“You could never question his heart. Ever. He gave it his all.” — LeBron James, Oct. 2013
That’s normally one of the first responses a person reveals when describing their appreciation for Allen Iverson. The reason being because the game of basketball as it relates to the man known as Bubba Chuck goes far beyond stats.
Of course, numbers do help tell portions of his story: he amassed a career 42.5 percent shooting clip; 11 All Star Game appearances; four scoring titles; one league MVP and two All Star Game MVPs; and the distinction of being one of four non-centers in league history to average at least 26 points for a decade*.
Relegating Iverson to just numbers, however, is naive.
No athlete has since personified the now-cliche adage of the “me against the world” mentality more than the top pick in the 1996 draft. The chip that always adorned his shoulders was the size of a golden nugget. For as ironic as it sounds, Allen Iverson’s greatest strength was also his greatest weakness: pride.
Despite repeatedly proving to the world at barely six-feet tall he was without question one of his sports’ most tenacious and talented specimens, it was never enough. There were always detractors, always someone using his “character” as a means to denounce his game, always using his game as a means to denounce his “character.”
The truth is some athletes operate better under chaos. Allen Iverson was one of them. Long before his “practice” dialogue–he said the word more than 20 times in a two-minute span–became part of the American zeitgeist and a case study on entertainers in the 21st century, he was better known as the eye of his own hurricane. Where destructive debris flew figuratively around him at blinding speeds, Iverson harnessed this madness the only way an 18-year-old Black megastar athlete from a Southern, racially divided town could.
He left everything on the court.
Travel back in time to July 11, 1993.
Nike was king in the summer of ’93. Michael Jordan stood at the peak of his powers following a third consecutive Finals victory–one where he averaged a still-hard-to-fathom 41 points, nine rebounds, six assists and two steals against Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns**. His sneakers were much like they are now: the unchallenged holy grail of athletic footwear.
Nike was basketball, for lack of a better description.
Their annual camp in 1993 continued with the tradition of featuring a who’s-who of future college and pro stars: Raef LaFrentz, Ron Mercer, Curtis Staples, Samaki Walker, Toby Bailey, Trajan Langdon, Ronnie Fields, Ruben Patterson, Casey Jacobsen and more.
A 17-year-old from Mauldin, South Carolina, also attended the camp. Only a rising junior at the time, the attention he commanded from scouts, coaches and fellow campers was euphoric. He blocked shots, barked out assignments on both ends, ran the floor like a near-seven-foot gymnast who could’ve moonlighted as an American replacement in Barcelona the summer before, dunked with petrifying ferocity and welcomed any challenge Phil Knight could throw at him.
The kid was Kevin Garnett.
The camp’s star, though, was Allen Iverson. Already touted as the best high school basketball player in the country heading into his senior year, his junior campaign saw averages of 31.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 9.2 assists. And for good measure, he added 21 touchdowns while throwing for 14 more the same year on the gridiron. He assumed All-State and Player of the Year honors just for kicks, too. The same season, a college football recruiter described A.I. as “the most exciting player I’ve ever seen in high school.”
* — Jerry West, Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan are the other three, and LeBron could possibly join this year.
** — And it probably could have been more like 45 had he made more than 69 percent of his free throws.
Iverson was also the camp’s most notorious name. His part in a now-infamous brawl inside a Hampton, Virginia, bowling alley on Valentine’s Day night 1993 threw his legal issues into a tizzy that summer.
Iverson’s hometown was divided down the middle in a case that had obvious racial undertones. Only Iverson, Michael Simmons, Melvin Stephens, Jr. and Samuel Wynn–all Black–were charged with any wrongdoing in the bowling alley mob fight that allegedly began after Iverson stepped to Steve Forrest, four years Allen’s senior and white, after he reportedly provoked Iverson. According to Iverson, once Forrest used the words “nigger” and “little boy” in an already tense situation, all hell broke loose.
Fists were thrown, chairs were, too. Whites fought Blacks, bystanders allegedly hid in the pins, people were hurt. By the end of it all, Allen Ezail Iverson stood as the melee’s poster child. “It’s definitely racial,” he said to Sports Illustrated’s Ned Zeman in October of the same year.
But Nike was so intent on not only having the country’s biggest prep star at their camp, but also making a good impression for possible future endeavors, that the company rolled out the red carpet for Iverson in a sense. They famously footed Allen’s traveling expenses, allowing him to fly back and forth between Indiana and Virginia for his trial that kicked off earlier the same month–a trial which many believed at the time would not end in any serious life- or career-altering consequences.
“It’s serious and nobody’s downplaying it,” Bob Gibbons, the camp’s selection-committee chairman, said at the time. “But we investigated it thoroughly before bringing him in. He may not be back, but we have reason to believe the charges will be dropped.”
Between splitting time as both a modern day symbol for civil rights and high-profile goon in his small Tidewater town in Virginia, the unflattering opinions about Iverson the player carried all the way to Indiana. Not that it mattered much to Nike, as Gibbons’ above comments indicate.
But, again, this is where the aforementioned chip on Chuck’s shoulder would begin to mirror that of mountains. Not all vibes surrounding Iverson were of the flattering variety.
Then-sophomore Ronnie Fields went on record to blast Iverson’s selfish style of play, saying, “Since he’s a point guard, I thought he’d at least try to look for his teammates. When we finally get the ball, we’ve got to force up shots.”
Fields’ coach, Willie Nelson, agreed. “Everybody in here has been watching him,” Nelson said. “They’re saying, `Why doesn’t he distribute the ball more?’ After a while, his teammates just stand around.”
Everyone had an opinion on Allen Iverson. Fellow campers, coaches, civil rights activists, bigots. Everybody.
The game itself went smoothly and Nike cashed in on yet another instance of positive publicity. ESPN even broadcasted the game; it was a sign of things to come in prep hoops coverage over the next three decades. The legacy of Kevin Garnett, however, grew tenfold.
If he wasn’t on the national radar before, he was now. Garnett’s energy and activity from end to end bedazzled coaches. Even the game’s announcers struggled to grasp the body of talent encapsulated inside KG’s wiry frame. He was a man-child amongst his own peers. The top peers in the country, at that. A rarity amongst a collection of rare talent. The seeds for an undeniable next 24 months were planted.
Questions about KG’s diet, dedication, friends and responsibility followed him, but the wave of potential and franchise cornerstone possibilities forced then-new Pistons coach Doug Collins to define Garnett before the 1995 Draft as “…a genetic freak. All the great ones are.”
No one was outwardly predicting double-digit All Star Games, MVP honors, Hall of Fame nods and perhaps being one of the five best power forwards in NBA history just yet. But a storm was forming. Nike’s ’93 ASG was the breeding ground for what became the undeniable hype machine that perched itself upon Garnett’s lanky shoulders.
NBA executives first sniffed the aroma at the game and by the time his senior year at Chicago’s Farragut Academy rolled around–which produced a mythical season average of 26 points, 18 rebounds, seven assists and six blocks–front offices were practically sacrificing their firstborns to risk the investment.
Unbeknownst at the time, the arrival and dominance of Kevin Garnett on July 11, 1993 was a two-part cultural explosion. An explosion in which the wave of high school-to-NBA talent would completely alter the basketball landscape forever.
Calling a spade a spade, no player was in Iverson’s weight class that afternoon. Garnett was great, but A.I. was transcendent.
He ran faster, was more agile, saw the court and attacked with the tenacity of an uncaged, famished lion that separated him from any of his contemporaries. In sort of silent “eff you” to all his critics, too, he found open teammates through an array of marvelous passes. Again. And again. And again. Allen Iverson was by far the best player on a basketball court in Indiana the same way he was in Virginia.
USA Today went as far to refer to A.I. as “the jewel” of the 125 prospects in attendance. Gibbons told the paper, “Every school in the country wants him. If he was John Dillinger, they’d take him.”
Chuck’s performance represented a swan song moment, however. His case was garnering national attention and becoming bigger than just a small town brawl. Examples had to be made. Prosecutor Colleen Killilea used Iverson’s Nike getaway as a method of belittling him by telling Judge Nelson T. Overton to find him guilty.
“Now it’s our turn to just do it.”
Within 48 hours of putting the college basketball world on notice, an example was indeed made. Iverson was convicted of maiming by mob, which carried up to 20 years of prison time. Within three months, he was sentenced to 15 years (five for each count, but had ten suspended).
“Mr. Iverson had two choices: either stay and participate, or get out,” Judge Overton said. “He stayed and participated, and became a member of the mob. He made the wrong choice.”
His senior year was toe-tagged. He served four months at Newport News City Farm before then-Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder gave him a pardon. The rest of the story, as we know it, is history, and his conviction was overturned by the Virginia Court of Appeals in 1995.
Nike’s 1993 All Star Game represents the last time Allen Iverson suited up on a basketball court as a free man. With the weight of the world on his 18-year-old shoulders, Iverson approached an exhibition as if life depended on it–and through so many degrees of separation, it did. The next time America saw its most decorated high school basketball player would be a year later at Georgetown University under the watchful eye of John Thompson.
A situation like this is why Iverson took on the game of basketball the way he did for the majority of his career. His faults were impossible to ignore and occasionally even more impossible to defend. Yet, those same faults became the olive branch endearing him to millions. Iverson approached basketball with a life-or-death aggression because it sort of was for him.
For young Black males who never officially graduate high school because of the stain of prison time attached to their names, their prospective futures aren’t exactly classified information. It doesn’t require an Ivy League degree to predict an adult’s life peppered by jail time might result in more of the same or death. Allen Iverson could have been a statistic if life’s cards fell in a slightly different formation. We see it everyday, in every town, in every ‘hood across America. The story isn’t uncommon.
So when Iverson officially becomes part of Philadelphia 76er immortality tomorrow night during his jersey retirement, realize it’s more than just numbers. It always has been. It always will be to the majority of his fans. Appreciate Bubba Chuck for being a cup of tea whose taste never ceases to vary from person-to-person. Appreciate Bubba Chuck for embodying the bigger picture.
Basketball saved Allen Iverson’s life.
And he made ours more exciting, at times frustrating, but ultimately better in the process.