One of the side stories of the new season is dispute brewing between the Grizzlies and Allen Iverson. Iverson, has left the team for personal reasons but there are reports circulating that he has left because he was unhappy to be coming off the bench and that he may not be coming back.
It’s a somewhat bizarre scenario. As a practical matter, AI’s leaving the Grizz is much ado about nothing. The Grizz are a bad team with or without him. But Iverson’s personality and his career accomplishments definitely makes us notice him a bit more than an average veteran at the end of his career.
So what happened here? The Iverson signing seemed doomed from the start because Memphis had a full backcourt to begin with and a ton of shooters. Iverson basically was sent home last year when he couldn’t accept being a role player on the Pistons, so it was inevitable that he wouldn’t be happy coming off the bench on an even worse Memphis team. Still, who could’ve predicted that the crap would hit the fan after only three games?
It occurred to me that if Iverson doesn’t comeback, this would be perhaps the ugliest retirement of a Hall of Fame caliber player. While this doesn’t take away from Iverson’s accomplishments over his career, the sentimental side of all of us that want stars to go out on a high note. What constitutes a “high note”? Frankly, I’m not sure. I do think that there a number of elements that could comprise a high note:
-Playing for a long time: Abortive careers like Maurice Stokes tend to leave a mystique but also leave a sense of unfinished business (see also Bill Walton or Drazen Petrovic).
-Playing at a high level near one’s retirement: Conversely, when a star morphs into a very limited role player, fans have a hard time accepting this too. Sure, it’s not embarrassing to be a third option on offense or the first scorer off the bench, but watching Moses Malone or Patrick Ewing lumbering down the court near the end wasn’t pretty.
-Helping a very good team/title team in one’s final year: Obviously, hitting a game winning shot to clinch a title is the absolute pinnacle (see Michael Jordan, circa 1997-98), while a former star, even if he is still very good, playing meaningless games for a bad team has a depressing feel (see Michael Jordan, circa 2002-03).
With these thoughts in mind, here’s how we rank some of the Hall of Fame retirements:
Going Out On Top
-John Stockton: He wasn’t a star at the end but Stockton was as effective as 40-year old as he was as a 30-year old, albeit in many fewer minutes. The Jazz weren’t great his last few years but Stockton was the best old point guard ever.
–David Robinson: Like Stockton, Robinson was pretty effective as an older player and had a coach that spotted his minutes quite well. Robinson also was the second or third best player on a title team his final year (2002-03 Spurs), a very nice way to go out.
–Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Kareem lasted forever and was very effective until the very end.
–Bill Russell: The ultimate retirement. Russell ended his career with an upset win over the Lakers in the Finals, where he played great and his chief rival, Wilt Chamberlain sat out the final minutes. Russell ended up retiring a few months later, springing the news in a Sports Illustrated story.
-Joe Dumars: Dumars played his entire long career in Detroit, make seamless tradition from top scorer, to nice bench player, to the front office.
-Nate Thurmond: He was a bit player by the end but Thurmond managed to endear himself to effective teams in Chicago and the Cavs as a hard worker and nice guy.
Not So Pretty Retirements
-Patrick Ewing: A slow decline was made worse by the fact that he left New York on a bitter note. Teammates criticized him for wanting too many shots and Ewing threw a diva like fit and demanded a trade, when he really had little value. Ewing went from decent center in New York to ponderously slow for a few years with Seattle and Orlando. In John Hollinger’s 2002 Pro Basketball Prospectus, he summed up Ewing’s final year pretty succinctly: “Life Lesson No. 3517: You know your skills have eroded when the coach is openly lobbying for you to retire.”
-Hakeem Olajuwon: Olajuwon struggled with injuries for several years before he retired. He spent his final year in Toronto where he was okay early on but had nothing left in the tank by the playoffs.
–Moses Malone: By the end, Malone was the 12th man for a number of teams (Philly and San Antonio) and was just another slow big man. I can’t a Hall of Famer with less left in the tank at the end of his career.
-Adrian Dantley: Though he’s been forgotten a little bit, AD’s end was pretty painful. Dantley was a key scorer on the Pistons when they were on the verge of a title in 1987-88. In 1988-89, Dantley was traded mid-year for Mark Aguirre, a player of similar skills who happened to get along better with Isiah Thomas. Dantley blamed Thomas for orchestrating the trade, though GM Jack McCloskey said that the trade was made because coach Chuck Daly didn’t like that Dantley was holding the ball too much offensively: “I sat down and talked to him and said, ‘You’ve got to sit down with Chuck and whatever problem you have, work it out.’ He refused to do that,’ McCloskey said. ‘So I said, ‘If you don’t do it, I’m going to trade you.’ And we got a heck of a player for him. Adrian was an outstanding player too, but our chemistry was not good.’” Dantley broke his leg the next season for the Mavs. He returned in 1990-91 and played only 10 games for a mediocre Bucks team before his career ended.
–Wilt Chamberlain: An underrated bad retirement. Wilt left the Lakers in 1974 to play in the ABA. Unfortunately, Chamberlain was still under contract with the Lakers and wouldn’t let him play in the ABA. The San Diego Conquistadors took Wilt in as a coach instead. Wilt didn’t show up for many of the games and, when he did, he was wearing shorts and sandals. This wasn’t a really bad way to go out but sort of beneath an All-Time great.
–Dominque Wilkins: Nique’s career ending was a textbook in bad choices. Wilkins was traded by the Hawks in 1993-94 in the middle of a great season for Atlanta. Wilkins was 34 but playing great (24.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.3 apg, 21.1 PER) and the Hawks were trying to get a contract done with him (he was a free agent at the end of the year). When a deal couldn’t be reached, the Hawks traded Wilkins to the dead end Clipps for Danny Manning (another young pending free agent). Wilkins scored for the Clipps (29 ppg) but the team stunk and he missed out on a chance to take the Hawks on a playoff run. That off-season, Wilkins signed with a crappy Celtic team for no apparent reason, when there were several contending teams that could’ve used him. After one year in Boston, Wilkins left the NBA to go to Greece for 1995-96. He returned to the NBA for 1996-97 and signed with a contender (the David Robinson Spurs). Unfortunately, this was the one season David Robinson was seriously injured and, once again, Wilkins was left to score for a lottery team. He returned to Europe for 1997-98 before trying the NBA one more time at age-39 for the Orlando in 1998-99, where he barely played (9 mpg).
–Isiah Thomas: It was a tough final year for Isiah. He was still effective but the Pistons had declined to lottery level. He spent his final year with all sorts of problems: (1) he broke his hand punching teammate Bill Laimbeer in the head during practice (which seemed to prompt Laimbeer to retire on the spot), (2) Isiah attempted to negotiate a deal to go to the contending Knicks, who needed a point. The deal fell through and Isiah seemingly negotiated a deal to go to Detroit’s front office, only the deal fell apart after the season, (3) Isiah blew out his Achilles near the end of the season. He had to be carried off the court and was unable to play for the Olympic team that summer.
–Elgin Baylor: Baylor’s career ended with a bad knee injury that forced him off a good Lakers team in 1972-73. To make matters worse, the Lakers promptly got really hot without him and went on to dominate the NBA and get their first ring in Los Angeles.
–David Thompson: The ABA star declined quickly and retired by age-29. In this case, injuries and drug abuse killed Thompson’s career. Thompson’s career effectively ended when he fell down the stairs in 1984. Thompson was waived at the end of that year and never played another NBA game. Fortunately, Thompson was able to get his life together post-NBA but his ending was both premature and caused by his own demons, making it probably the worst end we’ve seen for a Hall of Famer.
Not Sure What That Was?
-Michael Jordan: Had the best ending ever twice (winning titles and then retiring in 1992-93 and again 1997-98). Of course it didn’t end there. MJ came back to the Wiz, where he had been named GM, for the 2001-02 season to make the team relevant. The comeback was somewhat ill-thought out. The Wiz were terrible and even the younger Jordan might not have made them a contender. Jordan also screwed up when he passed on a chance to acquire Elton Brand to draft Kwame Brown. The older Jordan was still really good (an All-Star and the best old shooting guard we’ve seen) but the team struggled and Jordan had some very mortal moments. To make matters even worse, when MJ retired again, Abe Polin promptly fired him as GM sending MJ into exile for a few years. That Jordan could look mortal on the court (and stupid as a GM) never bothered me and I was very interested watching his attempt to fight time. One has to concede, owever, that if Jordan had to do it over, Washington was not the place for him (clearly, he should’ve signed with the Shaq/Kobe Lakers to be their small forward).
–Charles Barkley: Barkley had a strange final season in 1999-00. He blew out his knee early in the year for a bad, declining team. Barkley rehabbed quite hard and actually made it back for a final game of the season against his first team, the 76ers.
–Magic Johnson: Not quite sure what to do with Magic. He was forced to retire in 1991 when he was diagnosed with HIV. Only Magic publicly addressed the issue and came back to play in the All-Star game (and won the MVP that year). Johnson attempted to comeback full-time in 1992-93 but an outcry from other players forced him to give up during the pre-season. He returned again in 1995-96 but the team suffered through turmoil of players who were not happy to be sharing shots and playing time with an older (but still effective) Magic.
Iverson going AWOL with the Grizz clearly fits in with the bad category. AI’s end (assuming this is the end) isn’t as disappointing as Thompson’s problems. On the other hand, we would put Iverson’s juvenile fit as worse than the other retirements. Quitting a team under the circumstances that he did, makes Iverson seem like jerky and as someone in denial, things that the other bad retirees were not.