The wardrobe set, all that was left was deciding who would capture the image. Up-and-coming NYC photographer Clay Patrick McBride—by his own admission not much of a basketball fan at the time—got the call.
TONY: It was Clay’s first cover.
CLAY: I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even know who AI was. That picture and NBA 2K for Sega Dreamcast is what gave me a love for basketball.
TONY: Now look at him. He shoots for SI.
Finally, it was showtime. The SLAM crew rolled down to Philly, set up for the shoot, and then settled in, waiting for Allen to arrive.
TONY: Source Sports was shooting Iverson the same day. I know this sounds insane, but I was very concerned they were gonna beat us to doing the blowout, and Que’s like, “I’m telling you, they’re not gonna do it, but just to be sure, why don’t you hire Iverson’s hair person?” So I had to go down there with 300 bucks cash. We left at 3:30 in the morning to get down to Philly, and he was flying from DC after the Source shoot. It was one of those deals where, Iverson’s supposed to be there at 11. One o’clock rolls around, Iverson missed his plane. Two thirty rolls around…
QUE: I remember a lot of times having to negotiate with people: OK, what time do you really want to start? They’d say 3, and I’d say, OK, you have to tell him 1. It was par for the course.
TONY: They called us at like one o’clock and said, “He’ll be there at 3.” Then three o’clock rolls around, “He missed another plane”—he missed, like, three planes—“he’s gonna be at your studio at 7.”
QUE: He may have been a little bit late.
TONY: He was eight hours late. I said to Que, “What the fuck?” And he literally looks at me and says, “Welcome to my life.”
CLAY: I think we waited 12 hours. I quickly learned that the reason Tony was at my shoot was to make sure I didn’t leave.
AHMIR: I kept that same photographer waiting six hours for a shoot recently. I was apologizing profusely about it, and he said, “Don’t worry—when you’ve waited 12 hours for Allen Iverson, this is on time.”
TONY: I just remember him finally showing up, and immediately we were all paralyzed, like, “He’s here, we gotta get moving.” It was 7 or 8 at night. The hair stylist, I give her the money, and she says, “I forgot my tools in the Hummer limo.” And the Hummer limo has gone back to the airport to pick up one of Iverson’s people. Now, we only had 35 or 40 minutes to do this entire thing. I was at the end of my rope. Somehow, she got a comb from somebody and did his hair out. And by the time she did that, Iverson wanted to leave—there was a party or something. And he wasn’t really feeling the idea. He was sort of mocking it, that we would do a throwback thing with him. And I was really getting heated.
QUE: Everything with Allen at that time was…I don’t want to say a challenge. It was just different. Allen was and still is very protective of how he’s portrayed. He’s very conscious of his fans not thinking he was manipulated or packaged in any way.
CLAY: It’s like your introduction to the fact that the people you’re photographing are a lot more important than you. I think that picture’s a perfect example of that. And it was totally worth it.
Clay was right. When the issue dropped a few weeks later, the rest of the world found out for itself. The verdict? Instant classic.
TONY: We came back, we did the issue, and it was immediately everyone’s favorite. I think it sold pretty well, but after that, it was the issue most people talked about.
SCOOP: I remember, I was just like, This shit is unbelievable. I remember just being froze when I saw it.
QUE: I just remember people going crazy. And I remember AIlen being excited, like, “Damn man, we killed this one.”
CLAY: Allen later said to me, something like, “That’s the best picture ever.”
AHMIR: Before, when I wore my afro around the neighborhood, cats who didn’t know no better were just raggin’ on me. So that was definitely a form of validation. I was like, Oh, man, that’s the coolest thing ever.
TONY: True story—I went to lunch with the executive editor of Sports Illustrated. They were fascinated by us, and he said to me, “Everyone at SI, we all want to know: How did you get him to wear the wig?” Which, to me, was the classic line of all time.
QUE: It had all the right cultural codes for what was cool, what was authentic, what was relevant. Nobody else could pull it off.
SCOOP: He was holding down everything that Michael Jordan wasn’t.
WILLIAMS: Allen is just…he’s always been himself. You can relate more to him than other guys, ’cause he’s remained the person that he always was instead of compromising himself. He doesn’t compromise his beliefs and the things he feels strongly about.
SALMONS: I just thought it was tight. It was crazy because he’s known for the braids and all this stuff, and then he came with the blowout.
QUE: Allen hasn’t worn his hair out since that cover.
IGUODALA: I was a freshman or sophomore in high school. I’d never heard of SLAM until that one—AI with his hair blown out. One kid had it, and it ended up getting to the whole basketball team by the end of the day. It was that crazy. We switched it after every class, like, “Oh, you gotta check this out.” It was real, and it brought the hip-hop edge to it, too.
TONY: Hip-hop was the underdog, you know? We were all about the underdog. This was the part of SLAM that the NBA hated.
IGUODALA: I actually got a pair of Iversons after that issue. He was the icon.
QUE: It just blew kids’ minds.