To A.I., A Sub Is Somebody Else

Memphis Grizzlies guard Allen Iverson warms up before an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings. (AP Photo/Steve Yeater)

It's Lionel Hollins' fault. It must be. Hollins is the coach of the Memphis Grizzllies, and he won't put Allen Iverson in the starting lineup.

It's Michael Heisley's fault. It must be. He's the owner of the Grizzlies, and he won't override Hollins' decision.

The trouble is, it's always somebody's fault. I covered Iverson for more than a decade with the 76ers. I was dazzled by his talent, his tenacity, his ability to play long, hard minutes, his willingness to play through injuries. I saw him win four scoring titles. I saw him as a 10-time All-Star. I saw him as an MVP. He was spectacular in the Sixers' drive to the 2000-01 NBA Finals. He sold tickets in Philadelphia like no basketball player ever did. Not Julius Erving. Not Wilt Chamberlain.

But there was always something bubbling under the surface. There was always someone, or something, he didn't like. That even stretched to Larry Brown, the Hall Of Fame coach he professes to adore. I was there when Iverson said if Brown remained the coach, he wanted to be traded. And there was Brown saying if Iverson stayed, he would quit.

As always, things would eventually calm down. Until the next episode. Iverson welcomed Randy Ayers as Brown's successor, then berated him. He seemed puzzled when Chris Ford insisted he adhere to same rules as the rest of the players. He reveled in the arrival of Maurice Cheeks, then walked out on him. More than once, it was Billy King's fault. Had to be. King was the general manager, learning as he went along, putting out fires, one after the other, until he finally had enough.

Iverson eventually landed with Denver, where bthe Nuggets didn't flourish until they traded him for Chauncey Billips. Then came Detroit, where the blame landed squarely on Michael Curry in his one unfortunate season as the Pistons' coach. And then along came the Grizzlies. A contract worth $3.5 million didn't come with a guarantee that he would be a starter.

"I'm not trying to figure out how to contribute to no team,'' Iverson told the Associated Press before a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. "I contribute to a team by just playing. That's it . . . I don't have to figure it out. Obviously, they signed me for a reason. They've been watching me play this game for 13 years, and they know what I do on the basketball court, so I don't have to figure out how I'm going to play or anything like that. I just go out and play basketball.''

There's a tinge of sadness to that, something that says, despite his credentials, he can't adjust, can't accept a changing role.

He could have emerged as a dynamic sixth man. He could have been Ben Gordon, coming off the bench to light up opponents. He could have been Manu Ginobli, injecting a massive dose of energy into a young team. He could have provided the depth that James Posey gave the Boston Celtics two seasons ago, that Bobby Jones and Aaron McKie once provided for the Sixers in different eras.

He could have added years to his career. He could written a couple of additional chapters to his legacy. He chose not to do that.

Iverson obviously believes the Grizzlies should have known exactly who they were dealing with before they signed him. They clearly did not. If they had done their homework, they would have known that Iverson views himself as a starter. Nothing less.

Iverson left the team Saturday, given an indefinite leave of absence to deal with a personal matter. Presumably, he also will be trying to figure out what comes next. A source close to the situation told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that Iverson is considering retirement. Heisley is quoted in the Memphis Commercial Appeal saying, ''He's still got a lot of game left.''

Some of it is even on the court. And how in the world does he convince the next team? If, indeed, there is one.