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Answer me this: How bad does Iverson want it?

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PHILADELPHIA

Allen Iverson isn't gone. He's just forgotten. Gone are the memories of his four league scoring titles, his one league MVP honor, his trip to the NBA Finals and even his career 27.1 points per game average entering this season. Instead, what is remembered most about the man known as "The Answer" are the abundance of questions that surround him right now. Does Iverson still have enough gas left in his tank? Can he get it done like he used to? Would he really be an asset to a contending team, just a pulse away from a championship? Is Iverson's selfish, I'd-rather-retire-than-come-off-the-bench mentality simply not worth the headache for an executive trying to keep his job? Better yet, is Iverson finally capable of looking in the mirror to recognize the error of his ways? Assuming it's not too late for him. At the moment, these questions don't appear significant in light of the fact that Iverson, 34, announced Wednesday that he was retiring after 13 full seasons in the NBA. But they are significant, nonetheless, because only a fool would believe Iverson's completely sincere about walking away from the game for good. "I would like to announce my plans to retire from the NBA," Iverson said, via a statement Wednesday afternoon. "I always thought that when I left the game, it would be because I couldn't help my team the way that I was accustomed to. However, that is not the case.
"I still have tremendous love for the game, the desire to play, and a whole lot left in my tank. I feel strongly that I can still compete at the highest level. But stepping away from the game would allow me to spend quality time with my wife and kids. This is a reward that far exceeds anything that I've ever achieved on the basketball court." Obviously, there's more. But forgive me: I can't take it. Allen Iverson loves his family, but he's not walking away to watch Seinfeld or The Office. Iverson is walking away because he doesn't feel wanted. Because critics are swearing that he's lost a step. Iverson is saying goodbye because in this economic climate, in this NBA age, he can't find an executive willing to stick his neck out and vouch for an aging, miniature scoring machine still devoid of a championship in his 14th NBA season. Most of all, Iverson is walking away, hoping some NBA team will say, "Please, come back!" Immediately after word came out that Iverson had announced he was retiring, sources close to him said he was having a change of heart. They said the uproar over his pending departure reminded him of the love that still exists for the former Sixer, Nugget, Piston and Grizzlie, instead of questions about an imminent departure.
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"I think he just wants to feel wanted again," one of Iverson's confidants told me Wednesday night. That's a tough sell in and of itself. It was bad enough that Denver looked better from the moment it traded him for Chauncey Billups, who ultimately led the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals. But it became worse once Iverson arrived in Detroit, got injured, said he'd rather retire than come off the bench and alienated first-year coach Michael Curry, who was subsequently fired once the 2008-2009 season expired. Things didn't get any better for Iverson, who kept saying he was about "winning" but inexplicably signed with the Memphis Grizzlies. Then he never played in the preseason and complained about playing time his very first game, ultimately lasting just three games before being waived. The woeful New York Knicks were supposed to be the next option. At 2-9 at the time, with concession workers considered just as viable a box-office option as the players, Iverson believed he could end up playing for coach Mike D'Antoni. That was before team president Donnie Walsh nixed that scenario, claiming "chemistry" would be disrupted. And when the Cavs or the Spurs were broached, the immediate reaction league-wide was, "Why would they want Iverson?" I've known Iverson for 14 years now. To know him is to know he's severely hurt by the lack of affection thrown in his direction these days. When Iverson scours the league, he sees inferior talent, guys who can't touch him, and nothing to prevent him from averaging 20 points a night. The thing is, hurt shouldn't be the feeling he's displaying at this moment in time; Humility would be more apropos. Whether right or wrong, the perception that winning is secondary to other things in Iverson's world is something many believe Iverson fostered all by himself. You're not a winner when you pass up on reuniting with Larry Brown in Charlotte because their price tag was $1 million short — just one season after you pocketed $20.8 million. You're not a winner when you elect to go to Memphis — a city starving so desperately for a winner, they bring up ELVIS ... in basketball circles. Winners are willing to come off the bench. Winners guard their words and their actions simply to end up in the winner's circle someday. And long before someone comes knocking on Iverson's door, willing to provide one last chance at glory for the future Hall of Famer, Iverson needs to show he's worthy of being given that chance. That is why he can't leave the game yet. And he knows it. Iverson needs to make sure we all remember his mercurial talents, not just his mouth or the migraines. "I've still got a whole lot left in the tank," Iverson said, as defiant as ever about his ability to compete at the highest level. We get that. Now all anyone needs to know is what price he's willing to pay to get what he wants. Iverson is great. He'll always be great to me. But this is not 2001 anymore. It's 2009. He's a risk. A look in the mirror would tell him this. FOX Sports Radio's Stephen A. Smith is a Sports Columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He's covered the NBA for the past 13 years as a beat writer for the Philadelphia 76ers before becoming an NBA Columnist in 2001. In 2003, he was elevated to General Sports Columnist.

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