Former NBA MVP – and the eternal title holder of being ‘pound for pound the greatest of all time’ – Allen Iverson has worn many basketball jerseys in the course of his career. He has most famously worn the white, black, blue, red and sometimes other colours of the Philadelphia 76ers. He has worn the blue and gold of the Denver Nuggets. He has been seen briefly in a Detroit Pistons jersey. He donned a Memphis Grizzlies uniform for a very, very brief period. He has worn his high-school ‘Bethel’ jerseys, has worn the famous colours of Georgetown University, and on the opposite end of his career, even tried on some Turkish fabric when he joined Besiktas for a few months. He has worn all hues of the NBA All Star jerseys and the white and navy of America’s national team.
On Saturday – October 6th – all of those colours and all of those jerseys were out in fashion adorned by thousands of ‘AI’ fans, who have grown up watching the legend but got their first chance to catch a real life sniff of him. And there was their God – years after his transcendent skills have passed him by – in a jersey representing ‘American Celebrities’, unrecognisable to the ones that carved his legend. It seemed that all had changed.
All except the cornrows, of course.
I was amongst the crowd of approximately ten thousand Chinese fans who showed up to watch a team featuring former NBA-ers Jason Williams, Damon Jones, Zendon Hamilton, and JR Reid, headlined by Allen Iverson, take on the home team Beijing Ducks in an exhibition. This was no ordinary home team, though. The capital city’s professional basketball team is led by the forever mercurial Stephon Marbury, who inspired the squad to their first ever Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) championship this March.
This was Marbury’s return to this arena after that memorable championship run. This was the arena – the MasterCard Center – which idolised him to the point that his fans paid for a bronze statue of him to be erected outside the building. And it was in this arena on Saturday night that the hype for Marbury was overshadowed by another American reject high-scoring guard, Allen Iverson.
To me, Marbury and Iverson represented everything that I loved about the NBA in the post-Jordan era, and at the same time, represented the growing list players who never quite reached their potential. They are two of my favourite players of the past decade and two players now exiled from the same basketball association that made them famous. And now here I was, watching the two go head to head in flesh and blood for the first time in my life. So what if this was China? And so what if both Iverson (37) and Marbury (35) were now mere husks of their former selves?
They were there, and so was I.
In his heyday, Allen Iverson was the best player in the NBA for a while, and for a longer while, the NBA’s best scorer. He took a useless bunch of ragtags otherwise known as the 2000-2001 Philadelphia 76ers single-handedly into the NBA Finals. His style of play, his passion to lay down his heart and soul on the court in every game, and the pure joy of seeing a six foot nothing guy go up against bigger, badder men made him the NBA’s most popular star post Jordan.
Meanwhile, Stephon Marbury enjoyed a relatively less glamorous NBA career. Yes, he was a multiple-time All Star like Iverson, but the point guard never quite touched the heights that Iverson did, individually or with any of his many teams. Iverson’s career ended abruptly after unsuccessful and uninspiring stints in the NBA and in Turkey.
Marbury’s NBA career ended with him spiraling downwards towards near-insanity.
But how their fortunes have flipped! Marbury’s fall gave way to the rise of ‘Ma-Bu-Li’: An American reject who accepted China, and in turn, was accepted by China, as he grew to become a legend in the world’s next biggest basketball market. Meanwhile, Iverson bounced around unsuccessfully looking for a professional NBA gig until he realised that the best footsteps to follow could perhaps be the most unlikely: Marbury.
Iverson has been on tour this year in China with various collections of players: some former NBA players looking to earn money on their appearance and some younger American players looking for a chance to show their skills and earn a contract. In a team the local Chinese called ‘American Celebrities’ (ironic, since none but AI and Jason Williams were recognisable to the layman), Iverson took on Marbury’s championship-winning Ducks. It was a chance for easy money for AI, sure, but it was also a chance for him to prove that he could still hang with professional players; if not in NBA than at least in China.
Sadly, things didn’t quite pan out the way that ‘The Answer’ would’ve wished. Yes, the love from the fans from there, as the hardcore Iverson fanbase in China came out in hordes to scream and shout for their idol. But Iverson seemed to be totally out of funk, without the speed and explosive ability that made him a legend, failing to back up the hype and give his fans a worthwhile performance on court.
Maybe Marbury – who is in better game shape and more in-tune with his home team – had a bit of a point to prove, too. Marbury and the Ducks made it tough for Iverson to attack the basket, and when he did, he mostly failed. Marbury didn’t play much, and without the pressures of proving a point like Iverson did, he focused mostly on creating for his teammates and playing minimal defense.
Despite his struggles, the fans cheered for Iverson at the top of their lungs every time he got a rebound, ran down the floor, shot a jumper, or attacked the basket. They cheered for him when he was the bench and grew in their chorus every time he checked back into the game. Iverson got just two baskets all game on layups, but did incite a huge cheer when he crossovered a Ducks’ defender to ‘break his ankles’ and shoot a jumper (which he missed). For most of the game though, Iverson disappointed; not so much because he was unsuccessful in his attempt, but because he seemed hesitant to even make attempts.
Meanwhile, Iverson’s teammate, a certain Jason Williams, had no qualms about his ‘attempting’. Once the NBA leader in three-pointers taken (and three-pointers missed), Williams jacked up shots like he hadn’t missed a beat. The flashy passes that made him famous with the Kings back in the day were rare, but Williams did end up shooting 2/17 for the night, including about a dozen threes.
The only bright spark for the ‘American Celebrities’ was Zendon Hamilton, who played briefly in some NBA teams, bounced around in basketball leagues around the world, and then returned to the NBDL. Hamilton looked very aggressive and led his team in scoring.
The Ducks, led by their contingent of young, energetic, and extremely fit Chinese players, took a commanding advantage in the game in the second half and cruised to a 132-103 win.
Near the end of the game, with the victor assured, the fans cheered for the benched Iverson to be subbed back into the game. AI didn’t go back in, but instead, he took off his Reeboks and flung them to the fans in the stands, sparking a mini-frenzy.
I was one of those who clearly believed that some NBA team – somewhere – could surely use a 37-year-old lightning quick scoring monster. But after watching his performance in person, there is no doubt that Allen Iverson’s dreams of an NBA return are done and dusted. With this failed audition, it seems that he doesn’t even have the talent to run with professional teams in China.
Despite the loss, fans still buzzed for Iverson till the final buzzer and long after. It may not have been a memorable night for the legend, but it was surely one to remember for those that idolise him. Maybe a pro team in China will give him a chance again, if not for his on-court talents than perhaps for his off-court popularity. But Chinese clubs are increasingly getting smarter, and it remains to be seen if any of them would take such a high-priced risk on ‘The Answer’.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the court, Stephon Marbury returned to the locker room with his teammates. He seemed to be more comfortable in China than he had seemed in the NBA for the bitter end of career there. And for the near-future, it seems that the CBA Champion will continue the recent success that he has enjoyed in this country.
Things may have been different this one night, but once the season begins, expect the fans in Beijing to go back to their regular lifestyle. That means that the Iverson jerseys will stay at home, and the Beijing Ducks jerseys – with ‘Ma Bu Li’ in Chinese script on the back – to appear in hordes at the MasterCard arena again. Iverson himself will continue his hunt to find a team – and a jersey – to permanently call his own.