The Grizzlies introduced Allen Iverson at a press conference in the lobby of FedExForum before a large group of local media, civic dignitaries, and excited fans. Even before he took the stage, Iverson proved a uniting force, as Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowry and former mayor Willie Herenton shook hands before taking seats only a few feet apart. (Later, both Lowry and Herenton were introduced to a mixture of cheers and boos, Herenton lustily pumping his fist, shaking the haters off.)
When Iverson did stride up to the dais, wearing jeans, a baggy white shirt, a tilted blue Grizzlies cap, and flanked by coach Lionel Hollins, general manager Chris Wallace, and owner Michael Heisley, the assembled fans went nuts, Wallace beamed in a mix of surprise and amusement, Iverson smiled, and it was on. Periodically throughout the press conference, a fan sitting behind would bellow "A.I.! A.I.!"
The Convention and Visitor's Bureau's Kevin Kane presented Iverson with a Beale Street Blue Gibson guitar, a contingent of current Grizzlies players (including O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley) emerged from the practice court to take seats adjacent to the stage, and Iverson's wife and kids were introduced.
"What really impressed us is [that] he has that eye of the tiger that great players have," Wallace said by way of introduction. "He is eager to get going with the task of helping our team reach a whole new level."
Asked what his expectations were, Iverson spoke his first words as a Griz player: "To win."
"When you talk about the Memphis Grizzlies, a lot of people say just getting to the playoffs is enough," Iverson said. "My goals are a lot different."
Allen Iverson gets a gift:
Iverson, who touchingly seemed to tear up midway through the press conference, said all the right things: "I look at the roster and see the young talent that we have and I know we can be a good team."
But it became clear that there are issues yet to be worked out. Asked about his role with the team, Iverson said, "Everybody wants to start. I've been starting since I was 8 years old. I'm accustomed to that. But mainly I just want to lead. I've been places some of these young guys have never been, and I can help them get to those places."
Talking to Mike Conley after the press conference, it was clear that the team hasn't really ironed out how they plan to blend Iverson into the backcourt while continuing to develop Conley and Mayo. Conley claimed to be optimistic about the fit, but it's clear that things will get a lot more complicated when press conferences and interviews subside and training camp gets started.
Coach Lionel Hollins has a lot of material to work with, but no easy or obvious route to balancing the potentially competing interests of developing young players while fully exploiting Iverson's talents, keeping the long-term progress on track while appeasing starstruck fans. To Hollins' credit, his ability to relate to players was a strength in his half-season tenure as head coach last season. You have to feel better about his ability to manage this situation than if this mix of players had been thrust upon Marc Iavaroni. But it won't be easy. One thing seems clear: The assumption that Iverson will come off the bench seems far from an established understanding. I'd put the odds of him starting the majority of his games at at least 50-50.
Things started to get out of hand: One fan wandered to the stage to present Iverson with a book. Another got a hold of a microphone and told a painfully awkward story about a son who'd played AAU ball with Iverson before serving in Afghanistan and committing suicide. With that the floodgates started to open, the next questioner introducing himself as "Grizzlies fan." Host Pete Pranica then pointedly asked, "Any other questions from the media?"
Near the end, Iverson took aim at media questioning his shaky season last year: "[They're] talking about how I've lost a step. They trying to put me in a rocking chair already. It's going to be a personal year for me."
Finally, asked about his fan appeal in Memphis. Iverson noted, "I'm in Memphis a lot in the summer anyway." At that, a fan behind me said to a friend, "Sure is! Clubbin'."
Meanwhile, Pranica announced that #3 Iverson Grizzlies jerseys were already available at the team store, multiple team employees walking around with clipboards trying to sell season tickets, and everyone I could find seemed to be taking it all in with a smile and a hopeful shrug: Here we are, let's hope it works.