by Lang Whitaker

A few years ago, a friend of mine had the opportunity to spend a few weeks with Allen Iverson. The Answer was doin’ work for Reebok, taking an overseas tour to move kicks. It was just a few weeks before training camp was starting, yet according to my guy, Iverson never set foot in a gym, didn’t touch a basketball the entire time. (He also said that on the long flight from the US to Asia, AI didn’t bring any magazines, books, music, etc. — just a Monopoly board game, which he and his crew played incessantly.)

Upon their return from Asia, my friend shared with me Iverson’s apparent lack of dedication to basketball. Of course, maybe AI had worked out all summer and was taking a break. Whatever, we agreed that with training camp right around the corner, it probably didn’t bode well for Iverson.

Then the season started, and Allen Iverson led the NBA in scoring at 30.7 ppg while averaging 42.3 minutes per game.

Allen Iverson has always been one of the most singular talents in all of sports. We will probably never see anyone who can exactly replicate all of his skills, ever again. Thanks to his size (or lack thereof), kids all over the world look up to him as a prototype of what they, in a perfect world, might become. They could be the guy out there with the ball in his hands the entire game, scoring buckets at will, copping an MVP, getting to the Finals, getting all the attention and adulation.

The truth is, they could never become Allen Iverson, any more than I could become Michael Jackson. Even though Iverson has always physically reflected the smallest the NBA has to offer, it’s the mixture of passion, emotion and will that differentiate and make him impossible to replicate. Any short dude can take a lot of shots. But not anyone can be Allen Iverson.

I’ve spent about a decade hanging around the NBA, and I still know very little about Allen Iverson. Really, from what I’ve gathered, nobody understands Iverson — who he is, what he’s like off the court. He’s always been one of the most private people in the NBA, and in some ways this has made him even more popular; not knowing what he’s really like off the court makes him a blanker slate upon which we can project our ideal superstar.

For years, in each edition of the Sixers media guide, Iverson listed SLAM as his favorite magazine. And yet when we came calling each year for a cover shoot and interview, nailing down time with AI was like nailing an ice cube to a wall. If we were his favorite magazine, I’d hate to see how he treated those he didn’t like. While most of our cover shoots and interviews run at least an hour or so, AI always demanded we make it happen in the shortest amount of time possible. He was always willing to give us time, but he guarded his free time like he guarded passing lanes on the perimeter. We did our best to simplify.

Incidentally, I believe AI still holds the record for the fastest SLAM cover shoot of all-time for the cover of SLAM 55. The only way AI would do a photo shoot was if we could make it happen at the last minute. So one evening at a Sixers game, we set up a backdrop under the First Union center in the hallway that connected the Sixers’ locker room to the court. As the Sixers all ran out to the court for the introductions and lay-up lines, AI stopped, posed for pics for about 4 minutes, then ran out and joined his teammates. That cover shot was about as real as it gets.

I’ve always wondered if AI liked SLAM because we got him. When Iverson crossed over Jordan, most of the media misinterpreted the moment. ait50To many, that crossover was emblematic of a new school of playground-bred hoops crossing over into the NBA. Long shorts, tats, braids, passes off the backboard…they were in the game to stay. One could even argue that the mainstreaming (and ESPN-ing) of the entire Streetball movement of the late ’90s/early ‘00s could be traced to that move AI broke off on MJ.

But to me, and I think to SLAM, that dribble was more about soul. Here was this shrimp of a rookie with the guts to go one-on-one against the greatest player to ever play basketball. And beating him. That, that David slaying Goliath moment, that was what should have mattered most from that play.

The past few years, just from our dealings with him, AI seems to have mellowed a little bit. When we shot him last season for the cover, he gave us hours instead of minutes. It was almost as though he recognized that his time in the spotlight was winding down, that there may not be many more cover shoots in his future. Perhaps it’s a stretch to posit that Iverson is evolving as a person based on a couple of photo shoot interactions, but really, that’s all I’ve got to go on.

It is much easier to evaluate Iverson as a basketball player. And as a basketball player, Allen Iverson has yet to evolve. He still drives to the basket (averaged as many FTA per game in ’07-08 as he did in ’98-99), but he also still needs the ball in his hands to be successful. While Iverson was tremendous as the hub the Sixers revolved around, teaming him with Carmelo in Denver never quite worked; at least, it didn’t work well enough to get Denver a title.

It’s obvious that he’s still at his best when he’s the center of attention on offense. I think it’s safe to say that most casual NBA fans would regard Iverson’s campaign in Detroit last year as a failure. But look a little closer at the digits: Iverson tried to fit in, tried to be a part of whatever the heck it was Michael Curry was selling. Yet as long as AI and Rip Hamilton attempted to coexist on the perimeter, the Pistons kept losing games. Then, Hamilton was out injured last season between Dec. 26 and Jan. 13. The Pistons played 8 games over that stretch. During that time, Allen Iverson averaged nearly 40 minutes a game and scored 17.6 ppg. More importantly, the Pistons went 6-2.

Rip returned on January 13, went back into the starting line-up, and the Pistons promptly lost 4 of their next 5. Around the All-Star break, the Pistons went into a brutal 3-14 tailspin. Instead of giving in, Iverson seemed to choose giving up, missing most of the second half of the season with a vague back injury. It was almost as if after all those years of warring with his coaches and the establishment, he was tired of fighting the fight.

I hope he doesn’t go out like that. As of today we still don’t know where Allen Iverson will end up next season. The two most likely contenders to sign him seem to be Memphis and the BETcats. I’m not sure I’m ready to see AI swallow the ignominy toiling in the basement again. I still think New York would be the perfect place for him to play this season. Get his swag back, score some points, win over the Gotham crowd. The Knicks refuse to look beyond 2010, and AI’s probably not looking much further at this point, either. But a D’Antoni/Iverson union in the greatest city in the world could be something to behold.

Now, to Allen Iverson clocking in here at number 50. Do I believe Allen Iverson is the 50th best basketball player in the NBA? No.

But is he the 50th best NBA basketball player? That is, are there 49 people who are better than AI at playing the type of basketball that NBA teams value right now? Well, maybe so.

But then, what do we know anyway?

After all, we never really understood Allen Iverson to begin with.

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.