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Changes overdue for Iverson

I've never known quite what to make of Allen Iverson. Few athletes inspire such conflicting emotions. I have admired and admonished him. I have marveled at his skill and courage on the basketball court and recoiled from his crass, self-serving behavior off it.

Iverson is one of the toughest competitors you'll ever see. For 10-plus NBA seasons, he has hurled his 6-foot, 165-pound body into the lane with abandon, taking a pounding in the process. He has carried the Sixers on his wiry back at times. He has been honest and engaging with the media on most occasions.

He has also been a poster boy for boorish and juvenile behavior. Iverson has missed practices, defied coaches, alienated teammates, demanded and received preferential treatment, dominated the ball, mistreated his wife and cut a dubious rap recording.

Now, Iverson is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Philly, weary of his tired act, has removed him from the team. The Sixers are trying to unload Iverson, who has roughly $49 million left on a contract that runs through the 2008-09 season.

It's about time. Iverson and the Sixers should have parted by now. Instead, they let the relationship unravel until it reached the point of no return, with Iverson humiliated and the team forced to cut a deal from a position of weakness.

There's no lack of suitors out there. Iverson is still a dynamic offensive force. He is leading the NBA in scoring at 31.2 points a game. He has lost a half-step, but he's still one of the quickest guards around. A lot of teams would gladly find a place for him in the lineup.

But Iverson has to come to grips with his own dysfunctional style. The days of shooting 25-30 times a night are at an end. No one will ever question his willingness to sacrifice his body for a team. But it's time for him to prove he can sacrifice the ball, to show he's more than a one-dimensional gunner.

Iverson is an NBA caricature, a point guard with a gunner's mentality. It's not his league anymore. It's the league of Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Tony Parker, offensively gifted point guards who function primarily as playmakers, who make their teammates better and win.

Iverson carried the Sixers to the NBA Finals in 2000-01. But they have won only one playoff series since. The Sixers have gotten beyond the second round only once in Iverson's career -- in '01. He's been an MVP, a franchise player. Now Iverson has to prove he's a winner, a guy who can sublimate his own skills and desires for the good of a team.

Isiah Thomas did that with the Pistons. Thomas could have been a 30-point scorer. But he submerged his ego and won two championships. Because of that, I've always considered Thomas, who was listed at 6-1, a notch above Iverson as the best little man in history.

Granted, Thomas had a greater supporting cast. Iverson has played with modestly talented teammates in Philly. But that's largely because Iverson is so difficult to play with. The Sixers surrounded him with lesser offensive players who would allow him to dominate the ball and take so many of the shots.

It might be too late for Iverson. He turns 32 in June. He has relished being the man in Philly. He played hard, and he played hurt, and he desperately wanted to win every time he stepped on the floor. He once promised he would never seek a trade. But that has all changed now. After years of coddling Iverson, the Sixers are cutting ties with him.

In a way, I'm happy for Iverson. He has a chance to catch on with a contender and reinvent himself. His legacy is at stake. I'll be rooting for him. Whatever you think of Iverson as a person, he has given up his body for a decade in a futile attempt to carry the team. For once, it would be nice to see a team carry him.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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