Never mind that in the later years of his career, Allen Iverson bounced around the league, from one team to another, much like a basketball in play. Never
mind that his remark “We're sitting here, I'm supposed to be the franchise player, and we're in here talking about practice,” and the repeated use of the
word ‘practice’ in a dramatic news conference in May 2002,
created instant headlines, the kind tabloids live on. Never mind his many legal and financial problems that made him appear a caricature of the NBA player
he once was. Because Allen Iverson aka A.I. or The Answer, as many knew him, was the real deal.
A.I. made for compulsory viewing. The kind Michael Jordan did before him and LeBron James after him. Listed at six-feet tall, he was a near dwarf in a
league of giants. But as James himself noted of Iverson, he was probably the toughest pound-for-pound player ever to play the game. In each of his first
dozen NBA seasons, Iverson averaged at least 39.4 minutes per game and led the league in minutes per game in seven of those campaigns. His crossover was as deadly as a Black Mamba’s bite. Quick and lethal. He captured four scoring
titles, memorably traded 50-point games with Vince Carter in the 2001 playoffs and famously stepped over the Lakers' Tyronn Lue after burying a 20-footer in the closing seconds of a
Game 1 win in the 2001 Finals. And that Philadelphia 76ers team was one of the weakest opponents ever to go down in an NBA Finals. However, with Iverson
dropping 48 points in Game 1 against the LA Lakers, he helped the 76ers save some face by winning at least one game in a series that went only five games.
Iverson was the 1996 Rookie Of The Year, an 11-time NBA All-Star, two-time All-Star game MVP, three-time steals leader, and four-time NBA scoring champion.
His career playoff average, at 29.73 ppg, was second only to Michael
Jordan’s. Of his peers only Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett have achieved more statistically, but all those names played on
more talented teams than Iverson. Yet, Iverson, in the final analysis, is the bigger cultural icon than any of these players, O’Neal notwithstanding.
It was Iverson who brought hip-hop to the NBA. It was he who made cornrows, du-rags, baggy jeans, and throwback jerseys cool. He made it to magazine covers and endorsed Reebok when Nike was the right thing to do in the NBA. His body was
to tattoos what the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was to the Italian renaissance painter Michelangelo’s frescoes. In that sense he was, as Bill Velasco of
The Philippine Star noted, the anti-Jordan. “
Jordan was clean-cut, sophisticated, well-groomed, corporate, designed to be a celebrity athlete endorser… For Jordan, long baggy shorts were a fashion statement. For
Iverson, they were a personal statement. While Jordan’s skin stayed immaculate, Iverson piled on the tattoos… When Jordan flouted NBA rules by wearing
sneakers with forbidden colors, he was building his brand equity with Nike. When Iverson objected to the rules, he was doing it because he was making a
statement. There was no financial gain,” wrote Velasco.
It is this in-your-face fashion sense that brought out Iverson’s personality. He didn’t pander to commercial interest. Never did he bother about being the
suitable boy, the kind corporate America would like to romance. Instead, it was always about his own terms. It is why Dave Zirin, sports editor at The
Nation, says of Iverson, “Before Allen Iverson, every young, African-American
athlete felt like they had to be like the child of Michael Jordan - Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter. This idea that we have to button up, wear a suit, play a
certain kind of corporate game and leave your emotions back at your house. Allen Iverson played with it all out on his sleeve and forced the broader culture
to confront a certain kind of African-American man as a human being who, otherwise, they might even cross the street to avoid.”
And so as the crowd stood up to applaud this singular NBA star on October 30 during the Miami Heat versus 76ers game, on the day he announced his retirement, you knew there will never be another Iverson again.