Iverson critics who weren't racist.

 
At 3/25/2008 5:27 PM, Blogger goathair said...

Just this morning I was thinking about why there hadn't been any athlete rap albums lately, which naturally made me think of Jewelz. I'm hoping for a Chris Anderson album in the mold of Bubba Sparxxx.

And I have to say it drives me bonkers that Iverson's number isn't retired at Georgetown.

 
At 3/25/2008 6:17 PM, OpenID tredecimal said...

Hell no it's not a bad thing if Obama can benefit from something like that (without, as you say, mortgaging his real strengths).

If the last 8 years have taught us nothing I would hope it would be that taking the high road and trying to win only on the merits is a sucker's strategy when the other side is willing to lie, cheat, steal, and benefit from popular perceptions that are even less based in reality than the association of Obama with athletics. (ie; Bush in his flight suit playing fighter pilot/'wartime president')

If people have to associate O. with basketball for him to win, then yeah that's sad, but I want him to win so bad I'd be willing for him to out himself as a Spurs fan and a standard bearer of 'right way ball' if I thought it would clinch his presidency.

 
At 3/25/2008 6:39 PM, Blogger George said...

"Just this morning I was thinking about why there hadn't been any athlete rap albums lately."

It would be way too facile to say "Lastings Milledge is the baseball Iverson," but there's a guy whose foray into hip-hop earned him the approbation of the media and a great deal of racially charged ("thug") criticism, and led in part to the end of his career with my beloved Mets.

His style of play, too, was dismissed in the same tones as Iverson's (and many others in that mold): athletic, loose, described as raw and lacking in "baseball IQ." You see where I'm going with this: those same old racial overtones. I'm rooting for his redemption with the Nationals, and on his own terms. Baseball after all is leagues stodgier then the NBA ever was, and in far greater need of a style injection as well as a serious conversation about its own race issues.

 
At 3/25/2008 6:46 PM, Blogger Stumbleweed said...

Watching the guy play every night is such a privelige. Seriously, it's just amazing what he does day in and day out on the floor. Each game has at least 2 shots from him that make your jaw drop. And then all the little things he does like throw himself on the floor after loose balls, get key steals, play through injuries, etc.... just unfuckwitable.

I'm just overjoyed that Dallas might be the team to fall out of the playoffs, leaving the Nuggets and the Warriors in the 7/8 seeds. The outcome couldn't be any better than that unless we got Nugs/Suns vs. Lakers/Warriors in the first round. Can't wait.

 
At 3/25/2008 7:07 PM, Blogger sharky h. towers said...

You know, I've been really critical of some of your writing in the past, but I gotta say that I've really come around. Your stuff is among the best examples of why web publishing guys (bloggers as a term needs to die) are so necessary and have raised the level of sports journalism on the whole. Enough with the dick sucking.

On a related note to this piece. Remember when the Michigan team was controversial? With their long shorts and swagger. The black socks. I remember that being the first time I was acutely aware of the "thug" tag from geriatric announcers and others being code for a much more sinister sentiment. My friends and I at the time (I was in Junior High) would laugh at the culture being so afraid of "black" or "hip-hop" culture. Now it seems the society at large has acclimated to a of of the style. But the sinister sentiment in those early codewords remains.

I'm really glad Obama made that speech and elevated the discourse the way he did. And for open dialog on race relations the NBA and it's surrounding media is as good a place as any.

 
At 3/25/2008 7:58 PM, Blogger Morty said...

Shoals:

No problem. Being from Phila. it just gets tiresome to read or hear about some incident in the '70s time and again.

What do you think about the Sixers? Have you been watching them? You're missing out if so.

 
At 3/25/2008 8:05 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

I did live in/around there for eight years, so don't look on me as some snooty anti-Philly outsider.

After having received multiple emails from readers, I finally started watching the Sixers. Yes, they are indeed pretty rad.

 
At 3/25/2008 8:12 PM, OpenID PeteyPowderBlue said...

"I spent like three hours trying to deal with the problem of Iverson critics who weren't racist."

I'm not sure if racist is the precisely correct word here. Charles Barkley doing his Bill Cosby schtick was as anti-Iverson as any white guy.

But those who criticized Iverson were always motivated by cultural issues. Many pretended to be criticizing him on basketball grounds, but that was never the real basis.

 
At 3/25/2008 8:25 PM, OpenID PeteyPowderBlue said...

Also, it's worth noting the dynamic of Iverson's legacy in terms of the Nuggets' team cohesion.

Carmelo and J.R. are both Iverson babies, guys who grew up playing hoops and identifying with Iverson's cultural persona. J.R.( being his normal unguarded self) had a nice quote earlier this year about how "We play for Iverson".

-----

And in terms of progress, think about how similar Carmelo is in many ways to young Iverson, but yet how little controversy Carmelo generates.

 
At 3/26/2008 12:26 AM, Blogger Pacifist Viking said...

PeteyPowderBlue:

"But those who criticized Iverson were always motivated by cultural issues. Many pretended to be criticizing him on basketball grounds, but that was never the real basis."

I've got a lot of respect for Iverson--but he is a career .425 shooter that led the league in turnovers a couple of times (I don't mean to all Dave Berri here or anything). I'm not saying that's the whole story, but isn't there some level in which one can criticize him as a basketball player and not because of "cultural issues"? Otherwise you set a standard by which one is not allowed to assess Iverson as a player.

Certainly I won't downplay the "cultural issues" in a lot of peoples' criticism of Iverson, but a statement like that suggests we're not allowed to even attempt criticism on basketball grounds.

 
At 3/26/2008 2:56 AM, OpenID PeteyPowderBlue said...

"I've got a lot of respect for Iverson--but he is a career .425 shooter that led the league in turnovers a couple of times (I don't mean to all Dave Berri here or anything). I'm not saying that's the whole story, but isn't there some level in which one can criticize him as a basketball player and not because of "cultural issues"? Otherwise you set a standard by which one is not allowed to assess Iverson as a player."

Well...

Iverson's career TS% is right at Isiah's number, and a hair below Payton's number. And the list of the top ten turnover players regularly features seven or eight of the best players in the association. If you're going to get 30ppg and 7apg, you're going to have a high turnover number.

Specific stats aside, if you want to criticize Iverson as player in terms of saying that he wasn't as valuable as Shaquille in his prime, sure, that's a valid argument to make. But if you're trying to make a more Berri-like argument that he's of marginal worth, that's where things get more interesting. Because it either means you're not watching the games, or something else is at work.

I'm of the opinion that Berri's weird belief system is actually a specific response to Iverson and his cultural legacy. It's worth remembering just how traumatic Iverson's rise was to the league and a significant part of the TV audience. The zone defense rule came about in large reason as a way to counter Iverson's impact, for example.

And, as stated, I think Berri's book was written specifically to give voice to those who didn't like Iverson. I don't think Berri would have made the particular subjective choices he decided to make in the Jordan era. The motivation wouldn't have been there, and the audience wouldn't have been there.

In short, one can severely devalue Iverson's game if one uses cherrypicked methodologies, but I think it's noteworthy how those methodologies only came into vogue in the Iverson era.

 
At 3/26/2008 10:33 AM, Blogger salt_bagel said...

Sorry to use a played out meme, but:

The City that Booed Santa > The City that Bombed Itself.

 
At 3/26/2008 10:59 AM, Blogger Pacifist Viking said...

I tend to think the serious statistical analysis of sports is an attempt to move past subjective assessment of players to find some sort of objective criteria of assessment. The serious statistical analysts make two general errors (both which Berri makes, in my opinion):

1. They tend to think their stats tell the entire story, when we know observation is necessary.

2. They tend to trust the entire objectivity (and infallibility) of their system, not considering the possibilities of subjectivity and error in the formation of the system.

I think your criticism is along #2, and it's an interesting theory. In scientific analysis, we sometimes ignore both the cultural, social, or personal motivation to do the science in the first place, and also fail to recognize the ways in which reaction to the science is cultural, social, and personal. We can't pretend that the advanced stats are just a form of objective analysis without any human subjectivity in the formation and reaction.

My point is that your sentence made it seem people aren't allowed to try assess him as a basketball player without the cultural issues. I think we can--and that means both critique and praise. Like I said, I respect Iverson (I don't think a player wins four scoring titles without being great), but saying all critics of his game are realling critics of his image sort of dismisses opportunity for assessment and discussion of his game.

 
At 3/26/2008 11:51 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Come on, unless Iverson was on fire, those Sixers could be brutal to watch. And let's face it--while he can share the ball with competent players or guys hanging out right around the basket, he doesn't uplift flawed teammates all over the court. A lot of times, everyone stood around, the defense collapsed, and Iverson dribbled a bunch before missing something.

One of the things we've learned from his time in Denver is that middle ground in the "he doesn't make people better"/"he has shit teammates" debate.

 
At 3/26/2008 4:08 PM, Blogger oliver said...

Shoals = not such a big Iverson fan? Weird. I would have thought that Iverson was the very epitome of Free Darko-ness. But of course, the definition of "Free Darko-ness" sometimes seems to me to be as vague as the defintion of, say, "post-modernism." Maybe I need to restudy my Cliff's notes.

I love AI to death, but he doesn't make anyone else better. The metric of this should have been the 2001 Sixers finals team. AI shoots fifty times a game, everyone else plays defense, rebounds, and kicks the ball back to him... perfect team for him, and it still didn't quite work. Granted, though, we were stuck playing God's team, the 2001 Lakers.

The current Sixers team? Good? Bad? Fun to watch good/bad team? Proof that in the East, if you can do one thing well (run the fastbreak), then you can get the fifth seed in the playoffs? Feel free to discuss.

 
At 3/26/2008 4:37 PM, Blogger paper tiger said...

on the obama question- i don't see anything wrong with him getting a bump from the "instant mojo" of athletes. although, if its his athlete mojo going up against mccain's war hero, i do think that's occasion to consider the weirdness of the status of sport, and also the fact that it's one of the few paths to mojo allowed for some groups. that said, the two currents i've been weary of are (a) "we can tell by how he plays that this man is serious and sincere" and (b) "yes, of course he's 'black enough'- he plays ball on the regular!"
definitely don't take me as saying that he's anything other than serious, sincere, or "black enough," i just think they'd all be weird employments of basketball as proof.
granted, i don't really see all that much of either of these things happening, but that's the sort of stuff i was thinking of with hoberman comments a few weeks back.

 
At 3/26/2008 6:29 PM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

There were a lot of important things in and about Obama's speech. There were things I wish he'd said more about for political reasons, but that would have made it something other than what it was and diminished the thing that I liked most and thought most important about it: it was honest. It was something he'd spent a lifetime figuring out how to say, and it had the resulting air of authenticity about it. And by being honest, he made it unique and important.

It may be in the honesty that the speech has the closest link to AI. I think it can be fairly said that on the court and off, AI has been unusually honest. (I'm not talking about his personal life, just his public life.) To me, that's always seemed born in large part of self-knowledge and belief in the person he knows himself to be. He displays it in small off-court ways and certainly in how he plays the game. Every move seems to say: this is my game, this is how I play.

Which isn't to say that he's incapable of compromise or change. On court and off, he seems to have been in a fairly continuous process of refinement, of change without abandonment of the core. The refinement has perhaps given greater expression to the self.

But he has stubbornly refused to play any way other than what he considers the way that he should play. To his credit, he's been willing to live or die on that style, no excuses. It has made building a team around him difficult, because his style, as Shoals points out, can't make successes of failures.

In that context, although I think that there are sound bases on which to criticize AI, they generally (though not always) boil down to a complaint that he should play differently. Telling him to play differently is essentially telling him to be a different person. And thus, it's hard for the criticism not to have at least some racial and cultural undertones.

Similarly, the criticism of Obama's speech, when not substantively off base or blatantly partisan, has sounded flat to me because it seems either unwilling or unable to deal with it as an externalization of of one individual's true experience and as truthful observations about race in this country by someone who has spent a lot of time living and thinking about it.

I don't yet have any conclusion to this yet, so I'm just going to hit post ...

 
At 3/26/2008 7:17 PM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

Also, although it's been a while coming, I'm more than a little saddened by C-Webb's retirement. His game was beautiful, and his significance is greater than his success, even if his potential was never completely fulfilled. The dismissiveness of much of the web commentary seems short on memory and appreciation for what he did.


wv: clmsy--Chris certainly wasn't clumsy, but the retrospectives so far certainly have been

 
At 3/26/2008 8:44 PM, Blogger guntalk said...

i always think the "making teammates better" is such a weird thing to judge, especially when it comes to iverson. who's to say that allowing george lynch, tyrone hill and eric snow to concentrate on other facets of the game besides scoring wasn't an overall positive thing for those players and the team? let's not be revisionist here; the sixers were *good* during iverson's tenure in philly. he never had a legitimate star to play with except for deke -- and they went to the finals. webber follow big dog and van horn as supposed second-fiddles who left basketball not long after they were disappointing in philly. and, of course, the nuggets are better now, in a tougher conference, then when miller--the consummate "makes people better guy"--was on the team.

all that to say, that discussion is irksome.

 
At 3/26/2008 9:14 PM, OpenID PeteyPowderBlue said...

"And let's face it--while he can share the ball with competent players or guys hanging out right around the basket, he doesn't uplift flawed teammates all over the court."

I expect better from you, Shoals.

Just look at the career stats of his backcourt mates to see if they weren't putting up much better numbers with Bubbachuck than without. Eric fucking Snow? Aaron McKie? Steve Blake? Anthony fucking Carter?

I could get some team to give me the mid-level exception after playing a year in the backcourt with Iverson, and I can't really play hoops.

The same goes for quick frontcourt players who can finish in traffic. The tragedy of the Nuggets this year has been the absence of Nene - a perfect example of the kind of player who thrives with Iverson.

 
At 3/26/2008 9:25 PM, OpenID PeteyPowderBlue said...

Also, what guntalk said.

-----

Anthony Carter: career 43% TS, this year with Iverson 54% TS. As stated, it's a pattern that goes far beyond Carter.

KG didn't uplift Marko Jaric and Troy Hudson, just like AI didn't uplift creaky Glenn Robinson and creaky Chris Webber. But all of that seems beyond the point here...

 
At 3/26/2008 9:29 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

The same goes for quick frontcourt players who can finish in traffic. The tragedy of the Nuggets this year has been the absence of Nene - a perfect example of the kind of player who thrives with Iverson.

That's exactly who I had in mind when I said "guys right around the basket." Before Melo came back, that team was basically AI drawing everyone and then flipping the ball off the Nene, Najera, or Camby. That's also why Dalembert worked well with him in Philly.

I don't know why you're so angry over the assertion that Iverson doesn't "uplift flawed teammates all over the court." Who the fuck can do that? Like four players in the league, and two of them are named Chris Paul. When Iverson gets people the ball, a lot of the time it's spur-of-the-moment, sudden, and not in any way structural (or structurally-geared). Some players can capitalized on this.

What does that make him? A phenomenal scorer and ball-handler who is very good at getting people the ball in certain situations. He makes the game easier for them if they're themselves decent or are limited in a particular way.

 
At 3/26/2008 9:33 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

And I totally find the "does he make people better" discussion irksom because it's so imprecise. These things are complex and often indirect. I'm just trying to find of way of explaining how Iverson does play well with others WITHOUT drawing false dichotomies. And, as I said in the initial column, trying to show how his play in Philly was some his "fault," some the "fault" of his teammates.

 
At 3/26/2008 10:30 PM, Blogger rebar said...

the other AI, mr. andre "still pissed about getting gypped in the dunk contest" iguodala just looks angry enough to win a playoff series. perhaps his grimace (if not his game and style) is the spiritual successor to the AI of years past?

 
At 3/26/2008 10:38 PM, Blogger oliver said...

Is it imprecise to say AI doesn't make others better? I watched him for however many years in Philly, and he remains my favorite player... but the Sixers now, are they not better then they were during the fading Iverson-ian years of 2003-6? And are the Nuggets even slightly better now that they have him? Are they? Do the Nuggets perhaps stare wistfully at the ghost of Andre Miller, to write a very bad metaphor? (n.b.: He had 18 rebounds tonight.) I'm in New Orleans, and I can only watch the Sixers on ESPN Gamecast, which is the 20th century equivalent of "listening" to recreated baseball games on the radio, but I would love, love, love some FD discussion of what's going on with the Sixers right now, as I don't totally understand it myself. But I've been waiting for it for a long, long time.

 
At 3/26/2008 10:42 PM, Blogger oliver said...

I meant "18 assists" and "21st century." Nothing like some stupid typos to bring me down from my pedestal.

 
At 3/26/2008 10:51 PM, OpenID PeteyPowderBlue said...

"I don't know why you're so angry over the assertion that..."

Anger is the default emotion of the blogospheric commentator, no?

But more broadly, the Berri/Gladwell assault on Iverson over the past few years using cooked stats has made some of us a bit touchy on the topic.

 
At 3/27/2008 12:05 AM, Blogger Bobby Generic said...

The whole concept of making teammates better is bunk. Players are what they are, no single teammate is going to drastically improve other players' value.

The issue that most people are targeting, unbeknownst to them, is the fact that Allen Iverson is not an adaptable player. As someone previously stated, his style of play conveys an honesty about who he is, which makes his game defiant; he plays his way, and if you want him on your team, then you have to build around him.

Again, making teammates better is such a bad way to look at things. Iverson didn't make Aaron Mckie or Eric Snow better; he didn't make George Lynch or Tyrone Hill better. But the team, which was built from the ground up around Iverson by Billy King and Larry Brown, allowed for each of those players (including Iverson) to play comfortably and capitalize on their own strengths.

As far as making any comparison between Iverson as a Nugget and Iverson as a Sixer, there is no point. Iverson is still a very good player, even dazzling at times. But anyone who claims he hasn't lost a step has not watched his entire career. The man used to be a relentless pinball of a player, on both ends of the court. Now, he is still very quick off the dribble and difficult to keep out of the paint/off the line, but he takes defensive possessions off all the time, and doesn't need to work nearly as hard off screens these days with Carmelo on the elbow.

I guess my point is that we should be marveling at the fact that it took approximately 11 years for a player than is 5-11, 160 lbs. (and pretty much suicidal when driving the lane) to get to this point. And by this point, I mean the point at which Iverson is no longer levels ahead of the competition, and he is forced to play as a part of the team rather than as a one-man wrecking crew.

 
At 3/27/2008 9:24 AM, OpenID PeteyPowderBlue said...

"The issue that most people are targeting, unbeknownst to them, is the fact that Allen Iverson is not an adaptable player."

Well, sure. But the great bulk of valuable superstars aren't adaptable. Duncan isn't adaptable. Neither is Shaquille. Ray Allen isn't adaptable. Karl Malone and John Stockton weren't adaptable.

Adaptable superstars like LeBron are the exception, not the rule. But that doesn't mean that building an elite team around a non-adaptable player like Iverson is all that difficult, unless you're Billy King or Kevin McHale, of course.

"As far as making any comparison between Iverson as a Nugget and Iverson as a Sixer, there is no point. Iverson is still a very good player, even dazzling at times. But anyone who claims he hasn't lost a step has not watched his entire career."

Iverson definitely isn't the physical player he once was. The days where he could foul out his defender and put the second guy the opposition threw at him in foul jeopardy as well are long gone.

But one of the pleasures in watching him these days is watching how he's managed to compensate with smarts for the physical talents that have left him without any real dropoff.

If you look at the stats, he's actually getting more efficient with age without any real dropoff in volume. His last three season have had the highest TS% of his career (with this season at the top), and his assist are also at the highest level of his career.

At 32, Iverson is definitely soon to fall off the cliff. What happened to J-Kidd will happen to Bubbachuck as well. But the remarkable thing is that it hasn't happened quite yet. He may be running on borrowed time, but he's still running.

He's not able to deform the court the way he could at 26, but like any wise player, he's making up for it by smartly playing the angles.

 
At 3/27/2008 9:51 AM, OpenID PeteyPowderBlue said...

"The whole concept of making teammates better is bunk. Players are what they are"

And you're nuts on this count.

Do you really think Rajon Rando and Kendrick Perkins would be putting up the numbers they're putting up if they were playing for Sacramento instead of playing with KG, Pierce, and Ray-Ray?

Likewise, Iverson has a history of making rather pedestrian guards look oddly good when teamed with him because of the attention he generates. This is precisely what makes players valuable. It's easy to play in the NBA when your defender is otherwise occupied.

 
At 3/27/2008 11:30 AM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

I think the problem with the "makes teammates better" argument is that even great players can't make every teammate better. AI made some of this better, to the point of hauling their asses to the finals. Other Sixers squads couldn't have been redeemed by Jesus.

As for the current Nuggets and Sixers, as well as the latter are doing, I notice that they're still a 0.500 team in a weak conference, whereas the former will probably win 50 games in the West. What is it that the Andres are supposed to be doing for the Sixers that makes them more valuable than AI?

 
At 3/27/2008 11:51 AM, Blogger Morty said...

If only I had a dime for every time Iverson got Eric Snow an open 15' jumper from the elbow, and if only I had another dime for every time Snow bricked it...

And don't forget that by the time the 2001 finals rooled around, the Sixers were so banged up that they were staring a hobbled Ty Hill, Jumaine Jones (!) and their best bench player (McKie.) So it's hard to blame Iverson for that. Afterwards, Billy king kept swapping one problem player with a bad contract for another problem player with a bad contract.

 
At 3/29/2008 1:49 AM, Blogger Sean said...

When people bring up AI's Field Goal %, it seems that we all do the time warp back to the 1980s, when perimeter players were hitting more than half their shots. Is 42.5% really a significant dropoff? We are well past the Kevin Gamble heydey and well past the Tim-Hardaway-in-Miami era.

 
At 3/30/2008 2:26 PM, Blogger Bobby Generic said...

""The whole concept of making teammates better is bunk. Players are what they are"

And you're nuts on this count.

Do you really think Rajon Rando and Kendrick Perkins would be putting up the numbers they're putting up if they were playing for Sacramento instead of playing with KG, Pierce, and Ray-Ray?

Likewise, Iverson has a history of making rather pedestrian guards look oddly good when teamed with him because of the attention he generates. This is precisely what makes players valuable. It's easy to play in the NBA when your defender is otherwise occupied."

^Having better stastics because other players are on your team does NOT make you better or more valauble. It just means you are more effective within that team's framework...Dana Barros preceded Iverson in Philly, and his numbers increased to practically all-star levels one year...I'm not giving that credit to his teammates (Clarence Weatherspoon and Shawn Bradley) making him better.

Basically, all I'm saying is that your statistical output has very little to do with your value to a team...especially on a team where defense is your focal point (2001 Sixers). Don't get me wrong, I love Iverson, and I love the Sixers, particularly the 2001 Sixers...but I give a lot of credit for the success of that team to Larry Brown for knowing his personnnel so well and using it effectively.

 

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