At its core, Philadelphia is a blue-collar town with an attitude that can only be described as defiant. Despite being the original capital of the United States and a cultural landmark in more ways than one, the residents live with a permanent chip on their shoulders. Insults from national media and out-of-towners are hurled at the City of Brotherly Love on a regular basis–most stemming from decades old tales of fan disobedience–and the inhabitants respond with measured rage, asserting that those who don’t live here simply don’t get it.
This is important in considering the return of one of the city’s favorite sons, Allen Iverson, who came back to his old stomping grounds to watch his No. 3 jersey get placed in the rafters among other Sixers greats on Saturday night.
Despite his accolades–11 All-Star appearances, four scoring titles, seven All-NBA appearances, and a league MVP–Iverson is not remembered as fondly as he should be outside of Philadelphia. Rather than calling him one of the game’s all-time greats, which he certainly is, his greatness usually comes labeled with qualifiers. “The best little man ever” or “the best pound-for-pound” as if his diminutive size should be considered a demerit on his permanent record.
Part of that stems from Iverson’s turbulent relationship with the media during his playing days; he was an icon not just for his wicked crossovers, but for his signature braids and his heavily-tattooed torso. In that way, he was the poster child for the first hip-hop generation, and caught a lot of flak for refusing to change who he was to fit a certain image.
Remember, this is the guy that was referred to as the “NBA’s Thug-in-Chief” and took a beating from former commissioner David Stern for his planned hip-hip record: “By even recording his lyrics, [Iverson] has done a disservice to himself, the Philadelphia 76ers, his teammates and perhaps all NBA players.”
Speaking with Allen in the moments following his halftime honor, he was acutely aware of how his battles with the league had paved the way for some of today’s biggest stars.
“What I’m proud of most is changing the whole culture,” he said. “I took a beating for it, how I dressed… I took that beating, so this generation [is] able to do that now.”
He called it “bittersweet” and you could sense in his voice that although he was glad to have opened doors for ink-laden players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, part of him was worse for wear having carried the burden.
Thankfully, his contributions have not been forgotten by those he aided. It was fitting that Iverson’s first thank you went to Michael Jordan, who he claimed inspired him to be the player he became, because the Sixers used stoppages to play messages from players around the league on the JumboTron, thanking the man they refer to as “Bubba Chuck” for how he impacted their lives.
“For me as a kid, growing up I wanted braids and I wore No. 3. I wanted to be just like you,” claimed Chris Paul.
Carmelo Anthony explained how “he brought style to the game of basketball, he brought tattoos, he brought braids… even to this day, kids want to be like A.I.” Anthony punctuated his salute to Iverson by referring to him as his “big brother,” a sentiment that was shared by former running mate Andre Iguodala. For a man who was vilified by outside forces early and often, the reverence from his peers spoke much louder than the insults ever did.
To complete the cycle, commissioner Adam Silver‘s words at a pregame press conference stood in stark contrast to the harsh claims of his predecessor. He called Iverson, “one of my favorites of all time,” and admitted that with time, the misdoings that kept him in the headlines seem silly in retrospect.
“The great things he did for the league far outweighed his mistakes,” Silver said. “People came to understand not to judge him by his tattoos, his style… they judged him on his passion.”