We’ve all struggled with the global recession, there’s no denying that fact. Even sports, once considered a recession-proof industry, are struggling to keep attendance up. Almost every team is actively pursuing payroll cuts, and this trend is most noticeable in the NBA. With so many teams facing serious financial troubles, it’s simply no longer sensible to overpay for production or players who can’t put butts in the seats.
But if the recession has sucker-punched NBA owners, it has grabbed the city of Detroit, flipped it on its head and shaken every penny from the pockets of what once was the capital of American industry. Chrysler and General Motors, once proud purveyors of America’s blue collar middle-class, have both entered bankruptcy. And the Detroit Pistons, the very namesake of the auto-industry, seem to have followed in suit. In an effort to cut costs not for this season, but the next few, the Pistons sold their heart and soul, Chauncey Billups, for Allen Iverson’s massive expiring contract.
Somewhat surprisingly the final phase of Iverson’s career began December 26th in a dimly lit bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan, just under a quarter of an hour outside of Detroit. I sat with my father, born and raised in Motor City, my uncle, and a few of his older friends. The large projection screen immediately captured my attentionthe Oklahoma City Thunder being a favorite young team of mine. The young Thunder were absolutely surging; Kevin Durant was flashing signs of future superstardom, and Rasheed Wallace was shouting at the refs, begging for bailout. Both teams traded baskets again, as the aged Antonio McDyess beat the even more aged Joe Smith for a layup, only to give up a jumper on the other end of the floor; evidence that it’s not easy to defend without knees.
With five seconds left Detroit no longer had Mr. Big Shot to step into a game winner, or at least take command of a well-crafted player for the final sequence. Instead Iverson crossed over once, twice, and pulled up to fire. Perhaps as a veteran he didn’t feel the pressure. Perhaps he was simply playing the percentages, having gone without a field goal the night before. Or perhaps Iverson’s poise wasn’t poise at all, but the result of a nonchalant sense of entitlement. As Iverson’s trademark mid-range bullet ripped through the net, the whole barPistons fans or noterupted with applause.
My uncle, who hadn’t known that the Thunder were an NBA team five minutes earlier, turned to me and shouted over the roar, “You see, that’s what we’ve always been missing! That Iverson is one hell of a basketball player!”
Never mind that a few possessions earlier AI had jacked up and bricked an exceptionally well covered three, or that he lost his handle during an ill-advised and unnecessarily flashy fake when Detroit could have sealed the deal earlier in the fourth. Never mind that the Pistons, the team that made defense fashionable in the East again, barely challenged a Thunder shot during the young team’s run. Never mind that a squad only a few seasons removed from an NBA championship looked like they had more important places to be than defending their home court in front of a crowd that suffered through the Lions winless season, an ever increasing unemployment rate, and mayoral conduct that would make Gaddafi blush. These Pistons really didn’t care, and Detroit didn’t care about their attitude because they finally had a brand name superstarAI, The Answer.
General Motors had stopped trying awhile before Iverson and the Pistons. The automaker slowly lost market share, their quality declined, and prices were driven up to fund expansion today instead of investing in technologies of tomorrow. Amid national concerns about the viability of their business plan, the giant corporation foolishly stayed true to their old-school mantra of more, bigger, and faster while consumers demanded reliability, economy, and efficiency. Of course GM could still sell a lot of cars, but that didn’t change the constant losses on their balance sheets.
Iverson was coming off a year that, statistically, appeared to be a career revival, despite his team barely making the playoffs with an enormous payroll and an embarrassing first-round sweep. The hard-nosed combo guard averaged tons of points, and even put up solid assists numbers. But those numbers were all a sham, as anyone who watched the Nuggets play could have told you. Iverson made almost no use of the talent around him, feuded with coach George Karl, and oftentimes seemed more interested in dueling teammate Carmelo Anthony than playing the other team.
When Iverson arrived Detroit embraced him and shouted championship even as the national media recognized the trade as a cleverly covered salary dump, but Pistons fans wouldn’t have the luxury of blissful ignorance for long. The Answer immediately left Detroit’s coaching staff with some serious lineup questions to answer and even upset the notoriously amicable Rip Hamilton. His isolation skills didn’t merge well with the team basketball fan’s perennial favorite team.
By the end of the season AI wouldn’t even play, taking himself off the bench and onto the DL with “back injuries.” Iverson iced the cake by commenting, “I’d rather retire before I do this again.” The cake, of course, was for the funeral of his superstardom.
Allen Iverson, General Motors, and Detroit all share the same fate. They are pariahs not because of their age or declining value, but because they stubbornly cling to the past. These superstars, icons even, are unwilling to pass the torch despite its inevitability. Those closest to the former leaders only encouraged their delusions, and everyone else resents them for coddling the growing inadequacies of the former idols. The result is an ugly end to a now tarnished legacy.
And if there is one thing that won’t sell tickets in this recession, it is national resentment, a tarnished legacy, and The Answer to a question nobody has asked for years.