The front of SLAM 150—which you’ve (hopefully) picked up by now—features a photo taken during a shoot for SLAM 32, which brought to life our most iconic cover to date. In SLAM 100 (August ’06), Ryan Jones put together the oral history below, compiling the behind-the-scenes narrative of what went down as the memorable cover somehow came to fruition.
As told to Ryan Jones | Portraits by Clay Patrick McBride
Fall, 1998. The NBA has locked out its players, threatening the entire ’98-99 season.
This is a problem for the SLAM staff, which has been reduced to putting Shawn Bradley on posters in the hopes of scaring the League, the players union and anyone else with a stake in the game into getting back on the court. The lockout is also making it increasingly difficult to figure out who to put on the cover, leading EIC Tony Gervino to dig deep through the NBA photo archives for inspiration. He finds it in a photo of Julius Erving, the straightforward realness of which speaks for itself. An idea forms. Calls are made. Fingers are crossed. If all goes well, Allen Iverson will soon make his third appearance on the cover of SLAM—or, maybe, he’ll be scared off by the long-shot concept, Shawn Bradley will actually end up on the cover, and the lockout will drive the magazine out of business.
You know, one or the other.
What follows is the strange-but-true tale of how “Soul on Ice” went down. It’s the story of an up-and-coming superstar and the up-and-coming magazine that documented and shadowed his rise. It’s the story of an iconic image that shouted out the past just as it hinted at the future. It’s the story of a pivotal moment in our history, one that only Iverson could’ve helped us define. Mostly, it’s the story of a legacy: Twelve years into our run, and seven years after SLAM 32 dropped, this remains the strongest and most enduring cover we’ve ever put on a newsstand.
Yes, it’s a classic. But you knew that. And no, it’s not a wig. We promise.
TONY: From the beginning, we wanted to pick somebody who would represent the magazine. We felt like underdogs—I mean, we would go to games in the early years, and the SI dudes would be like, “Oh, here they are, the Wall Street Journal.” And then Iverson came along, and we identified with the small guy they said couldn’t do things, and yet he did. So he was sort of our icon. Jordan was the one who sold the best, but Iverson was the heart of the magazine.
SCOOP: The whole thing started with me being down in DC and hearing stories after Iverson’s freshman year and how this cat was killing in the Kenner League. So I went to a game, and as the story goes, his team was down 20 points at halftime, and he had 22. He wound up with 82—he scored 60 in the second half, and they won by I don’t know how many. And that’s when I called [SLAM publisher] Dennis Page. I was like, Dude, we gotta put this guy on the cover.
TONY: We did Iverson as a cover in college [SLAM 9, Jan ’96], and it sold very poorly.
AHMIR: We were featured in SLAM with Allen [SLAM 17, April ’97], talking about music and basketball. That was the first time I’d met him. I was shocked that he knew who we were. I thought he was gonna be real quiet and introverted, but he was cool.
SCOOP: Then we did “Who’s Afraid of Allen Iverson” [SLAM 18, June ’97]. That was the first time anybody wore jewelry on a cover. He wore the neckpiece. After that, we shot Steph and KG, and that was the first thing they asked: “Can we wear our jewelry?” Shaq, too. That cover changed everything.
TONY: We were contrarians in those days. We just wanted to stir things up. But in this case, there was a lockout—it sounds funny, but we were literally afraid for our jobs [laughs]. We didn’t know how long it was gonna last, and we were making light of things. But we were a little hesitant to go do another college cover, so we were trying to find something to do during the lockout.
SCOOP: Tony had this idea, and it wasn’t even about Allen. It was about Julius Erving.
TONY: I was looking through old photos of Dr. J, and I found this iconic photo of him sitting there holding the ABA ball. I saw that, and I started to think of who we could get to recreate it. Since Iverson had braids, we could play off the image and give him an afro—the whole throwback idea. But I don’t even think we called it “throwback” at the time, we were just trying to do a turn-back-the-clock type thing. So we contacted Que Gaskins at Reebok, and he said, “Cool.”
QUE: There was definitely a mutual respect there, a sense that Allen was growing with the magazine. Allen really felt SLAM understood him. I think that’s why there was such a trust level. I can’t really see anyone else convincing him to try something like this. The fact that SLAM wanted him to wear his hair out, I think, is what he really hesitated on in the beginning. But once it was a representation for old school and new school Philly, and Doc—Allen always had a lot of respect for the history. He felt he had a trend in terms of the cornrows, something he was very proud to represent. But Tony really had a vision for what he was doing.
Now it was time to make the vision a reality. While Que Gaskins worked to bring AIlen on board, Tony concentrated on recreating the retro look. Spalding had the ball. AI would (hopefully) handle the hair. And the jersey? A long, winding path eventually led to a small company in downtown Philly, where our man Peter Capolino stepped up to save the day…
PETER: I had never met Allen. The way I got to know him was really through his mother. She was always sitting behind the basket, and I went by and introduced myself—and then I found myself the official outfitter of Allen Iverson’s mom. I’m sure I made the jersey Allen has on for his mother. Sometimes I would make sure his mother had stuff before he did, so he would steal them from her.
TONY: I’d never heard of Mitchell & Ness.
PETER: I really didn’t know what SLAM was before that.
TONY: I started asking around about who made this jersey, and I found out about this company in Philadelphia. So I called Mitchell & Ness. Iverson had the one he played in, and they had one there. And Peter literally said, “I’ll give it to you for 72 hours, but I need it back.” He was totally down, and they were feeling the “respecting your elders” thing. But he was very nervous about giving it to us.
PETER: That’s true. I was just making sample runs at that point. That jersey is the correct fabric and construction of Wilt Chamberlain’s 1966-67 road jersey. Iverson wore that in his rookie year, but the sale of that jersey with the number “3” on the back didn’t happen for a long time after that.
QUE: You gotta remember, the retro jersey craze wasn’t big yet.
TONY: I really didn’t think there was going to be a throwback trend, because I didn’t think people really cared. I just remember being at an NBA party once, and Oscar Robertson walking through a crowd, and no one knowing who he was. Oscar’s walking through, and a bunch of kids are just standing there. They didn’t know who he was.
PETER: I always thought that putting the current players in vintage jerseys was the way to market them, and here I recognized that I had an opportunity to put my jersey on the back of maybe the most visible player in the League.