THE UNDISPUTED GUIDE TO PRO
BASKETBALL R O T
ONE SHINING MOMENT The Realest Legacy of Allen Iverson
llen Iverson is often credited with bringing hip-hop to the NBA. This is lazy, sloppy thinking. It’s not as if the two had been blissfully unaware of each other before AIs rookie year—witness Shaq’s multiplatinum recording career, or the oft-mocked comp Basketball’s Best-Kept Secret. Whats really meant is that Iverson’s cornrows, reams of body art, do-rags, low-slung jeans, and perilously literal swagger made it impossible to ignore the demographic most associated with hip-hop. Despite all that made Iverson unique as a basketball player— and there was plenty—what received the most attention were his body, his clothes, and his mannerisms. Iverson was reviled as a “thug,” largely because he looked like the denizen of a backalley dice game as imagined by BET. Supposedly, Allen Iverson was responsible for any rookie who looked, or acted, a little too hood for comfort. This presumes, though, that these kids had no friends, families, or cultural identities of their own. Say Iverson simply made it acceptable to share dark secrets with the world. That’s quite different from planting the seed in the first place. He was one of the guys lucky enough to make it—the source of his appeal for many, and yet a point missed sorely by even some of his biggest supporters. But what really made Iverson disruptive was his game. AI was the ultimate one-on-one player and an unrepentant ball hog. And that was that. In this acid rejection of so much received basketball wisdom, AI proved instantly provocative. A lightningquick, relentlessly inventive, utterly fearless scorer, Iverson was unguardable without abundant help. Iversons crossover was often pointless and theatrical, but that didnt seem to matter when it came to freezing defenders. He wasn’t neatly methodical like Kobe Bryant, but he was in some ways even more impressive—if Kobe saw the floor in terms of spots and options, Iverson carved it up anew each time he took THE NEW DEUTERONOMY
iverson vs. bulls: During Iverson’s 1996–97 rookie year, there was a palpable tension between the young upstart and the reigning kings of the NBA, the Chicago Bulls. bulls 115, 76ers 86—nov. 2, 1996:
In just the second game of his NBA career, Iverson came out swaggering, which Ron Harper did not appreciate: “The guy is showing disrespect. You come into the league and you have to do something or your team has to do something [before you talk]. That’s just immature.” Bulls 111, 76ers 105—Dec. 22, 1996:
Iverson talked trash with the Chicago bench all game long and eventually got into a shoving match with Dennis Rodman late in the game. Rodman commented, “Iverson came in there thinking he was Jumanji and was going to control the whole forest and the wilderness.” Bulls 108, 76ers 104—Mar. 13, 1997:
Iverson had one of the immortal NBA highlights, crossing Jordan over badly and hitting a jumper over him. After the game, Jordan conceded that it was “a great crossover move” and said, “It wasn’t the first time he’s done it and it won’t be the last.”
search for a second: During Iverson’s first few years in the league, the Sixers unsuccessfully attempted to pair him with a secondary scorer. The failed sidekicks: jerry stackhouse: Stackhouse was one of the best young scorers in the league when Iverson arrived. However, Stackhouse’s scoring average dropped to 16 points per game in the first 22 games of their second season together and he was traded to Detroit. larry hughes: Philadelphia drafted Hughes in the hope that he could be a bigger, more defensive complement to Iverson. But two high-volume scorers typically don’t go well together, and he was traded to Golden State in his second season. toni kukoc: Playing for a dismal Bulls
team, Kukoc averaged 18 ppg before his trade to the Sixers. His average immediately dropped to 12.4 ppg in the season’s final 32 games, then to just 8 ppg to start 2000–01. He was then dealt to the Hawks, where he saw his numbers rise to 19.7 ppg and close to 50 percent shooting.
his man off the dribble. Henry Abbott has written about how Iverson’s high school coach, Dennis Kozlowski, introduced the teen to psychocybernetics, the practice of visualization as a form of self-actualization developed to help plastic surgery patients. Kozlowski told his prized pupil, “I want you to play like you just tied your shoelaces—automatically. The way you do that is by having an image in your mind of what you do before you do it.” That explains much of Iverson’s game; point guards like Steve Nash discover new passing lanes, but Iverson used his vision to score from unpredictable angles. But the paradox at the heart of AI was not only that he was so singular as to seem a fluke but that his perceived sins against the game were all in good faith. No player before or since has so sincerely believed in one-on-one basketball as a means to victory, imagining it fully while others had been unwittingly dragged into it by their egos. Iverson wanted the ball in his hands until the last possible second and seemed resistant to the idea that anyone else on his team could implement his plan for a possession. Iverson could only control the game if he employed his visualization/ actualization technique, one that depended on both absolute concentration and—until he reached that climactic phase of shoot, foul, or dish—minimal intrusion from his less capable teammates. Yet its important to bear in mind that, above all else, Iverson wanted to win. He just felt—and, it sometimes appeared, knew—that he had to think this way to be the truly unguardable player who could set an entire starting five quivering. Plenty of misguided talents have gone nowhere fast with this philosophy; most of the greats have had it in them, somewhere. For Allen Iverson, it was fundamental—if still problematic. Feared as he was, Iverson proved to be more exception that proved the rule than a new beginning. He may have been the most popular player between Michael Jordan and LeBron James; he certainly had something to do with David Sterns forcing everyone to dress in suits for a month or two. But to suggest that Iverson set any kind of precedent is to ignore how utterly improbable, and irreplaceable, a figure he was. Fittingly, it all came down to a single bizarre season, one that his own team was hesitant to reproduce. Iversons 2000–01 almost didn’t happen. The previous summer, the Sixers had thrown up their hands and decided to send their star to Detroit. However, as fate would have it (if you can’t tell, 182
THE UNDISPUTED GUIDE TO PRO BASKETBALL HISTORY
this sort of divine intervention is a leitmotif of AI’s story), the little-used big man Matt Geiger, a throw-in needed to make the money work, inexplicably had a trade kicker in his contract—a luxury usually afforded only to important players. Geiger didn’t feel like moving and the deal fell apart. Iverson and the Sixers patched things up, with the expectation that the episode served as both a wake-up call and a further source of me-against-theworld motivation for AI. Alas, more trouble lay ahead (the other shoe is never far away in AI’s story). During the preseason, “40 Bars,” the first single from Iverson’s rap alter-ego Jewelz, leaked. With AI’s notoriety at an all-time high, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. The NBA was struggling with the perception that it was overrun by gangsters, thugs, and any number of other racial euphemisms. Stern simply did not need his number-one lightning rod boasting that “I know killaz that kill for a fee/that’ll kill yo’ ass for free, believe me.” Iverson was most easily digested as the little man that could, the consummate underdog. Unfortunately, AI had zero interest in being anyone’s Horatio Alger story. Granted, this was before a single digital file could kill a career in seconds, so there was room for damage control. The single was buried, the album scrapped, and Iverson forced to apologize publicly for its content—specifically its homophobic slurs. However, from a public relations standpoint, this was David Stern’s and the Sixers’ doomsday scenario. “40 Bars” could not be neatly dismissed as a bored athlete booking studio time during the off-season. The single was pure Allen Iverson, three minutes of skittering, cocksure grit. Not that anyone felt like discussing it at the time, but Iverson’s internal rhyme schemes were suprisingly intricate. Ever the exception, AI had virtually nothing in common with the amateurish athlete-rappers that soon became commonplace. Channeling the start-and-stop rhythms of his game, he had unmistakable style. Fittingly, the strongest evidence that Iverson had an aesthetic kinship with hip-hop also served to strengthen negative stereotypes about him, the genre, and where both were headed. Given this backdrop, calling Allen Iverson’s 2000–01 a fairy tale is a little strange. In fact, AI’s always seemed a little too gruff for that kind of language. Maybe “vindication” works better; certainly “redemption” is out of the question. For one year, a team learned how to work with Iverson, and he learned how to work with a THE NEW DEUTERONOMY
THE JAZZ-O-METER 2000s RATING: Fake jazzy (10/100) REBIRTH OF THE COOL: By the dawn of the twenty-first century, jazz’s role in the NBA was largely as a signifier of cool. The Air Jordan XVII, released in 2002, was reportedly inspired by Michael Jordan’s love of jazz and incorporated “jazz elements.” The commercials, directed by Spike Lee, featured atmospheric empty gyms, a neo-bop soundtrack, and cats like Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles. COVER SONGS: In 2009, the Miami
Heat debuted a series of promotional posters and videos inspired by classic Blue Note cover art, giving each Heat player his own fake album cover. JAM BAND: One of TNT’s more memo-
rable promos featured Chris Webber, Vince Carter, Ray Allen, and Vlade Divac performing as a jazz combo in some lucky family’s living room. Carter, who played in his high school jazz band and stuck with it, took a sax solo that apparently he played himself.
Survival of the Fittest Point distribution of top 6 scorers on team 40%
Average NBA team, ’00–’01 Iverson
Philadelphia 76ers, ’00–’01
dirty work: When Larry Brown took over the Sixers in 1997, he surrounded Iverson with a group of players who realized their limitations and focused on the dirty work. Tyrone Hill was even that way off the court, naming his pet piranhas Rebound 1, Rebound 2, and Rebound 3, like some sort of backboard-obsessed George Foreman. Hill said that he came up with the names after watching how they fought for the goldfish he would drop into their tank: “It kind of reminded me of the way I felt going for a ball off the rim.”
team. Of course, this involved surrounding AI with a collection of totally selfless role players who contributed primarily on defense. Larry Brown, known as the stodgiest coach in the league and a proponent of what he called “the right way,” caved to and accommodated his star’s idiosyncrasies—deformities, even. In turn, Iverson pushed himself even harder, winning the league’s MVP and, more important, abruptly earning the respect of many of his former detractors. There was just no denying Allen Iverson; his team led the East all season, everyone was happy, and he had the blessings of one of the most revered coaches in the game. Suddenly he was a folk hero, a fount of populism who amounted to a grassroots Michael Jordan. Finally, there was harmony between Iverson’s startling ability, his desire to win, and the fact that basketball is a five-man sport. The Sixers even pulled off an upset of the indomitable Lakers, in L.A., in the first game of the Finals—which, considering that Kobe and Shaq had yet to lose a game that postseason and had just dismantled the Spurs, was about as big a moral victory as you’ll find in sports. And then the Lakers clamped down and asserted their championship fiat, winning the next four games to take the real prize. The next year, Iverson and Brown clashed; despite the formula they’d perfected in 2000–01, the Sixers insisted on trying to find real teammates for Iverson. Given their incompetence as a front office, this never worked out. But Iverson had his legitimacy; he had proven that the league had to take him seriously as a player. That season is Iverson’s legacy, and like the man himself, it stands apart. Because taken as a whole, AI’s career ain’t pretty. The Sixers were mediocre, but he made them too good to rebuild; they dealt him to Denver, where teaming with Carmelo Anthony proved only that Iverson really couldn’t play well with another All-Star. Then came a lost year in Detroit; 2009–10 started with an abortive stint with Memphis, followed by a return to Philly that had the feel of a plea bargain or a mercy killing. But in a way, all Iverson really needed was that single season— maybe even just that single win. He was never going to change the way basketball was played, or even—in the long run—the kind of athlete America was willing to accept. This put an especially plaintive, even morbid, spin on the “play like there’s no tomorrow” cliché that defined his game. Iverson always knew that, at best, he’d get that one moment and then go back to being the league’s 184 THE UNDISPUTED GUIDE TO PRO BASKETBALL HISTORY
problem child. At the same time, there was a sense that this highwater mark, whenever it came, might be the sum total of his legacy. Grim as that is, it’s also what made Iverson so electrifying in his prime. Iverson was ultimately the basketball equivalent of Mobb Deep’s 1995 The Infamous, with which late-teen MCs Prodigy and Havoc pull off a stark, haunting classic despite sounding like kids who were very much not counting on a future. Their rage, resignation, and every other emotion you’d expect is sublimated, the whole record a stylized acknowledgment that they plan on either dropping dead or staying young forever—if there’s even a difference there. That urgency and desperation was what made Allen Iverson compelling, but what he did with it in 2000–01 is why he’s great. That was the only year Iverson made any sense, as well as that brief window when he beat back all the forces—including common sense—that conspired against him. He never found that synergy again, but it doesn’t seem like he expected to, and he made only the slightest alterations to his game in an attempt to fit new contexts. However, what makes 2000–01 so monumental is that it happened at all. Not only was AI never supposed to exist in the first place, he most certainly wasn’t supposed to take a team to the Finals and shock a dynasty in the making. Even as Iverson declined, millions of fans and players continued to look at him and see 2001, not out of sentimentality, but for the same reasons we never think of rappers as getting old. There was no plan past the present. You can decide whether he died that season or vowed to stay young forever. Either way, it makes all that followed almost irrelevant—and, in a way, takes Iverson out of time and history altogether. —B.S.
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locks of love: No throwaway event signifies Iverson’s cultural dominance among NBA players and fans quite like his arrival at the 2009 All-Star Game in New Orleans without his trademark cornrows. Iverson announced it was time for a change, jokingly citing President Obama’s inauguration as inspiration. Video from the East locker room shows players and media gathered around Iverson, flashbulbs popping, and people as famous as Dwyane Wade ribbing AI on his new look with shouts of “Are you serious?” and “Thirteen years!”
security sleeve: In 2001, Iverson began wearing a sleeve on his right arm to combat the effects of bursitis in his elbow. Yet Iverson never stopped wearing the sleeve, leading Steven Kotler of Psychology Today to surmise that AI believed it would protect him from future injuries in a way similar to a placebo. For the most part, though, the sleeve became a fashion statement mimicked by players as notable as Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony.
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