Iverson was coming off an MVP season in which he nearly led an otherwise futile Philadelphia 76ers team to an NBA championship over Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the mighty Los Angeles Lakers.
"AI" was easily the most popular player in the league. His jersey was the highest selling, his shoes were the most popular and his story — as a sub-six-foot shooting guard who nobody could defend — was the most compelling.
Flash forward nine years, and there might not be a bigger sob story in sports than Iverson’s.
Now 35, Iverson, a future Hall of Famer, can’t get a job in the league that he led in scoring four times.
It’s not that he’s a bad player, either. Iverson managed to average 13.8 points in 28 games between the Grizzlies and Sixers last year — certainly a sufficient total for a quality sixth or seventh man, or even a starter on some teams.
But Iverson’s talent, whether as a young scoring champion or an aging veteran, has never been questioned. It’s his attitude off the court that has been the red flag for every NBA team since Iverson, at 18, spent four months in prison following an incident at a bowling alley in 1993.
At the beginning of his career in Philadelphia, Iverson was the ultimate "me" player. From his riffs with legendary coach Larry Brown, to Iverson’s questions on the values of practice to his unwillingness to play with fellow star guard Jerry Stackhouse (the Sixers traded Stackhouse to the Detroit Pistons midway through the 1997-98 season, per Iverson’s request), Iverson was a complete disaster as a role model in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, the fans, the city and the organization loved him because of his appeal as a sensational ballplayer.
Eventually, as the Sixers faded into the cellar of the East, Iverson became restless in Philadelphia. The Sixers traded him to Denver where he could play alongside Carmelo Anthony, the first legitimate star Iverson ever played with (or at least wanted to play with).
That didn’t work out. The duo never made it past the first round of the postseason, and Iverson was traded to Detroit early in 2008. Ironically, the Nuggets came within two wins of making it to the NBA Finals that year — without Iverson.
With the Pistons, Iverson was selfish. He refused to come off the bench, and when he played, he consistently led the team in shots.
Finally, after a brief three-game stint with Memphis last year, Iverson returned to Philly, where he was greeted by fans of the lowly 76ers with open arms. The city’s favorite son was back.
Twenty-five games later, Iverson was done. Later, it was reported that the man who once had the entire NBA in the palm of his hand was facing gambling and alcohol-related issues, and was in need of money.
That’s probably why the former MVP might decide to play in China this year.
Nine years ago, Iverson playing in China would be impossible to predict. But as embarrassing as it may be for one of the greatest basketball players of the generation, he’s probably doing it because he needs the money.
Iverson likely will put up pretty good numbers in China if he decides to play. But sooner or later, he will find something to complain about and quit.
You can pretty much bet on those two things for Iverson wherever he goes. His track record speaks for itself.