The retirements of Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady recollect a post-Jordan era filled with promise, overhype, and ultimately disappointment.
This past summer, we reached the ten-year anniversary of the 2003 NBA Draft, which is considered rightly as one of the greatest rookie classes ever and the ushering of the next transcendent NBA superstar in LeBron James. Even as the draft was taking place a decade ago, I remember the extra buzz that floated around fan bases about how exceptional guys like James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and even Darko Milicic were going to be (Okay, we screwed up on that last one). For once in the history of draft evaluating, the predictors were proven right as the ’03 rookies grew to not only encompass the core of a burgeoning dynasty in the Miami Heat, but also entered the league off the heels of an NBA season in which Michael Jordan retired as a player. After years of false starts and what if’s, Jordan finally walked away from the game of basketball to let the new blood of the NBA make it on their own without his name being whispered by curious fans in the grandstands.
This was obviously not the first time that the NBA and its fans had to prepare itself for a world without M.J. When Jordan initially retired to play baseball in honor of his recently murdered father in 1993, it shocked everyone. But as much as losing a sport-defining superstar like Jordan hurt the league, David Stern still knew that the league had plenty of Dream Team talents in their primes like Malone, Barkley, Hakeem, Robinson, Stockton, and Ewing to carry the load. Fans also knew in the back of their minds that once Jordan rekindled the basketball fire that he claimed he had lost, Air Jordan would eventually fly again and the NBA would benefit even more from his triumphant return. I do not recall a lot of talk about who the “Next Michael Jordan” was going to be in 1994 given that not only was a comeback likely but there were enough really good players in the league to bridge the gap. Ratings slipped in the Finals when the Rockets won back-to-back titles, but the league was still in good shape and no one was asking Glen Rice, Steve Smith, or Grant Hill if they were going to be better than Jordan. Those guys were just worried about making their way at that point. The comparison was flattering enough, let alone claiming you were better than the man.
When Jordan eventually returned to the Bulls in 1995 and regained his MVP form in the years following, the Dream Teamers who carried the NBA in the late 80’s and early 90’s were slowing dropping out of the fray. Weeks after Jordan got back to the mountaintop and won his fourth ring as a part of the 72-10 Bulls, the 1996 NBA Draft received just as much hype and buzz as the 2003 Draft did. The controversial 6’0” scoring guard Allen Iverson went #1 to the Philadelphia 76ers. The 13th, 14th, and 15th picks were a guy straight out of high school (Kobe Bryant), a Yugoslavian who wasn’t ready to play (Peja Stojakovic), and a Canadian point guard who played four years at a small school (Steve Nash). That alone would suffice an entire draft class, but there were more. There was Marcus Camby, who was the college player of the year out of UMass. There was Antoine Walker, who had just led his Kentucky Wildcats to a national title. There was Iverson’s Big East rival Ray Allen from UConn. There were two one-and-done’s in Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Stephon Marbury. You even saw future stars like Jermaine O’Neal and Zdrunas Ilgauskas get picked in the first round.
The future had not yet found its way in the NBA while the Bulls were still dominating the NBA landscape in the late 90’s, but it had certainly arrived. Iverson was given the damn ball from the get-go in Philadelphia and set rookie scoring records not seen since Wilt Chamberlain in some categories. His crossover on Jordan that season was the Ali over Liston of the SLAM! Magazine generation, when for a fleeting moment, the new guard flew past the old one. But even with Iverson at the forefront, the Sixers still lost 60 games. Marbury teamed up with another youngster in Kevin Garnett to create what many foolishly labeled as the hip-hop version of Stockton-to-Malone, not knowing that they secretly hated each other. Bryant won the Slam Dunk contest and showed flashes of brilliance, but he also threw up air balls against the Utah Jazz in a pivotal playoff game. The next year, the Spurs wound up with the #1 pick and chose a future Hall of Famer in Tim Duncan. Keith Van Horn, Chauncey Billups, and Antonio Daniels followed Duncan on the list. Then with the ninth overall pick, the awful Toronto Raptors took a chance and picked a skinny 6’9″ forward with amazing wingspan out of Houston named Tracy McGrady.
But when the Bulls won their sixth title in 1998, closing out a second three-peat and closing the book on their dominant title reign of the 90’s, the last dance was already played. Jordan retired, this time for good in the eyes of many, Phil Jackson took a sabbatical, Scottie Pippen signed with the Rockets, and Dennis Rodman did… stuff. The kings of the NBA were gone, with the fairest of them all riding off into the sunset, it was up to the new generation to replace the legacy of the Dream Team. The lockout-shortened season of 1999 was both intriguing and depressing at the same time because while it was fun to see what team or group of players the basketball gods would send upwards to reign supreme in the NBA, it was also perfectly clear that these guys were not ready to take that big step. Kobe and Shaq were still lost souls together before Phil entered their lives while Iverson got bounced early in the playoffs against the more experienced Indiana Pacers. There was one bright spot in, of all places, Toronto as McGrady teamed up with a high-flying rookie out of North Carolina named Vince Carter.
It did not take long for many writers to quickly compare Carter to another recently departed high-flyer from Chapel Hill. If this new age of NBA superstars in the new millennium was a football season, then the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest was its Super Bowl. Vin-sanity rocked the world as Carter put on the most incredible display of dunks you will ever see. His participation overshadowed the impressive dunks from other stars like McGrady, Steve Francis and Jerry Stackhouse. Iverson, meanwhile, was gaining a reputation as the idol of the hip-hop generation, with baggy attire, cornrows in his hair, and unafraid to show off his body ink and street cred. Iverson became such a trend-setter in his day that nearly all his mannerisms were copied, from the low-toned, on-the-real personality to the elbow sleeves to the emotional outbursts. It was strange watching a player who inherently did a lot of things the wrong way both on and off the court be praised in the basketball underworld as a savior of the street game.
As we rolled into the year 2001, O’Neal and Duncan had clearly set themselves as the future of the NBA, but they were big guys who were not terribly fancy on the court outside of Shaq’s egotistical personality. We as fans this time were craving for the Next Jordan, and we created lists of “Jordanaires” or “Air Apparent’s” or “Heirs to Dream” as the next great guard or slasher in a more fundamentally flawed NBA. Cleverly marked nicknames were all over the place from T-Mac to KG, from the Answer to Starbury, from Stevie Franchise to the Truth. Kobe ascended quickly as a top candidate for taking Jordan’s throne, but he was still playing second fiddle to Shaq in Los Angeles. Duncan had youth and all the tools, but his stoic, silent behavior became more a trademark for him than actually being promoted as a go-to guy. Iverson physically was very much unlike Jordan, being at least 6 inches shorter than him, but it was the wave of fans who gravitated towards the Answer’s unsavory ways that made him such a magnetic figure.
Although Bryant rose to the occasion as an individual player in 2001, it was Iverson who won the league MVP. The Ali/Frazier of the Next M.J. generation was in the second round of the 2001 playoffs when Iverson and Vince Carter did battle in the ultimate game of one-on-one in a seven-game series. Carter gets 35 in a Game 1 win, then Iverson put up 54 in Game 2. Vince fires back with 50 in Game 3, then Iverson lights up for 52 in Game 5. The first six games were one amazing performance after the next not seen in quite a while. But the irony of that series was that in the seventh and final game, Iverson beat Carter by willingly handing out 16 assists when his shot wasn’t falling. Carter refused to do the same throughout the game and he bricked a jump shot at the buzzer to lose the series. Iverson proved his worth by beating another Class of ’96 guy, Ray Allen, in a seven-game series win over the Milwaukee Bucks to get to the NBA Finals. He even carried the Sixers to an unlikely Game 1 overtime win at Los Angeles. His ankle breaker over Tyronn Lue is one of the most repeated highlights in his career. But outside of that, Shaq and Kobe versus Iverson was more like Foreman/Frazier than it was Ali/Frazier. The Lakers beat the Sixers in Philadelphia to win their second straight title on the way to a three-peat the following season.
When the 2001 postseason came to a close, you felt that players on the cusp of greatness like Iverson, Carter, Garnett and McGrady (who was making a name for himself with the Orlando Magic) would be able to rise to the occasion and be the next rival for the burgeoning dynasties in Los Angeles and San Antonio. Unfortunately, it never happened. When the Laker dynasty fell apart, it wasn’t one of the “Air Apparent’s” but Larry Brown’s superstar-less, blue collar Detroit Pistons who did the deed. Carter floundered in Toronto and never seemed to match the elite level he was flirting with in his playoff duel with Iverson. When Brown left the Sixers to win a title in Detroit, Iverson never found another muse that could get the best out of him or his teams the same way Brown did (Although Iverson and Brown were notorious for not getting along at times). Garnett won the MVP in 2004, but lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals and struggled in his last few seasons in Minnesota. Bryant was now alone in Los Angeles after he forced Shaq out of town, but his teams struggled to get to a winning record early on without the Diesel. Even when Jordan himself returned to play as a Washington Wizard as a shell of his former self, it still felt like M.J.’s all-encompassing ghost was haunting the league.
Scoring was way down, attendance revenue was just breaking even, and the ratings for the 2003 Finals were decrepit. The player that I personally rooted for and thought had all the tools to make it out of the pack of Jordan wanna-be’s was McGrady. He reminded me a lot of Pippen, but with more athleticism and an innate ability to score in bunches. Who better to take the place of the next Jordan, I thought to myself, than the next Pippen in this watered down version of the NBA? If you cannot find the next great guard, what about the next great small forward? Unfortunately, McGrady, like his former teammate Carter, had all the talents to match wits with the best but lacked in the clutch gene. The clutch gene was something that the Dream Team could not simply pass down to the next row of superstars; the new guys either had it or they didn’t. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the 2004 Olympic team led by Iverson, Duncan, and Marbury failed miserably while LeBron, Anthony, and Wade learned as newbies from their elders’ inherent mistakes. While Kobe built a reputation as a Mamba who was not afraid to rip another city’s heart out, McGrady simply could not do it. Until he was an afterthought in 2009, McGrady never won a playoff series.
Even though he won two straight scoring titles and scored 62 points in a game in 2004, T-Mac could not carry the torch. He averaged 32 PPG in 2003 and held a 3-1 series lead in the first round against the Pistons. The Magic blew the series in seven games. He then demanded a trade to the Rockets, and in the 2004-05 season, McGrady pulled off one of the most amazing shooting displays to win a game you will ever see against the Spurs. But after bringing a 2-0 series lead back to Houston against the Mavericks, they still lost in the first round. McGrady helped lead the Rockets to a 22-game winning streak in 2008, the third longest in NBA history. Then his team lost in the first round to the Utah Jazz. His third cousin and fellow “Jordanaire” Carter had just as rough an adjustment as the reality of their careers fell far short of what fans imagined they could become. Carter asked out of Toronto after deliberately missing games in the 2005 season, leading to a trade to the Nets where even as a sidekick to Jason Kidd, Carter was unable to break through the glass ceiling in the Eastern Conference. Iverson’s goals seemed to turn in the late 00’s from playoff success to inflating his stats as he tried to match Bryant’s historic 35.4 PPG season in 2006 (Iverson finished second with 33 PPG).
The future had arrived in the NBA Drafts of ’96, ’97, and ’98, but it was Bryant who became the present and took the mantle as closest heir to Michael Jordan as the 00’s came to a close. With the help of Phil Jackson, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom, Bryant won back-to-back titles as the leader of his team, with no Shaq-scuses left to needle at him. He may have been the youngest dog in the fight when he was drafted out of a Philadelphia high school way back when, but his apprenticeship behind Shaq and his willingness to put teams away late in games benefited him greatly as he himself became the top guy in the entire league. As we rolled into 2010, with Bryant at the top of the food chain, LeBron and Kevin Durant creeping up, and Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett salvaging their careers together in Boston, the collateral damage from Iverson, Carter, and McGrady’s shorthanded results became more and more glaring. Carter became a certified role player for the Magic (where he choked big time in the Eastern Conference Finals) and Suns, and is now a crafty, forgotten 36-year-old veteran for the Dallas Mavericks. He can still dunk, but the potential that fans raved about after his Slam Dunk Contest victory is completely eradicated.
McGrady was traded from Houston to the Knicks before signing short deals with the Pistons and Hawks. After not finding work in the NBA in 2012, he went off to China before taking a free ride with the Spurs this past season. To show how much Gregg Popovich respected McGrady, his jersey number was 1, the same number he wore throughout his career. I got the same feeling watching McGrady on the bench for the Spurs that I did when Mitch Richmond, after a great career, won a title with the 2002 Lakers while contributing very little to the cause. It must have felt a little good for T-Mac, though, to sit back and enjoy the grandest stage of NBA basketball after years of being unable to do it on his own. Time had healed many of those wounds for McGrady and he seemed content and comfortable when he called it a career at 34 years old on ESPN’s First Take earlier this week. He might play in China again, but in terms of stateside, we have seen the last of what looked to be a promising career deflated by postseason failures. Although his final seasons were low in production, he still finishes his career with a 19.6 scoring average.
But the player who took the deepest and darkest descent in the twilight of his career has been Iverson. After some successful seasons as a Nugget alongside Carmelo Anthony (none of which led to a playoff series win), Iverson was shipped to Detroit in 2008 where he struggled there and earned the hatred of many Pistons fans. He signed a contract with the Grizzlies but only played 3 games for them before being cut. He came to terms to return to the Sixers, which included a very emotional press conference that seemed to reflect the emotions of many fans who felt that his career went amiss. Iverson also left the Sixers in early 2010 due to personal issues. He would never play in the NBA again. In October of 2010, he signed a deal with a Turkish basketball club but stopped playing there in early 2011. He was offered a spot by the Dallas Mavericks’ D-League affiliate, but Iverson turned it down. Throughout this steep decline come the even more depressing stories surrounding Iverson’s divorce, gambling debt and possible alcoholism. At one point in a recent court proceeding, Iverson emptied his pockets to show the judge that a man who earned hundreds of millions of dollar in the NBA did not have enough money to buy a cheeseburger. It almost seemed symmetrical that the site which broke the news that Iverson would announce his retirement this week at age 38 was SLAM! Magazine.
As McGrady and Iverson prepare to officially close the book on their careers and Carter enters the final year of his contract with Dallas, you start to wonder if their stories are the stuff of what should have been or if they were only capable of what they accomplished. We all know now that Bryant and Duncan, nearing the end of their own careers, reached that upper platform of NBA greatness and are in a position to look back and admire their many accolades. But even Kobe admitted in an up-close interview with Jimmy Kimmel that his toughest match-ups were McGrady and Iverson. It was probably unfair for fans and media to peg guys like them as the second coming of basketball sainthood in the wake of Michael Jordan’s eventual exit from the game. Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Garnett survived the stigma by either lightening their workload with more stable franchises or biding their time to make a run and win a championship. With Iverson, Carter, and McGrady, we sat on top of the volcano of potential waiting for the eruption, and all it did was bubble up slightly until it caved in.
But even in their shortcomings and incomplete resumes under the immense pressure of trying to carry a league that many fans refused to embrace, it is impossible to deny their influence among not only fans who enjoyed some incredible moments, but also from players who grew up watching them. That young California kid who emulated A.I. in the gym? That kid is now Russell Westbrook. Every young player in the NBA today can probably tell you where they were when Carter busted out a 360 windmill in the dunk contest. And whom did Popovich use in practice to play the role of LeBron James as he prepared the Spurs for their NBA Finals matchup against the Miami Heat? Tracy McGrady, of course. Impersonation is the sincerest form of flattery, and even though it was merely a strategy, I cannot imagine how weird it felt for McGrady to be the King for a day. After all, he was the one who almost became a King himself.