Cheers for Iverson need no translation
The look on Allen Iverson's face in that moment he was introduced to his new life was one of pure amazement, equal parts shock and fear. And that gave way to the realization that these people halfway around the world - in a place he never thought much about and would never have reason to - loved him, adored him. The expressions on Iverson's face when he landed in Turkey the other day, and again at the soccer game where they stood and chanted for him, were priceless.
Don't get me wrong, Allen Iverson shouldn't have to play in Turkey - or anywhere in Europe or Asia. Iverson, now 35 years old, should be taking his curtain calls here, at home, for an NBA team, preferably a contender. You can't convince me that Iverson can't help a good team, that he can't come off the bench and be an asset. The coach with whom Iverson had his greatest success, Larry Brown, said recently, "I think it's sad having him have to go to Turkey to finish his career."
Not as sad, though, as sitting by a phone that never rings. Since no NBA team called and Iverson wasn't ready to give up his Hoop Dreams, he bit when Besiktas offered him $4 million for playing two years in Turkey. Most folks you talk to in the basketball world believe there's zero chance Iverson will stick it out that long, even if he did say after that greeting fit for a king, "I bet before I leave here I'm going to speak Turkish."
Perhaps this can be the experience of a lifetime for Iverson, living and working abroad, seeing something so stunningly different from Hampton Roads, Va.; Washington; Philly; Detroit; and even Denver. Perhaps this will be life-changing or life-affirming in a way Iverson, even with all he's been through, could never imagine.
Adrian Branch, the DeMatha and Maryland alum who wears an NBA championship ring from his days with the Los Angeles Lakers, played seven years overseas. There were stops in Israel, Spain, Australia, Thailand, the Dominican Republic and . . . Turkey.
Branch played the 1993-94 season for Oyak Renault in Bursa. He can rattle off a sentence in Turkish even now and recalls his time there fondly. He said of what's facing Iverson, "You can't go in there with the attitude of, 'I'm the man, I'm the American, I'm here to fix everything.' They know A.I. They've seen all the clips. They know his crossover. They've got his trading cards, pre-cornrows, pre-tattoos. He can go over there and be Micheal Ray Richardson and play till he's 40. But he'll have to be humble. He can't go over there being G.I. Joe. After all, they're giving him a chance no American team would; they're giving him a job."
The challenges are fairly obvious, beyond language and living in a radically different culture. The European season is less than half the length of an NBA season, but there's plenty of practice, sometimes two-a-days, and Iverson long ago let us know what he thinks of practice.
Then there are the expectations about American players. European fans see NBA basketball all the time, and therefore know just how old Iverson is and that his last four stops - Denver, Detroit, Memphis and a return to Philly - were somewhere between disappointing and disastrous. But they'll still expect him to be the A.I. they adore, just like American soccer fans expected Giorgio Chinaglia, Johan Cruyff and David Beckham to fairly regularly show the form that made them famous, that made an international community want to pay to see him.
Besiktas wants to fill their 4,500-seat arena, to even have overflow crowds that are willing to spill into the streets and watch on screens outside the building. The Turks are buying Iverson's No. 4 jersey like mad (he can't wear No. 3 since 4 is the lowest number allowed on jerseys there) and don't think of him as "old" even though that's what he is in basketball terms. It's been three years since Iverson scored in a manner (26.4 points per game in 2007-08 for Denver) that made him an international sensation. Iverson played 57 games the following year, then 28 last season.
The prevailing wisdom has been that Iverson wouldn't come off the bench, and when he took time off after the Sixers picked him up, it was cited as proof that he didn't want to play last year. But one of Iverson's closest associates told me recently that Iverson would indeed come off the bench for an NBA team and that he wasn't obstinate; 76ers management encouraged him to take the time last year to be with his family while the club took a long and needed look at some younger players.
It was never quite clear why Brown, who clearly still loves Iverson, didn't prevail upon the Bobcats to bring Iverson to Charlotte. It was never quite clear (not to me anyway) why a team like Cleveland, which needed scoring off the bench, which needed a player who could get his own shot and provide a spark without being dependent on LeBron James, never called. They must have felt that Iverson had too many holes or too many issues to be an asset.
The sad part is that nobody ever played harder than Iverson, which is why audiences have loved him, even if he did have his moments with coaches, even if practice didn't interest him. Iverson did those two things that were appreciated even if you were watching 4,500 miles away on television. He gave every ounce of himself to every game and he thrilled you in the process. And the Turks want to see that light, or whatever is left of it, before it's entirely extinguished.
Iverson will be playing with, as one writer put it recently, a bunch of guys who a few years ago would have been paying to see him play. The players, according to scouts, will be college-level, in terms of talent. His team plays in the Turkish league, not the superior Euroleague. Even so, the Turks will want to see the player they idolized as kids, the one who crossed over Michael Jordan as a rookie, who led the NBA in scoring four times, who led his team to the NBA Finals once, who was the league's MVP. And perhaps, if it's meant to end sweetly, Iverson will play up to expectation in Europe and the real curtain call will come in the NBA, in America, at home, where his final bows ought to come.