On Sunday, Allen Iverson refused to play hurt after his coach told him heíd be coming off the bench. On Thursday, Tim Duncan returned from injury, and came off the bench. Was Iverson selfish and Duncan classy? Or vice-versa? The answer is neither. Both players did the right thing.

Iverson and Duncan Were Both Right

Philip Maymin
Basketball News Services  

On Sunday, Allen Iverson refused to play hurt after his coach told him heíd be coming off the bench in order to limit his minutes. On Thursday, Tim Duncan returned from injury, and came off the bench to play limited minutes. A naÔf would label Iverson selfish and Duncan classy. He would be wrong. An iconoclast would label Iverson stubborn and Duncan a show-off. He would be wrong, too. The truth is that both players did the right thing.

How can two seemingly opposite actions in seemingly identical circumstances both be right? It could be that the action doesnít matter; for example, if you come to a fork in the road that eventually converges further ahead, it doesnít matter if you go left or right. Thatís not the case here. The action matters tremendously, for three reasons.

One, the decision could mean the difference between a win and a loss that particular game. Iverson sat out the road game against the Eastís second-best team and the Sixers lost to the Pistons by 16. Thereís no telling if Iverson playing through pain would have been able to make the difference, but it certainly wouldnít have hurt. Duncan came off the bench against the Westís second-best team and the Spurs beat the Wolves by 20. In his case, itís almost certain that without Duncanís 22 points and 10 rebounds the Spurs would have lost. In any event, any team playing without its start player is going to have problems. Both Iverson and Duncan have been voted league MVPs, first Iverson three years ago, then Duncan the past two years. Youíd have to go back to Shaquille OíNealís MVP trophy in the 1999-2000 season to find a time when neither Iverson nor Duncan were MVP. Just as the Lakers have difficulty playing without Shaq ,the Sixers and the Spurs have difficulty without their captains.

Two, the decision could mean the difference between staying healthy or aggravating the injury even more. All too often an athlete pushes himself to come back from an injury early, only to reinjure it further. Gilbert Arenas missed much of the beginning of the season and when he came back too early, he had to miss more games later to heal more thoroughly. Grant Hill is the epitome of coming back early, as he has barely played in any games over the past four years because of an ankle injury that never gets a chance to heal. If the Magic were in the playoff hunt, Hill would probably insist on playing this season. Instead, he will rest and come back next season, giving him an additional five or six months of recovery time. If Iverson came back too early and hurt himself worse, he might have to miss the remainder of the season, and the Sixers postseason chances would be wiped out. If Duncan came back too early and hurt himself worse, that could mean the Spurs wouldnít have the talent to compete for the championships.

Three, the decision could mean the difference between your teammates, coaches, and fans respecting you or being disappointed in you. The knee-jerk reaction to Iversonís decision has been to judge him a selfish headcase. How can you coach a player who gives ultimatums like that? Unfounded rumors immediately swirled about the Sixers looking to trade their star player. These rumors were quickly denied, but, as we all know, no player is safe in this league. Thereís always some offer that gets the deal done. The knee-jerk reaction to Duncanís decision, on the other hand, has been to judge him a class act. Here, point the lauders, is a true team player who does whatever is in the best interests of the team. The fact that Duncan came off the bench just days after Iverson refused to do so only adds to San Antonioís public relations coup.

So the action clearly matters; this is not a case of indifference among choices. What, then, is the right choice?

What would you do?

I know what I would do. In my situation as an unsigned, undrafted free agent, I would do whatever the coach told me. Iíd come off the bench. Iíd play anything from point guard to center. Iíd defend a full-court press by myself for 48 minutes. Iíd do that because my reward is playing time, both today and in the future. If I were known around the league as a team player, a quick learner, a guy who does whatever the coach asks, and a somewhat talented player, I would be a grizzled veteran in no time. My value function is to maximize my participation. I donít care about the big contracts as much as I do about just having a chance to play at the highest level. Therefore, Iíd do whatever the coach asked.

Thatís a similar situation that Tim Duncan finds himself in. His main claim to fame is winning. If the Spurs had had the record of the Wolves the last couple of years, Duncan would not have been MVP, and he would not be a world champion. If the Spurs had been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs as far back as human history is recorded, people would feel now about Duncan the way they felt last year about Kevin Garnett: an amazingly talented player who just hasnít gotten the job done. Nothing he did would be of major consequence. In that case, whether he came off the bench or started after an injury wouldnít make big news. Beyond how it affects the matchups in a particular game, who cares if recently healed Wally Sczcerbiak comes off the bench or starts?

Suppose for a moment the Iverson fiasco hadnít happened. Then whether or not Duncan starts or comes off the bench has no repercussions. It is not a newsworthy event. Instead, it is a coaching decision, much like the decision of whether Duncan should play 18 minutes or 22.

Yes, sometimes players whine about playing too few minutes. Witness Antoine Walker of the Dallas Mavericks. If he hadnít complained about playing only 18 minutes, probably nobody would have even noticed. Whining does get attention, but the number of minutes you played and whether or not you came off the bench is of little note.

But the Iverson fiasco did happen. Suddenly, Duncanís decision has tremendous repercussions. If he starts, it is as if the entire Spurs organization at least partially concedes that Iverson was right, that superstars coming off injuries should be re-inserted into the starting lineup, regardless of how many minutes they play. This was a great opportunity for San Antonio, head coach Gregg Popovich, and Tim Duncan to gain some national attention by doing the ďclassyĒ thing. Image may not be everything but it sure is important.

What would the classy thing have been? The truly classy act would have been to beg off the question of who would start and make it a game-time decision. If Duncan were feeling alright, why not let him start? If heís playing poorly, he can always be benched. Instead, the Spurs made a big deal out of the fact that Duncan was not starting. How? They made the decision well in advance of the game, and did not even attempt to defuse the situation. Even Duncan himself, who really is a classy guy by any measure, made a tasteless joke at Iversonís expense.

When coach Popovich informed Duncan that he was going to come off the bench during shootaround that morning, according to The San Antonio Express-News, Duncan said, ďIím not playing. I canít come off the bench. Iím a starter.Ē This rest of the Spurs reportedly laughed loudly at Duncanís mocking of Iversonís reasoning.

Is that a classy thing to do?

The fact that Duncan, in returning from an injury, came off the bench instead of starting, by itself, means nothing, because Duncan is a player who is judged by victories. It is neither a classy nor a selfish thing to do. It is entirely neutral. How he, his coach, and the Spurs handled it, however, in announcing the decision early that day and overtly mocking Iverson, all seemingly in order to generate some good PR for the club, was a selfish and low thing to do. It was not a classy act.

But was Iverson selfish? You must be thinking that surely I wouldnít argue that Iverson was classy. How can it be classy to disrespect your coach so openly?

Youíre right; I wonít be arguing that Iverson was classy, but I also wonít be arguing that he was selfish. Iverson was, in a word, insulted.

Iverson is not the type of player that Duncan is. His reputation is not founded on winning as much as it is on his performance, his flashes of brilliance, his competitive drive, and his heroics. He is a showman, in the mold of Pistol Pete Maravich. Iverson has never been a champion, but he has also never failed to attract crowds. When Philadelphia visits to play your home team, you donít go to the arena anticipating a great opportunity to see how the Sixers execute their pick-and-roll, as you might when Utah comes to town. You donít go to the arena anticipating exciting up-tempo basketball, as you would when New Jersey comes to town. You donít go to the arena anticipating a high scoring game, as you would when Dallas comes to town. You come there to see Allen Iverson. You come there to cheer and to boo Allen Iverson.

When else can you cheer him or boo him or be in awe of him or be afraid of him more than at the opening tipoff? The starters are announced with fanfare at the beginning of the game, while substitutes merely exchange places with teammates to no great alarm. Why would that be something you would want to take away from the fans?

From Philadelphia head coach Chris Fordís perspective, the only reason not to start Allen Iverson is to play him at a time, usually the second quarter, when the opponents play their second unit. In other words, coach Ford wanted to give Iverson an opportunity to play through his pain against lowered competition. Then, if he is playing up to par, Ford might decide to leave him against the other teamís starters.

Thatís not only insulting to a player like Iverson, a six-foot tall guard who routinely flies into and over seven footers, but itís potentially damaging. Competition is what drives the superstars in this league, not merely playing time, and certainly not playing time against scrubs. Iverson would not play through the pain to pay against a high-school team. He doesnít need the workout or the practice session. He wants to win.

Not only does he want to win, but he wants to do it against worthy competition. If the Sixers were playing against a weak team like Atlanta or Phoenix, he might not even have offered to suit up. Itís only because he understood the importance of winning, and the danger of Detroit, that he offered to risk further personal injury to help assure a win. He was a pauper offering his coach his last piece of bread. For Ford to reply that he would play him essentially against Detroitís bench was worse than refusing the bread: it was like throwing it back in Iversonís face.

Of course Iverson wouldnít stand for that. To acquiesce would, to him, diminish himself in front of the fans, demean himself in front of his teammates, and demoralize himself if he were to get injured. Iverson was willing to risk an injury if there was a chance it would result in a worthy win; he was not willing to risk injury to put on a personal workout for his coach to determine if Iverson was ready to play with the big boys.

Duncan is not that kind of player, nor was he in exactly the same situation. Duncan had been practicing with the team, and wanted to see how his knee would feel after a few minutes of actual game time. He was playing against the Timberwolves, an important match, but not one that held monumental meaning. The Spurs are going to the playoffs virtually regardless of how they play till the end of the regular season. The Sixers are even now 3.5 games out of the playoff race in the East. Getting to the playoffs is worthy and important goal; potentially influencing your standings somewhat is not quite as noble.

Neither Duncan nor Iverson were selfish or classy in their respective decisions and how they each handled it. Duncan was pragmatic, but Iverson was proud.

Who do you respect more now?