What happened to retiring in style?

Behind the Bench/Sports by

Nobody wants to be “that guy” on campus. The guy in the seventh year of his undergrad and still trying to fit in. The guy who tirelessly attempts to convince you that the victory lap is, in fact, cool. Allen Iverson has become “that guy.”

On October 29, Allen Iverson signed a two-year contract with the club Besiktas Cola Turka. Never heard of them? You’re not alone. Besiktas is a professional basketball team based in Istanbul and belongs to Europe’s second-tier league, EuroCup. The 11 time NBA all-star and former MVP was showered with media attention as he landed in Istanbul, and Turkish fans are eagerly anticipating his debut on November 20. To the dismay of many fans, he’s made it possible for the words “Iverson” and “second tier” to be put into one coherent sentence.

The past two seasons have been a struggle for Iverson. Plagued by injuries and personal issues, he made a gradual descent from superstardom to the Detroit Pistons bench, to being out of the NBA before the 2009–2010 season ended. In July, Iverson posted on his Twitter account, “I want to return to the NBA this season, and help any team that wants me, in any capacity that they feel that I can help.” He’s now Istanbul’s biggest basketball celebrity after he received no calls and no contract offers from NBA teams. Larry Brown, the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers during Iverson’s tenure, said, “I think it’s sad having him have to go to Turkey to finish his career.” Sad is exactly how I felt as I read the headlines of Iverson’s signing. Allegedly, his plan is to dominate in Turkey, show the NBA that he’s still a star, and eventually make his return. However, his aspirations sound like a daydream.

Disappointingly, this seems to be a growing trend in the world of professional sports. Take David Beckham, for example. The English soccer star left Europe to play for the L.A. Galaxy of the MLS. He was also conveniently injured for the 2010 World Cup. I say conveniently because anyone who has seen him play recently can tell you that he is not the same Beckham that led the English squad so many years ago. Following him to North America was French soccer deity Thierry Henry. The once unstoppable Henry spent most of the 2010 World Cup helplessly huddled on the bench in a parka. Both Henry and Beckham were no longer competitive in Europe and knew that it was time to take their leave. Their awareness of their own abilities is appreciated, but their desperate attempts to stretch their careers are not. I grew up watching Beckham and Henry tear up the field in Europe. Seeing them in the MLS doesn’t make me nostalgic, it makes me disappointed.   

Iverson’s decision is not any different from the career shifts of Beckham and Henry. Iverson is one of the most decorated players in NBA history, but he’s now 35 years old and nowhere close to being the player he once was. His Besiktas contract will make him $4 million richer—not too significant for a man who has made over $200 million throughout his NBA career.

With all this in mind, how is retirement not the obvious option for Iverson, Beckham, or Henry? What is it that drives these formerly majestic athletes to seek acceptance elsewhere when they are no longer fit for the top level of competition? They’ve all had their share of accomplishments and recognition, so why not quit while they are on top and leave with their dignity intact? This may seem overly pessimistic, but as Iverson starts up his “revitalized” career at the sold-out game in the modest Besiktas J.K. Arena, where the seating capacity is 4,500, he will quickly realize that it doesn’t compare to the days when he was the most dominant player in the NBA, playing at the Wells Fargo Centre before the eyes of 20,000 adoring fans during the NBA playoffs.

I’m not undermining these athletes, their careers, or their pure love for their respective sports. They’re still productive players for their new respective teams. I just miss the classic curtain calls of legendary athletes, like Wayne Gretsky’s emotional ceremony, that left you feeling pleasantly reminiscent. I’m a sucker for picture perfect endings, and athletes like Iverson are raining on my parade.