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.
But there was the part of him that we couldn’t get enough of. Rookie of the Year. Four scoring titles. MVP. The finals run when he made Eric Snow and Aaron McKie relevant NBA names. And there was his game itself, the imaginative feints, body contortions and ultra-high level of difficulty. Not to mention the mesmerizing handle, devastating crossover, warrior, play-through-every-injury mentality and refusal to quit on his teammates. Ever. It’s not that he had some misguided sense of altruism. He played with that passion and heart because it was how he played basketball. For all the media squabbles, off-color statements and other shenanigans, everyone knew that Iverson was going to give everything he had until his body shut down.
That’s why he hasn’t flown off into the sunset in a blaze a glory. It’s also why he hasn’t stopped playing the game of basketball. He’ll never have the flowery sending off that Shaq constructed. He’ll keep toiling away, whether in Europe, Asia or, if he’s lucky, the NBA. But he’ll never quit on his own terms. Something or someone will tear him away.
After Jordan‘s iconic departure following the ’98 finals, someone needed to fill the void. Hakeem, Ewing, Duncan and Shaq had passed along the frontcourt torch with relative ease, but replacing Jordan was no easy feat. Allen Iverson was supposed to be the guy. Looking back, of course, we know that he was not. Instead the honor fell to Kobe Bryant, a man whose game and demeanor emulates Jordan in every way. But it took years before we accepted Kobe, because part of us knew that it was Iverson who inherited the throne. He was the No. 1 pick of the ’96 draft. He was the Rookie of the Year. But Iverson’s hand didn’t fit Jordan’s glove. In fact, Iverson’s hand fit no glove at all. He was constantly weaving his way through his NBA career, not on any particular set path or progression. So the story could only be told when it was close to finished. Kobe may always be perpetually chasing Jordan, but Iverson is an explorer, unique and never-to-be repeated.
So regardless of where Iverson lands in your rankings of the greatest ever, don’t forget him. Remember the impact he had on the NBA. Remember that beneath the questionable character and seemingly selfish attitude was a man just trying to play basketball. It’s why Dime’s vision statement says that, “Dime Magazine is Allen Iverson knifing through the heart of a defense. Unique. Quick. Beautiful. Dangerous. Equal parts talent and passion. The truth with style.”
So here’s to you, Allen Iverson.
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