Monday, August 20, 2007

We don't want Allen Iverson's talent ruining our selflessness and hustle!

An interesting poll on Pittsburgh's confirmed that 64% of Pittsburghers, if they were hypothetical basketball GMs, would not want Allen Iverson on their hypothetical basketball team, the Pittsburgh Hustlin' Whiteys. This begs the question, for what reason would a team not want a four-time scoring champ and former MVP while he's still only 31 and has never been given a chance to play with a decent supporting cast?

The reason for these poll results is a symptom of sports analysis which has long troubled me, and here I can only begin to scratch the surface: hustle and selflessness, or the perception thereof, are somehow seen as more important and more praiseworthy than actually possessing talent or being good at things. Note that this poll comes from my hometown of Pittsburgh, where people constantly boo Jaromir Jagr, who won two Stanley Cups and five scoring titles in Pittsburgh, but never booed scrappy Jason Kendall, who was getting paid $10 million to hit .283 with 3 home runs in 2002.

Why would you not want Iverson on your basketball team? Because he's selfish? That can't be the reason, because he was 8th in the league last year with 7.4 assists a game, more than Lebron "Captain Selfish" James, Gilbert "King of Selfish" Arenas, Sam "Cassellfish" Cassell, and way above Kobe (actually selfish) Bryant's 4.5. You must not like Iverson because he doesn't play defense, right? Well, he was 8th in the league with 1.9 steals a game, whereas hustlin', intangible-havin', teammate of the galaxy Steve Nash, the league's Most Valuable Player, finished tied for 79th. If you asked the question, would you want Steve Nash on your team, what would the results be? Would "Yes" exceed 100%?

The issue here is, clearly, sportswriters and sports fans find it convenient to label an athlete with a persona and, rather than actually looking at statistics or, god forbid, watching the guy play, they simply resign themselves to tailoring the player's doings to fit how they would like that athlete to be perceived. You've heard it all before:

George Brett and Pete Rose argued with umpires because they were gamers who couldn't bear not winning. Barry Bonds and Albert Belle argued because they're spoiled, whiny assholes.

Alex Rodriguez's .290 avg /35 HR / 121 RBI season constitutes a clutchless, hollow superstar unable to deal with the pressures of the big city. David Eckstein's .290 avg / 2 HR / 23 RBI is the mark of a scrappy hustler who plays way bigger than his 5'7" stature.

As if you even need to be told this, Brett Favre throws into triple coverage because he's a competitive gunslinger. Any other quarterback who does it had a lapse of judgment.

The Iverson backlash isn't some simple moral issue, either. Iverson recorded a rap album six years ago that supposedly contained derogatory references to homosexuals, and the swirling controversy that emerged (for which Iverson apologized) generated countless TO-like debates about whether Iverson was worth having on a team. Meanwhile, Todd Jones of the Detroit Tigers DIRECTLY STATED his numbskulled distaste towards gays, and that hasn't stopped anyone from viewing him as an exemplary baseball human being whose value extends far beyond his consistently sub-pedestrian stats.

Allen Iverson is six feet even in a game dominated by giants, and yet, outside Philly, you'll never read a column about how scrappy he his, how hard he plays, and how his accomplishments which are phenomenal by any standards become superhuman when one takes into account his size. Meanwhile, that cute lil' bugger David Eckstein is the recipient of constant, constant, never-ending, everpresent, praise just for being short (and white). Eckstein's moderate baseball ability allows for his obnoxiously calculated hustle to appear more noticeable, giving sportswriters endless fodder for columns about how intangible his contributions are and how anything a short person does is somehow more praiseworthy than what people of average height do. Iverson's talent marginalizes this, though, and because he's been graced with an ability that we're all jealous of, he forfeits the right to be able to be praised for his effort, and will only make us notice him when he missteps.

I guess it's unreasonable for me to expect sportswriters to stop misguidedly affixing significance to things cold turkey. But as long as we're passing judgment on athletes, Iverson's "we're talkin' bout practice" will always draw more ire than Eckstein's "we're talking about .290, 2 and 23!"

Thanks to, as always, for never missing an Eckstein column


Anonymous said...

While I am a big fan of AI, steals are not a great factor in deciding defense. Steals generally come from quickness and taking chances. AI's size, unfortunately, keeps him from being an elite defender at his position.

Dan said...

Agreed that Iverson is not an elite defender, but his top-10 steals is an indication of some sort of defensive effort, not necessarily beyond that of Steve Nash, but at least close enough to the point where if you're going to give Nash back-to-back MVPs and talk endlessly about his value to a team, you can't then bash Iverson for not playing defense.

Anonymous said...

Im a huge AI fan and he has been in the league for 10 years and one of the top 5 for 8 years in the whole league. People will say he shoots too much and is selfish thats because he has to be. Nice blog though

The Awkward Toad said...

Great Blog!

As a long time Sixers fan, my argument to you would be that, for teams that are already undersized, Iverson represents a serious defensive liability. There's a reason Larry Brown stacked the Sixers with defenders during his tenure here. Teams switch on him because of his size and his steals come at what are sometimes unnecessary gambles on the defensive end.

Still, I agree, you would think at least a third of the teams in the NBA could use a four time scoring champ.

Anonymous said...

People praise what they can identify with. Most people who passionately love sports played competitively until they hit a level where everyone was more talented. So of course they're going to root for the guy whose success at the pro level can be attributed to his work ethic and grit instead of unemulatable talent. It's like you're rooting for yourself against all those bastards who so rudely showed you your athletic ceiling.

sawneybeene said...

Fantastic post. Listening to the talking heads on ESPN going on and on about how AI would ruin any team he's traded to was making my head hurt, and this post was just the cure for it.

Anonymous said...

I think Mark Twain said something about lies, d**med lies, and statistics.

CliffX said...

I call racism. Okay, not really.

Monty said...

It's absurd that so many teams that would benefit from having AI won't take a change becuase of fear based solely on stereotypes.

I'm a die hard Celtics fan, and I wouldn't mind them trading any three players they currently have, Paul Pierce notwithstanding, for AI.

Pacifist Viking said...

I don't think enough people understand that Iverson is one of the greatest scorers ever to play basketball (he's one of 4 players with 4 or more scoring titles), or that he's ultra-competitive to go with it. Man, I hope the T-Wolves can get him.

To be fair, you can't take much from self-selecting polls (perhaps Iverson-haters are more likely to vote in such a poll?), and there are plenty of people around the internet who praise Iverson immensely (like Simmons and FreeDarko).

He absolutely makes any team better immediately.

Anonymous said...

Great post. As a Knicks fan, I would love to have AI on my team.

Scrappy = no talent and/or white.

Anonymous said...

Also, notice that while all the commentators who never played the game are talking about how negative an influence Iverson is, every player, both active and retired, continue to talk about how Iverson would make any team better.