Ten years after he ruled the NBA as the cornrow-wearing, ink-stained MVP who led the Philadelphia 76ers to the finals, Iverson has his eyes on a comeback. He is determined to end a career possibly destined for the Hall of Fame in the NBA, not in some faraway country where brief YouTube clips are the only way to stay updated on the four-time scoring champion.
The road back to 20,000 fans a night, national television and, yes, that one final run at the championship he still craves has already started. It just won’t be easy. Then again, few things ever have been for a man known as “The Answer.”
He turned 36 this week. He played only 10 games in an injury-filled stint in Turkey after a lack of NBA interest forced him to seek employment elsewhere. In his most recent NBA season in 2009-10, Iverson left the Sixers in February.
That’s not a lot of basketball for an aging veteran.
So what gives Iverson confidence he can still play anywhere near his former elite level next season?
“It’s me,” he said, laughing. “That’s what gives me confidence. I know what I can do. Everybody in the world knows what I can do. Everybody knows what I can do on the basketball court.”
Every fan knows how the 25-year-old Iverson could dazzle on the court. Like in the 2001 NBA finals, when he buried a jumper over Tyronn Lue, then highstepped over the fallen Los Angeles Lakers defender in Game 1. The iconic moment ranked slightly behind his rookie year crossover vs. Michael Jordan as the most memorable of his 14-year career.
Iverson’s added few plays to that list the past several years. He played for four teams in his last two NBA seasons, then left the Turkish club Besiktas with a leg injury.
A painful calcium mass developed on his right calf and he returned home opting for rest instead of surgery. Iverson’s manager, Gary Moore, said Iverson has yet to receive the green light from Dr. James Andrews to resume contact drills. Iverson was not expected to get cleared until mid-July.
“Just give me a training camp,” he said. “Maybe I’ve rubbed people the wrong way as far as saying the things I’ve said in my life and in my career. But if any team needs me to help try and win a championship in any capacity, I’m waiting.”
He might have a long wait. Throw in a possible work stoppage with NBA owners and players far apart on a new labor deal, and Iverson might again be forced to look outside the NBA for a team. He signed a $4 million, two-year contract with Besiktas. But Iverson made it clear in a phone interview late Wednesday night, his first priority is the NBA.
“If that doesn’t happen, I just want to play basketball, so I’ve got to weigh my options and do what’s best for me and my career,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen, I don’t want to not play basketball. I don’t have any more years to be wasting.”
Iverson insisted he enjoyed his stay in Turkey.
“It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. “They were great to me. They embraced me like I would never think. Everything was great as far as that experiment.”
No year was as great as 2001.
Iverson, who mashed hip-hop culture and hoops like no player before him, was perhaps at his peak in his fifth NBA season. He averaged 31.1 points, was the MVP of the All-Star game and propped an entire franchise on his 6-foot frame all the way to the finals.
Led by coach Larry Brown, the Sixers needed Game 7 wins in consecutive series for the right to play the Lakers. Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers swept their way through the postseason before Game 1 in LA.
Iverson had 48 points in 52 minutes of an overtime victory. The Sixers didn’t have enough to go the distance and the Lakers won the next four games.
The 76ers have won only one playoff series in the past 10 years and had a bitter parting with Iverson in 2006. They patched up their differences and he returned three years later.
For Iverson, the points and the big games aren’t what he remembers most about 2001.
“My teammates. The love I had for them,” he said. “All of us had the same goal. It wasn’t the whole thing of us making it to the finals. It was just the partnership we had with each other. It was just the fact that we gave the city of Philadelphia everything we had every night. We weren’t the most talented team ever, but we competed night in and night out. That’s everything to me.”
Ten years later, O’Neal recently retired and Iverson wants back in. He’s been dogged by rumors of personal problems – his wife filed for divorce and a daughter battled serious health problems – but Iverson said his life these days is great.
All that’s missing is basketball.
“The only thing that I give a damn about is that the people that care about me know that I’m all right,” he said. “All I want is my real fans to know I’m fine, my wife is fine, my kids are fine. I’m fine and I’m looking forward to getting back on a team and being productive like I have been my whole career.