“How the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing?”
- Allen Iverson
You would think someone who has a career average of 27.1 points per game, 6.2 assists and 2.2 steals each season would get a lot more respect. But this is Allen Iverson we’re talking about.
The above quotation is, unfortunately, how most people will remember him. Despite all of his accomplishments (Perennial All-Star. Someone with enough talent to lead an undermanned Philadelphia 76ers squad to the NBA Finals), he’ll be reduced to a punch line. It’s disappointing considering he’s one of the greatest players to play the game.
Many (including yours truly) were fans of Iverson from day one at Georgetown University. One can easily conjure up images of Iverson feeding Othella Harrington in the post and throwing Sportscenter-worthy alley-oops to Victor Page. He dominated the college game, left early and took over the National Basketball Association in the midst of the league’s last tryst with Michael Jordan.
Iverson is one of the best, but his merits will always be debatable in certain people’s eyes. Iverson ascendancy and popularity marked the beginning of the NBA fully embracing Hip-Hop music and culture. It attached itself to the league around The Answer’s rookie year. While Jordan still had a few more years to dominate, Iverson’s crossover against MJ during his rookie season marked the changing of the guard.
Not everyone was happy about it.
The crossover of Jordan, for some, also marked the moment style over substance took over the league. In reality, there were always players who emphasized style (it’s basketball after all), but still played hard and put their body on the line when called upon to do so. Iverson’s association with all things superficially “gangsta” made him a non-starter for most. The cornrows, headbands and tattoos didn’t help his public image either. He was “everything that was wrong with the league.”
Iverson marked the moment where the fair-weather/mainstream fan fell out of love with the NBA. Iverson is partly responsible for the topic of race becoming the elephant in the league’s living room. Iverson is partly responsible for the dress code. Iverson is partly responsible for Commissioner David Stern shoving NBA Cares commercials down our throats just to prove to the mainstream that his guys “are just like you!”
When Iverson’s star started to descend several years ago, it happened right when the league started to cut ties to Hip-Hop and plead for mainstream acceptance. He’s the last of the Mohicans.
To this day, Iverson remains one of the quickest and fastest players to ever step on a court. He’s also one of the toughest men, regardless of size, to play in the NBA. We should be shocked that The Answer didn’t lose more games to injury. He’s the very definition of a warrior (in the professional sporting sense). Despite that, when his career is marked down to bullet points ten years after it ends, all we’ll hear is the fight at the bowling alley when he was 17 (that resulted in time being served at a correctional facility in Newport News, Virginia), the crossover of Jordan, the cornrows and tattoos…and practice. He deserves more.
The latest rumors have Iverson in serious talks with the Los Angeles Clippers. As sad as that sounds, it’s sadder that we don’t take the time to acknowledge one of the best little men to play big in the history of the NBA (and all of sports). Iverson is a unique talent that, in my eyes, we may never see again.
HOWARD MEGDAL: I don’t disagree with anything Stephon said, but I just wanted to further clarify the value Iverson brought to individual teams. Keep in mind, I also loved Iverson from his first flash of national action against Arkansas as a Georgetown freshman. He’s in the pantheon of athletes I remember the first time I saw, and for good reason.
But practice or no practice, take a look at the records his teams put up, and who was on them.
In Iverson’s third season, the Philadelphia 76ers reached the Eastern Conference semifinals, besting the Orlando Magic in the first round. What kind of talent did the 23-year-old Iverson have with him? The next five in total minutes played that year for Philadelphia were: Eric Snow, Theo Ratliff, Matt Geiger, George Lynch and a 20-year-old Larry Hughes.They beat a Magic team with a healthy Anfernee Hardaway, Nick Anderson, Horace Grant, Darrell Armstrong… even Dominique Wilkins off the bench (an old Dominique, but still). Iverson made that kind of difference. In his third season.
Two years later, Iverson took the Sixers to the NBA Finals. The difference in the two years? All improvement by Iverson. Don’t believe me? Check out his supporting cast in the NBA Finals: Lynch, Ratliff, Snow, Aaron McKie and Tyrone Hill were the only other Sixers to get at least 1,000 minutes.
And so it continued, despite playoff appearances, despite a Philadelphia front office so inept they couldn’t find even one secondary star to pair with Iverson, they let his very best years get wasted, and left him with the reputation of someone who couldn’t win, in large part due to reasons Stephon mentioned above.
Now, Iverson is no longer the defensive player he was, and doesn’t have the same explosiveness- arguably the two skills that lifted him beyond other guards of his time. Still, his peak deserves greater credit than it has received, and I continue to hope his career is not left with the bitter legacy of no NBA titles. He’ll be blamed, while the names of the Philadelphia front office that surrounded him with nothing will all be lost to history.