As he walks up the stairs and into the room, he does not announce himself, and it’s not out of disrespect. Everything about him introduces him instead: The self-assured strut, the puffy jacket-sweatpants combo, and especially the silver necklace with the letters “AI” encrusted with enough ice to stop global warming, spelled out just in case someone asks for ID.
After 24,368 points scored, roughly 10 years since his retirement and 46 years on Planet Earth, not much has changed. So if you don’t know who Allen Iverson was or is by now, you never will.
And you’d be in the minority. Just hours earlier, Iverson sat inside the Cleveland Westin Hotel restaurant with a knife and fork. On the other side of the window, out in the street, oblivious to Iverson, was a boy, maybe 10 years old, white kid, who saw Iverson and freaked. Now keep in mind he wasn’t even born when Iverson crossed up Michael Jordan … or stepped over Ty Lue … or showed up at the 2001 All-Star Game in cornrows. And yet the boy, trying and failing to get Iverson’s attention, finally took a selfie anyway of him next to Iverson’s back. Iverson took another bite.
Once up the stairs and inside the room, and while surrounded by a group of about eight people who arrived with him — Iverson still rarely goes anywhere in public alone — Iverson plops on the sofa and cordially says: “Whattaya wanna know?”
He was in Cleveland to take his rightful place among the greats. This was last month at the NBA All-Star Game, where Iverson received one of the loudest ovations when the 75th Anniversary Team was announced at halftime. Iverson enjoyed himself all weekend, mainly because he was back in the basketball loop, and the loop still loved him. He made an appearance for Hennessy. He went mic-to-mic with Tracy McGrady in a Verzuz battle. He hawked Reebok, the shoe company he once carried on his back, much like the Sixers for a decade.
What set Iverson apart from other members of the 75th was his loyalty — to himself, to the flock of fans that emulated him, to the generation of players inspired by him. Put it this way: There were two members of the 75th who looked uncomfortable in those navy blue blazers given to each. Dennis Rodman, naturally, tossed his aside. Iverson respectfully kept his on the entire time, but it seemed … out of place.
And that’s the right place to start this conversation with Iverson, with this observation: Isn’t it funny how the NBA dress code disappeared overnight? When the pandemic hit, the league relaxed the bench attire rules for coaches and players — rules put in place two decades ago because of Iverson and his affinity for oversized shirts and durags and baggy pants instead of suit and ties — and never bothered to reinstate it. And now, players are sashaying to games in all manners of sartorial sins and nobody makes a stink.
Iverson laughs at the irony: “Right? You know what I mean? But it’s bittersweet because I took that ass whipping for it. They beat me. And I was so young, what, 21 years old? I didn’t understand why people looked at me a certain way because of how I dressed. But obviously, it was so different then because nobody was doing it. I was dressing like the dudes I grew up with.”
When he played, Iverson was fearless. That’s why, at 6 feet and 165 pounds, he constantly challenged bigger players at the rim and dribbled through traffic and absorbed all the scratches and dents. It was fearlessness that also convinced him not to care about the guidelines of the establishment.
Because, more than anyone who wore an NBA jersey, Iverson was a cultural phenomenon, a basketball artist uniting white suburban kids and black urbanites, and one whose swag still resonates despite the evolution of time.
All these years later, Iverson gets a kick out of what he created and how people reacted. The cornrows, tattoos, raw honesty and the lifestyle wasn’t for everyone but it was for him and, by extension, a demographic that felt him. Iverson became a role model by trying not to be a role model.
“It wasn’t me trying to create a certain image,” he said. “It was me being me. There was kind of a certain way guys were coming into the league then. Everybody was doing the same thing. Not that it was a bad thing. Everybody was wearing suits and they were following suit because of the guys before them. And my whole thing was, I never wore no suit to the gym, to the courts. I was just wearing stuff to the place I was going after the game, you know what I mean?
“I think a lot of other guys always wanted to do that. I don’t know if it was fear or whatever that they didn’t. When I did it, it wasn’t a big deal to me. Like my tattoos. I would’ve gotten more tattoos before I got into the NBA, but I couldn’t afford ‘em.”
Nowadays, tats are the norm in the NBA; some players are inked from neck to toe. And the hair? That started a follicle trend, too. Iverson has a sensical answer for why he went with ‘rows:
“People were making a big deal about it, like it was a thug thing, but I was tired of (barbers) messing my hair up on the road. If I could get a cornrow, I wouldn’t have to worry about that.”
It’s a marvel that Iverson doesn’t move without a hitch. After all, he played his heart and limbs off. It didn’t matter the score, the month, the day or the player defending him, basketball’s greatest pound-for-pound scorer knew only one speed, one way, one mode.
Did anyone put more of his body on the line — a body that was all bones wrapped in a headband? One could question that some of the ink running through his skin was acquired from paint burn; that’s how much time Iverson spent on the floor.
That energy endeared Iverson to the fans, knowing he would repay their emotional and financial investment in him. They cheered loudly when he cupped his ear and asked for more applause. That energy endeared Iverson to his teammates, all less talented, all good with him hogging the shots — how else were they gonna win? And it endeared him to his coaches, even Larry Brown when Iverson drove him nutty.
Because Iverson always showed up at tipoff. Well, he might test team rules and was late to a few practices, but we’re talking ‘bout practice. Not a game, not a game, not the game that he went out there and died for and played every one like it was his last. He never cheated the game.
“It comes from my football pedigree,” he explained. “When everyone thought it was a big deal me hitting the floor, I would laugh at it because I spent a lot of time getting hit and put on the ground in football. The closer you get to the basket, the percentages are better, so I tried to get as close as I could.”
He was a slick quarterback in high school who, again, was at a supreme size disadvantage and yet made tacklers look silly as they grabbed at air. Iverson loved football and wanted to play both sports in college, even if it meant going Division II, since none of the big schools were having it. That included Georgetown and the mountain of a man he played for, John Thompson.
“I remember my freshman year,” Iverson said, “in order to get to the gym, I had to walk past the football field, and I was crying. I used to try to walk by without looking. I figured I would go the long way so I wouldn’t see the field. But it was too much.
“I remember asking Coach Thompson one day if I could play. And I don’t think I could use the language he used that day. All I can tell you is that I never thought about playing football again.”
“Big John” loved Iverson’s audacity, though, and never tried to suppress it even if he could. He knew it was Iverson’s survival mechanism, his dominance gene.
That instinct helped him win four scoring titles and 11 All-Star trips and the 2001 MVP and put him on YouTube before YouTube was invented.
I remember my freshman year in order to get to the gym, I had to walk past the football field, and I was crying. I used to try to walk by without looking.”
— Allen Iverson, on giving up football
In his rookie season, Iverson seized his chance to make Jordan wobble, with a crossover that froze and fooled Jordan. If social media existed then, the internet would’ve shut down for the night.
“All I could think about is I had no fear,” Iverson said. “I feared so many other things off the court, but nothing on the court. (That crossover) was indicative of how I felt as far as being fearless on the court. We was at war. I looked at him as anybody else being in front of me. Coming into the league, I knew if I had the opportunity of trying my move that I was going to do it, and not be fearful of it.”
The other enduring Iverson highlight came in the 2001 NBA Finals when he dragged a team whose next-highest scorer, after Iverson’s league-leading 31.1 points per game, was Dikembe Mutombo at 11.7 ppg. The Sixers had a star disadvantage against the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers, but in Game 1, Iverson dazzled with 48 points.
Philly stole that game, and Iverson stole the night in overtime when he executed a vicious crossover that sent Lue to the ground, then swished the step-back shot and high-stepped over him. It was a naughty sequence since replayed a million times.
Lue was, funny enough, swayed by Iverson’s cultural influence to wear his own hair in cornrows. Also, after that moment the public assumed Lue, now the LA Clippers’ coach, wanted no relationship with his tormentor. And it couldn’t be further from the truth. When TikTok, the social networking platform, wanted Iverson for a recent commercial, he asked that they also use Lue.
Lue said: “I usually don’t do stuff like that, and if he wasn’t involved, I probably wouldn’t. It was good to see him, to do something with him, so it was cool.”
Iverson explained: “Working with him was great, because everybody thinks it’s a problem, but I love that dude.”
Lue wasn’t the problem. Getting his lines right and executing the TikTok “shrug” in rehearsal was the problem for Iverson.
“The commercial was so real because I really couldn’t get it, as simple as it is,” Iverson said. “I couldn’t do it the way they were doing it. All the things I can do on the basketball court, something that simple, I couldn’t get it right.
“I see people (on the street) now, they used to mock me with the ‘practice’ crap. Now it’s, `Hey, AI, do I got it right?’ And they do like this,” said Iverson, with a shrug.
Iverson loved what basketball did for him, and those close to him. He lived and traveled large, giving his hometown friends from Hampton, Va., a taste of The Life. The five-star hotels, limos, VIP entry, popped bottles, keys to the fleet in the garage, hanging with hip-hoppers — the whole nine.
The establishment shook an index finger at Iverson for carrying a crew everywhere, and perhaps it did take a toll, financially and otherwise. Only Iverson knows, and anyway, he only saw the benefits and therefore doesn’t apologize for anything.
“I love being around my family and my guys,” he said. “Everyone is always saying (I’m) around an entourage and all that. Well, you’ll never understand. If you have friends, you understand. If you don’t, then … I love being around them, love laughing and joking and playing cards and doing the things that we do. I understand how life can be over just like that, so I’m going to enjoy it as much as I can and try to deal with the ups and downs as best I can. Especially the lows. Just fight through it and understand that this too shall pass, whatever it is, and understand that it’s a gift to be here.”
Big John is gone. Kobe, too. Both were heroes to Iverson, confidants, people who didn’t judge him. When they died seven months apart in 2020, Iverson figuratively was back on the floor again, this time in pain.
As he contextualizes their loss, Iverson says: “It just made me think about how I’ve actually lived, every day like it’s my last, because you never know. With them, it was here one day, the next day, gone.”
Big John was there for Iverson, starting with Iverson’s junior year in high school, after the bowling alley fight and conviction — later overturned by a Virginia court — that cost Iverson four months in a youth correctional facility. All the major colleges bailed, except one.
“Coach Thompson saved my life,” Iverson said. “My mom went up there to Georgetown and basically begged for me. He gave me an opportunity. We would always joke later. He was like, `If your mom didn’t come up here, then you wouldn’t be who you are, and I gave you a shot.’ And I’m like `C’mon coach, it had something to do with my talent, too, now. I made you look good, too.’”
Iverson laughs. “He never called me by my name. It was always ‘Hey m—f—.’ I’d answer the phone and he’d say, `I’m just calling to cuss you out.’”
While Big John was ailing, Iverson refused to concede the inevitable. Big John’s son, Ron, told Iverson to get to the hospital because the coach didn’t have much longer, maybe a week or two.
“And then the next day I got the phone call, so I didn’t have the opportunity,” Iverson said. “I know how much God loves me and if I had went there and seen him in that capacity, it wouldn’t have done me no good mentally. It’s the same thing with my grandma. My grandma died, and me and her was like this,” Iverson said, crossing his index and middle fingers.
“I missed her funeral. I drove around, like hours, and I couldn’t find it, for some reason. And I know it was God, saying, `You don’t want to be there, and you shouldn’t be there anyway.’”
And when’s the last time he saw Kobe, a fellow fierce competitor, who was in the same famed 1996 draft class, who was raised in Philly, who shared so many memorable moments on the same NBA floor, most famously that 2001 Finals series?
“That’s crazy you asked me that,” he said. “Nobody ever asked me. I never even thought about it. Well, matter fact, I know now. At his jersey retirement. Last time I saw him. I remember hugging him. He had his baby in his arms, his youngest daughter. That’s wild.
“So the same with Kobe, he was here today and all of a sudden that has to happen to his family, has to happen to us, we have to try to get through it the best way we can. We try to think like they’re in a better place. We try to do anything to make it feel better. That’s why my life is how it is. I live every day.”
Later in the day, Iverson realized one of many reasons to live. He gathered with fellow members of the 75th team and they congregated and celebrated. He got his flowers from a handful of players on that team and also the All-Star team, who approached with respect and awe.
Among them was Giannis Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP and member of the defending champion Bucks, who was so star-struck by Iverson that he almost stuttered his words.
Giannis: “Allen Iverson!”
Iverson: “Wassup killa?”
Giannis: “I started playing basketball because of you. I don’t want to bother you. I just wanted to tell you that.”
Iverson: “My man!”
Iverson is visibly touched by his peers and especially the next generation of stars who were either raised on his brand or were following his example in some way.
“It’s awesome, in the sense of I was that guy who wanted to be like Mike,” Iverson said. “So I understand the feeling of wanting to be like somebody, grew up idolizing and admiring.”
And what player today reminds you of you?
“Not game-wise. But attitude? I would say Ja Morant. He has no fear and you can tell he has an attitude of not being cocky but confident. He just sent a signed jersey to my crib, too, so we cool.”
Recently, Iverson returned the favor by posting a picture on social media of that jersey draped around Iverson’s MVP trophy, with this caption for Morant, the Grizzlies’ young star: “Sooner or later.”
So the basketball world he created and built lives on. There are so many examples of this today, from the “White Iverson” song that was the debut hit (No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100) for singer Post Malone, to standing Os for each appearance in Philly, to social media shoutouts, Iverson’s enduring popularity is due to him still being … true.
“I had no idea this many years later I would have an impact on the culture. I think people gravitated to me because I made mistakes and wasn’t perfect, because nobody’s perfect. I was just being myself.”
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