Somewhere deep underneath my desk, shuffled into a stack of fraying papers and yellowing memories, I have a photo print of Allen Iverson attempting a layup. It’s a moment from the 2001 NBA Finals, with Iverson near the rim, trying to get a shot up and over Lakers colossus Shaquille O’Neal.
AI vs. Shaq in the 2001 Finals. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)
There’s O’Neal, perhaps the most dominant player of all time, extended and hovering off the ground, trying to get a piece of the ball. And next to him is Iverson, floating in the ether. Iverson is over a foot shorter than Shaq, but in this instant, Iverson is using every millimeter of his body to get yet another shot to go.
The photo is from Game 4 of the Finals, a game the Lakers won 100-86. The Lakers won the series, 4-1, but it was Game 1 of the series that resonated, which the Sixers won in overtime, 107-101, behind 48 points from Iverson. That was the game that included the iconic instance where Iverson hit a jumper and then stepped over Lakers’ guard Tyronn Lue like he was just another line on the court. During that game — and really, through that entire 2000-01 season — it felt as if Iverson and his fans had finally found validation. The 25-year-old Iverson, a fifth-year veteran just weeks off being named the NBA’s MVP, had finally found a place among the game’s elite, leading the NBA by averaging 31.1 points per game, clocking over 42 minutes a night and controlling game after game despite being the smallest man on the floor.
The other day, when word broke that Iverson would be officially announcing his retirement, I called Rick Fox, a starter on that Lakers team in 2001. “Iverson’s speed was the premiere expression of his game for me,” Fox said. “When I think back to those Finals to any discussion of how we collectively stopped him — and I say collectively because you couldn’t stop him one-on-one — you just had to be aware of where he was on the floor. He used his speed to get wherever he wanted to get. And Larry Brown had that offense completely structured for him. The four other guys on the court were doing everything they could to get him open. His quickness and his speed were just …”
And there Fox’s voice just trailed off, because really, it’s impossible to describe exactly how prevailing Iverson’s speed was. Despite the quickness and the preternatural scoring ability, though, Iverson’s place among the best NBA players proved tenuous. Iverson converted a dizzying amount of buckets throughout the rest of his career — he would end up with 24,368 points — and he won hearts and minds with his relentless, blunt style. But he never would make it back to the NBA Finals.
Still, to judge Iverson’s career on wins and losses is to completely miss the point. Part of the story of Iverson was that the story was never solely about basketball. For so many sports fans, particularly of my generation, Iverson was a walking representation of the audacity of hope. Almost everyone who considered him could find something identifiable in him; we have all had the odds against us at some point. We were too short, too skinny, misunderstood, outmanned, outmaneuvered … whatever. Every time Iverson took the court, he was overcoming improbable odds. For all the remarkable things about him, perhaps the most remarkable was that he was so applicable to so many different situations.
For many people of my generation, even if we weren’t Sixers fans, it was hard to root against Iverson. Like AI, I am from a generation born in the 70s, raised in the 80s and 90s. We were fed a steady diet of Magic, Bird and Jordan, with small doses of Wilt and Russ and The Big O as background. To our generation, these were the pillars of the game, the spokes in the NBA’s big wheels. They were all different yet versatile players with well-rounded games, men who found different ways to win playing within themselves and inside a team concept.
And then here came Iverson, at 6-feet tall, the shortest player ever picked first overall in the NBA Draft. (A record, by the way, that still stands.) He’d been great in college for two seasons at Georgetown, but would that ferocity and raw skill transfer to the NBA? Iverson quickly staked his claim when, toward the end of his rookie season, one night he found himself isolated against the great Michael Jordan. Iverson went left to right … back to his left … and then … back to his right, leaving Jordan grasping at air, his Jordan XII’s smoking in AI’s wake.
If there was a moment that cemented Iverson’s position as the leader of the NBA’s new school, this was it. The game, at least as we knew it, had changed.
Just as important as his fearlessness on the floor was his singularity off the court. Iverson had an ever-growing collection of tattoos and hair that lent itself to a constantly shifting mélange of braids. Iverson was the crux of the NBA culture in the late 90s and early 00s, in the days when mixtapes met old school, when a new NBA counter-culture collided with the mainstream. If he wasn’t always among the NBA’s absolute best players, he was one of the most important. His persona was as much a referendum on the style of the times (his elbow sleeve, the headband, the baggy shorts, the tattoos) as his game was an affront to the history of hoop (heavy on crossovers, with no shot left untaken). In many ways, Iverson argued without words that in order to be successful, one didn’t have to constantly defer to teammates or give in to authority. Sometimes, he seemed to be saying, being the best version of you is good enough.
The thing was, it would have been easy for Allen Iverson to never become Allen Iverson. He grew up with every disadvantage — born to a single mother, Anne, who would eventually become his biggest fan in Philly. He was an exceptional high school athlete, All-State in both basketball and football. Yet he never even made it through his senior year, as a fight at a bowling alley spiraled into a cause célèbre court case, and Iverson was eventually sentenced to five years in prison. A pardon from Virginia governor Douglas Wilder would allow Iverson to matriculate at Georgetown, which is where the legend began, at least on a national stage.
Whenever I was around Iverson, in locker rooms or at photo shoots, it was always surprising how much larger he seemed in person than he did when he was on the court. On the floor, Iverson looked like a sigh of a man, almost childlike, easily bouncing off bigs like they were traffic cones there to mark his way. But in person, he was always just a bit sturdier and stronger than you would expect. His durability was part of what made his career so stunning — in each of his first dozen NBA seasons, he averaged at least 39.4 minutes per game, and he led the league in minutes per game in seven of those campaigns. It carried him through issues, from arguments with coaches to the infamous “Practice?” press conference of 2002. Away from the court, he did memorable sneaker ads and posed for iconic magazine covers that cemented his spot in the culture. After a long run with the Sixers, Iverson played parts of three seasons with the Denver Nuggets, as well as a portion of a season with Detroit and three games with Memphis. At the 2009 NBA All-Star Game in Phoenix, Iverson, by then a member of the Pistons, emerged for media availability with his trademark braids shorn, his hair short for the first time since his rookie season. I asked him if it saved him half an hour of prep time in the morning. “Naw, an hour, actually,” Iverson said, smiling. “That’s an hour I don’t have to get my hair done, so that’s another hour I get to sleep.” As tempting as it was to draw comparisons to Sampson, Iverson didn’t seem concerned about the lost locks. For whatever it’s worth, he never played another full season in the NBA.
When his career reached the point where he could extend it by embracing being a role player, Iverson seemed to find that an untenable proposition. Come off the bench? Set up teammates? In recent years, without the buckets to distract us, Iverson’s familial and financial legal wrangling seemed unnaturally loud. Yet Iverson had never promised us that he’d be a perfect person — just that he would wring every drop from his heart and soul out on the court, and allow us to watch as it happened. It’s become something of a trope in athletics, the idea that an athlete will “give 110 percent” or “leave it all on the floor.” Iverson, more than any other NBA player of his generation, actually did, night after night after night.
Iverson may have never returned to the Finals, but his career was anything but a disappointment. Some recall “Practice?” or the way things flamed out in Philly, but I’ll never be able to forget that little man floating through the air in the 2001 Finals. Could he have won a title if he’d sublimated his game more often? Could he have had a longer career? Did he maximize the gifts given to him?
Sure, there were always questions. But then, Allen Iverson always had The Answer.