How quickly we forget. 36 years ago to the day, the legend of Allen Iverson was born. Only two years ago, the name Allen Iverson was relevant to the basketball world. Only five years ago, he was the icon, the NBA’s ultimate non-conformist. If the Fab Five began the transformation, Iverson was its eventual monarch. But now he’s a mere memory, swallowed by the unfamiliar anonymity of European basketball.
In Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, Allen Iverson emphatically stepped over Tyronn Lue after nailing a baseline J. That was Allen Iverson: 50% breathtaking, 50% swag. To the unenlightened eye, his brash and intrusive style was tasteless. The game of basketball was about making baskets, not celebrating them. It wasn’t about baggy shorts or impressive, AND 1 dribbling. It was about passing, moving off the ball and selflessness. Allen Iverson embodied none of these things. He was his own, distinct breed.
When he first reached the NBA, we welcomed his greatness but resisted his style. He was a severely undersized 6-0 shooting guard. He was selfish for refusing to succumb to the position his height dictated. He didn’t live on the outside as guards should, but instead recklessly slashed through the paint and finished around, over, underneath and between everybody and anybody. But he wasn’t selfish. He wasn’t trying to rewrite the script. He wasn’t trying to infuriate David Stern with his numerous tattoos or unprofessional game day attire. His cornrows weren’t a statement. Shaq may have dubbed Paul Pierce “The Truth,” but that was A.I. He was real, he was genuine.
The media says that it wants the truth, but it wants their truth. A figurehead of basketball idolatry. Someone to represent the ideals that no one can live up to. If David Robinson pioneered this movement, then Allen Iverson was its antithesis. Yet he was authentic. He was change on basketball’s biggest stage. He was a symbol, but not the actual revolution. And this was why Iverson was just as frustrating as he was entertaining. We wanted to blame him for the new, selfish, one-on-one NBA that slowly crept into the game, but he wasn’t marketing a brand. Allen Iverson played the game the way he knew and wasn’t willing to change. When coaches and GMs tried to bring order and structure to his game and off-the-court personality, they couldn’t because he was disorder. There was only one principle guiding Iverson’s career. Play hard, play my way. He didn’t turn his medical arm sleeve into a fashion because others thought it was cool. He thought it was cool. Iverson was just the first superstar unwilling to mold himself to the overarching and stagnant NBA culture.