Nov 07

It’s funny how timing can tie two separate events. But last week, we saw the re-emergence of not one, but two, pro athletes looking to return to their craft. The return of one, Terrell Owens from an offseason injury, was expected. The return of the other, Allen Iverson from a season abroad, not so much. While a few of the details of their careers are as different as the sports they play, their pro lives have actually been eerily similar.

AI’s journey began as a Virginia prep star in both football and basketball, where his bigger-than-life play dwarfed his diminutive stature. After being recruited by John Thompson, he chose to attend Georgetown for hoops, where he garnered Big East Rookie of the Year and two Defensive Player of the Year awards during his two years on campus. He then declared for the 1996 NBA Draft and was taken with the #1 pick by the Philadelphia 76ers.

In contrast, TO, whose grandmother forbade him from playing sports until high school, attended Tennessee at Chattanooga. Though he too was a multi-sport athlete (football, basketball, and track), he drew far less national attention at the smaller school. NFL scouts though took notice of his combination of size and speed, and he was made a first-day selection in the 1996 NFL Draft when the San Francisco 49ers took him in the third round.

Allen Iverson

AI’s arrival in Philly (coinciding with new management and a new arena) was to be a catalyst to jump-start a floundering franchise looking to return to the prominent days of the late-70’s and 80’s. While the team struggled, Iverson would excel to become Rookie of the Year. That offseason saw the hiring of Larry Brown as coach and the slow, gradual rise to playoff status for the Sixers. TO’s arrival by the bay was a little over a year removed from the Niners 5th Super Bowl title. With all-time great Jerry Rice still on the roster, Owens saw little limelight his first season in the pros. A season-ending injury to Rice, the next year would give TO a chance to grab more of the spotlight, as he helped lead the team to a playoff appearance.

Going forward, AI and the Sixers would gain momentum under Brown and the inclusion of core pieces to support him. The Sixers reached the pinnacle in the 2000-01 season as they’d reach the Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Though a heavy underdog and falling behind early in Game 1, AI led the charge back in regulation (LA would erase a big deficit to force overtime) and in OT after the Lakers grabbed a quick advantage. The signature of the Game 1 Sixers win (and LA’s only loss that postseason) would be Iverson dropping a go-ahead 3 and then a jumper on the next possession, after which he would step over and glare at Lakers guard Tyronn Lue.

Though LA would rip off four straight W’s to win the title, all would acknowledge the heart of #3 for Philly. The next two seasons would yield little postseason success, but the AI stayed in the spotlight. Following Brown criticizing him for missing practices, he would respond with the infamous “practice….we’re in here talking about practice.” presser.

At the end of those two years, Brown would retire (only to become coach of the Detroit Pistons shortly thereafter), and a revolving door of coaches and philosophies (and his own pension for staying in controversy) would make the remaining time in Philly tumultuous for Iverson.

Terrell Owens

Meanwhile, on the other coast, TO and the Niners would enjoy a regular run of successful regular seasons. Unfortunately, they couldn’t translate that momentum into consecutive wins in January, and never made the Super Bowl during Owens’ tenure there, the only exceptions being the 1999 and 2000 seasons, where there would be turnover on both the roster and the front office. In ’99, Steve Young would sustain a career-ending injury that forced his retirement (and usher in the Jeff Garcia era) and in ’00, Jerry Rice would suit up for the last time as a 49er. Upstairs, owner Eddie DeBartolo would have to surrender control of the team to present-day owners, John and Denise York. The team rebounded and returned to the playoffs the next two season, but again met defeat. John York felt a change was needed and thus fired coach Steve Mariucci and replaced him with Dennis Erickson. A change in offensive philosophy and a losing season, prompted TO to demand a trade out of San Francisco. His public show of despondency toward the organization and a subsequent interview referencing Garcia soured many.

2004 found TO in Philadelphia, with a new team and a new fan base, thanks in large part to the consistent numbers he put up throughout the season. He’d suffer a broken fibula and sprained ankle in a game in early December and many thought that he’d be lost until the next season. But TO vowed that if the team made it to the Super Bowl, he’d be ready to play. The Eagles held up on their end, winning the NFC Championship and two weeks later, Owens would not only suit up, but would grab 9 passes for over 100 yards. The glory days in Philly would abruptly end there, as Owens (with help from new agent Drew Rosenhaus) began campaigning for a restructured deal from the Eagles, highlighted by the statement that he wasn’t “the guy that got tired in the Super Bowl”. But there would be definite tension between the two shortly thereafter.

While he denied those comments were aimed at McNabb, future statements ripping the Eagles’ front office and definitely McNabb, the team suspended him for four games and deactivated him for the rest of the season. Owens would later sign a deal with the Dallas Cowboys for the 2006 season.

* * * *

2004 found AI also still in Philadelphia, but the outlook much darker. He clashed with new coaches Chris Ford and Jim O’Brien, which led to numerous suspensions over the 2003-04 through 2005-2006 seasons. Things came to a head when he and Chris Webber arrived late for the home finale of the ’05-’06 season. Neither were allowed to play, and the trade rumors began to run rampant as many felt that Philly was ready to part ways with Iverson, but no trade was executed. But after missing practice and then missing a team event, AI was ripped by management, and was reported to have demanded a trade a few weeks later. Management would now oblige and two weeks later, Iverson was a member of the Denver Nuggets.

Both AI and TO would spend a season-plus in their new locale. And while they’d both put up respectable numbers individually, neither would see their team have good fortune in the playoffs. But both would stay in the spotlight, and both would center around heading back to Philadelphia. Iverson’s return to Philly as a Nugget was marred by him being hit with two techs and thus being ejected. Owens’ return to Philly (a couple of weeks after an alleged overdose of sleeping pills) was sullied by a locker room rant that he wasn’t receiving enough throws. From there, both would become members of a couple more teams (Detroit, Memphis, and Philly again for AI; Buffalo and Cincinnati for TO), again with no significant on-court/on-field consequence.

Which brings us to October 2011. Iverson, fresh off of a year playing overseas in Turkey, and Owens, fresh off surgery to repair a torn ACL, pop back up and announce that they’re ready to resume their professional careers on the largest stage for their sports. Two record-holding, all-star, phenomenal athletes made their cases for an organization to bring on a late-30’s veteran that could be that “missing piece” to solve the championship puzzle.

If the “late-30’s” part didn’t make you wince, throw in the other “baggage” that comes with these two. While both would not “turn down any interest”, both are looking for an opportunity to join a contender to get the one thing they haven’t accomplished throughout their professional careers. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine many contenders in either sport that believe that either would put them over the top talentwise, while not being a potential disruption to team chemistry.

And yes, I’d argue you that not every team trots out players that these two couldn’t beat out right now for playing time. But after spending a year away from the game (AI) and being only 6 months removed from an injury it takes most 12-18 to fully recover from (TO), the odds are stacked way against them both.

And yeah, I know we aren’t talking the average athlete with these two, we are talking about two guys that have no qualms letting it be known that they aren’t happy with their roles. That type of behavior tends to turn off potential suitors. Plus the timing for both couldn’t be worse. The lockout, means that Iverson can’t “formally” impress any potential candidates, while Owens may not be in good shape until the last month of the season.

In any event, two of the most polarizing figures in sports have tossed their hats back into the arena. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone takes a chance to dance with them.

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