Allen Iverson was a star well before March 12, 1997. But the future Hall-of-Famer didn’t become “The Answer” until he completed the most iconic crossover in league history during the latter stage of his debut season with the Philadelphia 76ers.
A 21 year-old known almost as much for his troubled legal past as on-court exploits, Iverson entered the mid-March matchup against Michael Jordan and the legendary Chicago Bulls a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year. He’d averaged 21.2 points points per game on typically poor efficiency, quietly establishing himself as a rising star in a NBA beginning to consider life without MJ.
The Sixers were one of the league’s wort teams, however, and Iverson’s brand hadn’t even begun to materialize. He played without cornrows, hordes of tattoos, wrist bands, or elbow sleeves in 1996-1997, instead letting his breathtaking talent and relentless competitive zeal mark his basketball identity.
Iverson simply wasn’t A.I. But then he crossed-over the best player of all-time and the game changed forever:
We don’t remember whether Iverson nailed the jumper (he did). We don’t know if Philly won the game (they lost by four). And we’re not sure how many points the Georgetown product dropped (it was 37).
One aspect of what makes the NBA the world’s greatest professional sports league is that none of it mattered then, and none of it matters 18 years later. Singular moments stick out more than full seasons, playoff series, or even standalone games, and there’s no telling when they’ll come and a career will be made.
The scene was certainly set for Iverson, though. He took the dribble hand-off and Phil Jackson called for the switch from Chicago’s sideline. The rookie had the hot-hand in a close game versus the league’s best team, and suddenly found himself being checked by the world’s greatest player in an obvious isolation situation.
Something would happen one way or the other. Iverson knew it, Jordan knew it, and Sixers fans did, too.
Nearly two decades later, it seems foolish to suggest The Answer’s ensuing rise to superstardom hinged on this sequence alone. Iverson possessed the unique blend of talent and personality reserved for sports’ true icons – he’d have been a great player regardless of this possession’s outcome.
But knowing how it ended and how his career developed makes it easy to believe otherwise, and also difficult to fathom any doubt at all of whether or not Iverson would rise to the occasion.