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Allen Iverson and His Importance to the NBA: Fan’s View
- David Stern
With that statement on the 26th of June in 1996, Allen Iverson became the shortest, lightest player to ever be drafted number one overall in a league traditionally dominated by giants.
Before Chris Bosh had cornrows, Allen Iverson had cornrows. Before Bosh shaved his cornrows, Allen shaved his (he has since grew them back, but still). Before Carmelo Anthony started taking the floor sporting a shooting sleeve, Iverson wore one during his recovery from bursitis in his right elbow. Before there was the Black Mamba, there was The Answer.
Allen Iverson hit the floor running. He scored 30 points in his first career NBA game—perhaps a preview of what was to come. As much as Allen's numbers stood out, even as a rookie, something else stood out more—his demeanor.
When Allen Iverson was on the rise to stardom he was told by "white men in suits" (the same white men who wrongfully sent him to jail only a few years prior) that he'd have to "cross over" (no pun intended) to garner mainstream acceptance as a star basketball player, much like superstars Michael Jordan and Julius Erving did before him. Allen wanted no part of that. From day one he claimed, "I want to do things my way."
Iverson defied the sports punditocracy with the tattoos, catalyzing a generation by being the first basketball star to braid his hair in cornrows—a style prevalent amongst African American inmates.
Probably one of the most influential African American athletes ever, Allen was setting trends, and pushing the NBA into the hip-hop era, whether intentionally or not, and whether the league was ready for it or not. The crazy part of all of this? He was accepted by almost everybody, most notably, white America. By 1999 (the first year the Sixers made the playoffs with The Answer) Allen's jersey sales dwarfed those of Shaquille O'Neil, Reggie Miller, Kobe Bryant and every other star in the league. Why and how though, did someone from the roughest of ghettos, an ex-con with a shady entourage, appeal to seemingly this entire country? For writers, it's easy, his story tells itself, and columnists are no different from anyone else in America, we'll take anything we can to make our jobs easier. And columnists ate up the Iverson story from every plausible angle, whether it was in support of him, or from writers in their 40s, 50s and 60s who didn't understand him and weren't interested in trying. Either way, it was a story, and a well known one. For fans? My theory is Allen Iverson made it into the NBA and started becoming a superstar at the perfect time for people of all ages and races to appeal to his hip-hop persona. He hit his stride right as every white kid in America was immitating The Real Slim Shady. Hip-hop, with the influences of Iverson and artists who appealed to white America, like Jay-Z, Nas and Eminem, was as prevalent in the United States as any form of popular culture at the time, and they all flourished simutaneously. When you combine that with Allen's rebelious ways, his refusal to become any sort of media creation other than who he was and the rumor that 70 percent of rap albums are purchased by white suburbians, he was a homerun with mainstream America. Had Iverson come along ten years earlier, would he have connected with Americans so well? We'll never know.
None of this matters if Iverson is some scrub who spent is career riding the bench. Fortunately for Sixers fans like myself, he was quite the contrary. He was the number one pick in one of the two best drafts in the history of the NBA. As incredible as Allen's rookie campaign was, maybe his most impressive feat was breaking the 37 year old Wilt Chamberlain record for consecutive 40 point games. Wilt had three such consecutive games, Allen had five. Allen is over a foot shorter than Chamberlain. I'll never forget that the NBA refrained from publicizing Allen's receiving of the Rookie of the Year award because he was wearing a white skull cap. Even in what were his finest moments as a player, Allen never deferred from who he was for the public's appeal. If you didn't like his character, that was your problem.
Years from now, basketball historians will dice up The Answer's career as a player who allegedly monopolized the ball, they'll label him a alleged coach killer who had no interest in helping teammates get better. Chances are, they'll overlook what he did for the game of basketball (almost single-handedly carrying the NBA through the first ten years of the post-Jordan era). They'll forget that for ten years, Allen Iverson was the single most polarizing, menacing, athletically gifted, fun to watch player in the NBA. He played with a bleep-you style that only Kevin Garnett matched, and Kobe Bryant later adopted (Michael Jordan will always be the king of this category). He passed what fans of the game call, "The season ticket test". Every year, when your season tickets arrive in the mail, you invariably mark off certain dates you cannot miss. If you had season tickets to an Eastern Conference team, and Iverson came to your arena twice that year, you can bet you were attending those games. Only live did we garner a true appreciation for what Allen Iverson did on a basketball court. They listed him at six feet tall, he was hardly that. Yet, routinely, Allen made those foul line to mid range jumpers, shots that are supposed to be impossible for a player his size to get off in the NBA. He hit an obscene number of layups and floaters in the lane, taking angles that seemed implausible as they were developing, even if you've spent years watching him play. He was the most intuitive, self-aware, articulate superstar in the history of sports. He was better balanced and coordinated than everyone else. He was faster, quicker; a featherweight who carried himself like Evander Holyfield. He took a pounding, routinely bouncing off the hardwood like it was in his job description. And he always got back up. For years, the best player in the NBA wasn't taller than Gisele Bundchen.
I possess a genuine fear that Iverson haters, writers and statisticians, will, over the years, undermine what Allen did on the floor. They will say he shot too much (Allen took 23-plus shots per game for seven straight seasons) or that he was too turnover prone (3.8 per game for his career, four seasons of 4.4 or more). They will point our his career three point percentage of 31 percent. They won't give the credit Allen deserves for doing what so many great scorers before him failed to do—take a mediocre team all the way to the NBA Finals. Allen had an extra gear that George Gervin, Dominique Wilkins and Bob McAdoo simply did not have. That extra gear? His fierce competitiveness. Allen believed, no matter how pourus his supporting cast be, that they could win. He killed himself to prove that theory correct and eventually his teammates followed suit.
During Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, NBC showed a diagram documenting Iverson's injuries in his career up to that point. The diagram displayed a laundry list of injuries, including; right quad contusion, right knee sprain, left ankle sprain, inflamed right toe, left hip pointer, partially dislocated right shoulder, left knee contusion, tailbone contusion, a sprained left thumb and the aforementioned right elbow bursitis. With all of those injuries, Allen missed just 33 of a possible 378 regular season games at that point in his career. When you are the best player on your team and you don't miss games even while writhing in pain, your teammates don't miss games due to injury either. Some people say Allen tore teams apart, this tells me he brought them together.
Iverson never strayed away from who he was. He always stayed true to his roots. On May 15, 2001 Allen was preparing to receive his NBA Most Valuable Player award. His advisors knew Allen wasn't going to wear a suit to the press conference. They suggested something urban, but classy. Iverson told them that he'd wear that outfit, just not on this day. He presumed to pull a shirt out of his locker. One that read, "Bad News Hood Check". It was a black shirt with white letters. The back of the shirt donned a list of street corners—the toughest spots in Newport News, VA, Allen's hometown. Allen wanted all of his boys back home to see this, again, he never forgot his roots.
This would become more than your typical NBA MVP press conference. Allen was, in a sense, changing the world. On this day, on this stage, the days where a black athlete had to be differential and non-threatening in order to be loved by white America, were suddenly gone. The most in-your-face, non-euphemistic player of his generation was showing the world that it's okay to be who you are.
The catch? Allen Iverson was America. He was diverse. He was not afraid of who he really is. How many people do you know, that act different around different crowds of people, be it in business or in pleasure? A few I'm sure. Allen refused to be fake for anybody. Everyone is different, we here the saying all the time. Accept people for who they are. If you've grown up in this country you undeniably heard this growing up and it's true, everyone is different, including Allen Iverson.
A six foot tall shooting guard from a rough southern Virginia city holds the record for steals in a playoff game. He is second to only Michael Jordan in playoff and finals scoring average. He holds the NBA record for consecutive seasons leading the NBA in steals at three. He has led a league of giants in scoring on four different occasions. He has a career average of 6.2 assists per game, yet people call him selfish. A six foot guard named Allen Iverson once scored 100 points over seven quarters in the 2001 playoffs. He did all of this while never marketing himself to be anything other than who he was. Allen never wanted to be Michael, Magic or Bird. He wanted only to be Allen Iverson. When he sat up on that podium on that May day and accepted his MVP award, he reminded everyone that, yeah, he did it his way. Yeah… I can appreciate that.
Bryan Confer has lived in the Philadelphia area for over 20 years and has covered the 76ers for backsportspage.com and slamonline.com. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/bryanconfer.
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