Allen Iverson led the NBA in scoring four times and steals three times in his career. He is seventh on the NBA’s all-time list in points per game with a 26.7 average, and 11th on the steals list with a 2.2 mark. He led the 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers to an Eastern Conference championship in what was perhaps the toughest Eastern bracket that particular portion of the country offered for several years prior, and afterward. Due to this and more, he’ll be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday.
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Iverson’s was a star-crossed career, as many will tell you about this week. He was the first NBA player to sport cornrows in over a decade, debuting the hairstyle (hairstyle!) during the 1997 Rookie All-Star Game to much derision from mainstream press. His growing collection of tattoos already made that press uneasy, mainly due to the fact that it was a little simpler for many sportswriters of the era to digest Dennis Rodman’s tats as he stood offstage at a Pearl Jam concert in comparison to the idea of Allen Iverson rolling up to his favorite parlor while Mobb Deep bounded from his SUV’s sound system.
He was famous – Sports Illustrated-level famous – prior to his short stint at Georgetown, due to an infamous bowling alley brawl that left Iverson charged with hitting a woman with a chair. Allen was incarcerated prior to a pardon from then-Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, and the conviction was eventually overturned due to insufficient evidence.
The NBA barely mentioned as much when it came time to make Iverson the first guard selected top overall in the draft in 17 years (since Magic Johnson). The league expected him to move on. No, he hadn’t slowed down much for John Thompson at Georgetown (so how in the hell was he going to slow down for rookie head coach Johnny Davis in Philadelphia?), but the young man put on the baseball cap of a marquee NBA team, wore a suit, posed for picture with his index finger raised, and the rest was supposed to fall in line.
It didn’t, and all the signs were there from 1996 onward. In ways both destructive and inspiring.
Iverson was not interested in acting as a point guard, and racking up heaps of assists, but he wasn’t keen on giving the ball up early in possessions as most scoring shooting guards did. He lunged for steals and was out of place defensively, sometimes he needed as many shots to score as many points as he ended his night with, and he did not mesh with his hoped-for deputy baller (in this initial case, Jerry Stackhouse).
The same continued in his second year under new coach Larry Brown, as the Sixers passed on even considering pairing Keith Van Horn with AI (dealing KVH instead for depth: Jim Jackson, Eric Montross, draft pick Anthony Parker and lottery pick Tim Thomas), while dealing Stackhouse for center Theo Ratliff and acquiring 1995 top overall pick Joe Smith midseason to see if things fit.
Nothing fit. Not until Iverson was afforded total control of things.
Moved to shooting guard the next season alongside Eric Snow, who had paid more attention to Nate McMillan than he did Gary Payton in his brief apprenticeship in Seattle (prior to being dealt to Philly), Iverson led the Sixers in scoring as the 76ers made the playoffs for the first time in eight years. The younger Sixers upended an aging (yet Atlantic Division-winning) Orlando Magic club in the first round, but Iverson and Brown were hardly getting along and 1999-00 didn’t represent a major step forward.
Worse, Brown was starting to rub up against his lifelong fight with permanence, finishing his third year with the 76ers and not wanting to spend his 60s working with a player in Iverson that not didn’t want to listen to tales of the Right Way, but probably couldn’t lead a team to a ring even should the wayward turn righteous. A four-team trade that would land Philadelphia Glen Rice and local product Eddie Jones while sending Iverson to Detroit was worked out during the summer of 2000, only to be scuttled by Sixers center Matt Geiger’s refusal to waive a five percent trade-clause in his already-outsized contract.
As such, Iverson remained a Sixer. Jackson, Smith, Stackhouse, Thomas and 1998 lottery pick Larry Hughes were gone by now, all chased away by Iverson’s intractable offensive leanings, and the team entered 2000-01 with the aging Toni Kukoc as the squad’s designated No. 2. Iverson also entered the season fresh off of a “controversy” about an unreleased profane hip-hop album (one that gained him an audience with league commissioner David Stern, because that’s how things worked back then) and the brouhaha about his tattoos and most of his cornrows being airbrushed off of a cover of HOOP Magazine, the NBA’s official publication.
Somehow, the team won. It ran 14 of 16 to start the year and hit the midway point on pace for 62 wins. Ratliff’s season-ending injury drove the squad to deal Kukoc for center Dikembe Mutombo. Nobody shot but Iverson, seemingly, but it hardly mattered as the defense was sound and the Sixers had just enough to top game squads from Toronto and Milwaukee in unappealing but competitive seven game series’ prior to hitting the 2001 NBA Finals. Iverson’s famed crossover work won the hearts of the low-rated audience that tuned into Philly’s lone Finals win during Game 1, but this run turned out to be AI’s professional peak.
We know how things turned out from there. Infamy, in the form of the famed 2002 “PLAYOFFS?!?” press conference, followed by anonymity. Derrick Coleman, Glenn Robinson, Chris Webber … the second star never materialized once its name was placed alongside Allen Iverson.
From there, Iverson turned in some shameful work.
He walked out on the 2006-07 Philadelphia 76ers, prior to being traded to Denver. Iverson straight up left the team, scuttled any chances it had in retaining good trade value for his promise (Philly did return an ill-fitting Andre Miller), effectively ending his most prominent stint with the city that welcomed him with open arms a decade prior.
AI played well for some good Nugget teams prior to being traded to Detroit in 2008. From there, after chafing with the coaching staff, he walked out on the Pistons in 2009 just before the playoffs.
Signed to Memphis prior to 2009-10 after little free agent interest, Allen Iverson walked out on the Grizzlies weeks into the season after butting heads with the team’s coaching staff regarding his role.
Signed back to the Philadelphia 76ers later in 2009-10, Iverson was given a hero’s welcome back to the team that drafted him in 1996. Weeks later, he walked out on the team.
It was fight or flight, forever, with Iverson. When he didn’t get what he wanted, he fought until things went his way, often to the detriment of his significant potential. When the team wouldn’t bend, he walked.
Iverson led the NBA in minutes per game seven times between 1996 and 2008, while averaging nearly 41 minutes a contest in the five seasons that saw him fall short in the leader list. He flat out refused to submit to the coach’s call to leave the game, and chafed openly on the court in full view of his teammates, coaching staff, game attendees, media and opponents while skulking off of the court. After a while, coaches just stopped trying to take him out of contests – even blowout wins or losses.
Did this have as much to do with his too-soon career tail-off as, say, his off-court body shaping habits or the way his game was about the same in 1996 as it was in 2009? Probably. Iverson got what he wanted, though. In the moment and with regard for little else.
It’s what happens when you have everything taken away from you unfairly at a formative age, as happened to Iverson in the wake of the bowling alley brawl. You’d like to think that by a professional’s late 20s or 30s one would be able to appreciate the permanence and move along, but brains don’t work that way. Traumatic incidents in childhood and young adulthood – and “young adulthood” is a stretch that can dive deep into one’s 20s – tend to shape the next half-dozen decades. It’s why the “think of the children!”-pleas shouldn’t always be used as a go-to joke, as society should continually be at war with its adults in demanding that they get things right.
Allen Iverson did things as he saw fit, in ways that have been obvious to all since he left the suit that Larry Brown asked him to wear for his first playoff press conference in 1999 crumpled on the locker room floor after his initial meeting with postseason media. The superficial – that suit, the hair, the tats – never mattered. His play, however unsustainable, did.
As such, he is a Basketball Hall of Famer.
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