The Night Allen Iverson Became A NBA Icon

Maybe I’m not looking hard enough. Maybe this is a sign from God to do something else, anything else. Maybe I’m just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet it still doesn’t make any sense.

I drove past schools. I walked by business complexes. I glanced at parks. I even talked to friends, and yet it feels like it’s impossible to find outdoor basketball courts around my apartment. I’m living just outside of Baltimore right now, and trying to find a court with a rim, a playable surface and a net is hard labor. It’s at the point where I’m shocked when I see a place to hoop. I’m more likely to find one with the entire rim gone and kids playing hopscotch where the free throw line should be, or a court with all the lines and just a pole with no backboard than I am of catching a game on a regulation basket.

It’s unreal. Trying to find somewhere I can actually shoot has been harder than trying to hunt down Marlo Stanfield‘s stash of dead bodies. Over the past few weeks, it went from annoying to frustrating, and yeah, there are places to play. But I’m not always trying to drive around for a half an hour to find one (Upon moving to the area, I’ve heard a few different reasons for this. Most of them stem from some type of violence or racial issue).

But when I was younger, having a rim didn’t matter so much. It sounds crazy, but I used to often dribble in place and never shoot. I took over racquetball courts, and dribbled off the wall. I dribbled in school. I dribbled wherever I could, and during those few times when I didn’t have access to a ball? I just pretended (I can’t be the only one who did this, right? Right?!). I was like a modern-day version of Tom Sheppard.

Allen Iverson started all that for me. His handle was the influence. Whereas I later identified with Jason Williams, the Answer came first. Sometimes I feel like the younger generation doesn’t truly realize what AI’s crossover did to the game. For better or worse, he was a chain-breaker, a rule-bender. That impact is still being felt today all across YouTube. To give you an idea of how out of the ordinary the move was, the dude initially didn’t even have it himself. He needed a Georgetown walk-on with a funky game to teach it to him.

Iverson was a cultural icon, one of the baddest little guys to ever play. His career scoring average (26.7 points a game) is topped by only five people: MJ, Wilt, LeBron, Elgin and West. He averaged 6.2 assists a night, and won a MVP as well as Rookie of the Year. He perennially dragged offensively-challenged Philly teams into the playoffs, and even made a Finals run. He was universally loved by everyone under 35 who had a working pulse, and partly because of that, started in nine All-Star Games.

But lately, Iverson is getting attacked in the blogosphere. Hard. The return of some of his most popular sneakers has him back in the limelight. Kevin Durant and LeBron James are the best players in the world now, and their on-court presence is about as far away as possible from some of what Iverson represents.

The recent comments the Philly legend made about a potential career in China – “China is still one of my choices, but the team that wants me to join has got to show me that they really mean it, like ‘hey we really need you’.” – haven’t exactly helped his stance amongst the current generation, either.

So now the same style we once idolized is getting trashed. I get it. Generations move on, and with hindsight, it’s easy to pick apart the “practice” rant and the isolation basketball, the turnovers, the fact that he never really won anything, and perhaps most of all, how his pride eventually took him from Denver to Memphis to Philly again to Turkey to God knows where else to crying at his own charity event. But still, hearing people discredit Iverson’s accomplishments hurts. It truly does. It’s like hearing someone ghostwrote for Esco. I don’t want to believe it, and hope I won’t ever have to believe it.

I don’t want to believe it because at one point, there was NOTHING like watching Allen Iverson play basketball. Nothing. I’ll never forget watching Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals from my basement. VCR and blank tape ready. Remote stuck on record. Philly had the dubious task of slowing down the Lakers, who were flowing unlike any team I’d ever seen. Eleven straight playoff wins. Nineteen straight overall. They hadn’t lost a game in over two months.

Contrary to what Kobe stans will try to tell you, Bryant and Shaq were never 1A and 1B during those title runs. They didn’t actually become that until 2003, which just so happened to be the first of two straight years when L.A. would fall short of a championship. But in the spring of 2001? They were basically partners. Kobe produced not one but two of his best games ever, and the Lakers had maybe the most physically imposing duo of all time shutting ’em down unlike anyone since Chuck D.

On the other side was a 5-10 (I don’t care – AI is 5-10) wasp of a player who spent more time on the floor than on the bench, and had just come off an Eastern Conference Playoff run where he nearly succumbed to a bruised tailbone.

Honestly, I still have no idea how that Sixer team even made it there. Iverson was basically dealt during the summer to Detroit. He can thank Matt Geiger and his refusal to waive a trade kicker for that one. Then after a world-beating start to the season, Philly traded Theo Ratliff for Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson didn’t like it, yet somehow learned to get over it just as Larry Brown learned to make sacrifices (At the time, he required only 11 of his players to wear suits to games. I think you can guess who the 12th man on that list was.). They somehow beat Toronto in the second round after a barrage of incredible things happened all at once (VC‘s graduation landing on the same day as that pivotal game… Iverson somehow dishing out 16 ASSISTS and six in the final quarter). Then, they held off Milwaukee in the conference finals in another one of those early-2000 specials where people are still wondering about the officiating over a decade later.

They weren’t supposed to have a chance for even a minute in the Finals, and yet Iverson was good enough to give us 52 classic minutes. He dropped buckets from the opening minutes, shook Kobe so bad that Doug Collins nearly had an orgasm on live TV, and even added in a perfect behind-the-back dime on the break to Eric Snow.

Iverson had a dozen points after one quarter. Then in the second quarter, he literally turned Robert Horry into a statue on his way to the rim. By the half, AI had 30 points, having somehow already taken 24 shots. In the third quarter, it just started getting crazy. With still over six minutes to go in that quarter, Iverson hit a jumper to push himself to 38 points. The performance was pure art. It was like putting the TV on mute and watching every scene with Jennifer Aniston and Brooklyn Decker from Just Go With It while Reasonable Doubt played in the background.

You know what happened next. Tyronn Lue played like one of those crazed intramural football players for 15-20 minutes and stuck on Iverson wherever he went.

Eventually, Iverson got free for a deep triple. Then, he swished a transition triple. Then he found himself one-on-one on the baseline against an overaggressive Lue. Rip move. One dribble. Pull-back. Jumper. Money.

The infamous step-over followed, and Iverson had his crowning moment in the biggest game of his life. No one cares that Philly wouldn’t win another game in the series. No one cares that this was probably the high point for Iverson’s popularity. I don’t really care that his shooting percentages sucked (under 52 percent true shooting percentage for his career) or that he turned the ball over more often than Tony Romo in the playoffs.

Iverson wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t the greatest, and his impact had teachers and parents everywhere scolding their kids (I can’t tell how many times I got in trouble for wearing pants down to my thighs). But damn, he was still fun to watch.

Was Iverson overrated?

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