Allen Iverson made his retirement official today, even though it's hard to know how, exactly, to define such a thing for him. Iverson, now 38, was never a professional basketball player so much as he was, foremost, an object in motion, tending always to stay in motion. If Iverson can be said to retire, then a meteorite "retires" when it smashes into Siberia at supersonic speeds. He's only changing from one state of matter to another.
Once, people paid him for playing basketball. Now, something else. He's still going to be the scariest 5-foot-something athlete in NBA history, probably for the rest of his life. He averaged more than 30 points a game five times, and finished with career average of 26.7. Here are the players just behind him on the all-time list: Kevin Durant, Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, Kobe Bryant, George Gervin, Carmelo Anthony, Karl Malone, Dominique Wilkins. He never missed a shot he didn't take, because he took them all. When he and the Sixers got crossways in 2006, he went to Denver, then to Detroit, to Memphis, for old times' sake to Philly, then to China, then last to Turkey. The D-League offered, and he declined. He hasn't played meaningful ball in years, but, all right, retired. It's official.
He's still a walking folksong, an inverted Paul Bunyan, too small to be believed. Yeah, he never won a title — but that's what happens when your prime overlaps with Shaq + Kobe's and your supporting cast looks like something even the LeBron-era Cavs would be embarrassed to put on the floor. Theo Ratliff was second on the team in scoring the year Philly went to the Finals. Mutombo could still board (12.4 a game) but ... that was about it. Lakers repeat in five. Philadelphia is never really heard from again. Iverson's just the sideshow that every single playground shooting guard (and two-thirds of playground ballers are 2s) wanted to be. Distribute, but only in an emergency. Better to cut to the cup, tip in rebounds, destroy passing lanes, whir. The NBA didn't know what to make of him, but basketball fans saw him as a Matrix-like fantasy come to life.
We've got to be past the point where we discuss whether Iverson warrants entry to the Hall of Fame. He led the league in scoring four times. His listed playing weight was 165 pounds and yet was a giant among giants. He had so much basketball in him, his didn't-count highlights are a testament to his versatility and his tenacity:
Take a look at the last clip on that reel (2:21 mark). As Iverson drives, the refs whistle a foul. Play otherwise stops, but Iverson takes a meaningless shot from near the foul line. Some lug for the Magic leaps up and, playfully enough, swats it back 15 feet. Iverson catches the ball and, in rhythm, shoots again, doubling the height, with one of those unblockable arcs you only see from the 10-year-olds who wander into grown-men pickup games, kids who're growing up short and have to chuck a ball vertically to get it over anyone's hands.
In the clip, the ball leaves your screen (this play has been long dead, don't forget) and falls back into the frame as it heads silently through the hoop and net. The audience gasps. The shot was meaningless. Except with Iverson? It all counted. He was the circus, whether the lights were on or not.
Photo credit: AP