KICKS 2: The I in Team
KICKS 12 IS COMING; remember when AI was on the cover of KICKS 2?
In case you’re just tuning in, here’s a fun little fact: Allen Iverson has always been a SLAM favorite. So, it should come as no surprise that aside from the many SLAM covers he’s graced through the years, the Answer made his way onto KICKS, as well.
During a time early in AI’s career when his star was rapidly rising but his many detractors weren’t fading, it was no shock that we attempted to paint a picture of the man that wasn’t exactly in line with his naysayers from the old school. A polarizing representation of the hip-hop generation to some at the time (the issue dropped in ’99), many things Iverson-related were still in question: his ability to get along with teammates and coaches; his ability to lead a team; and his desire to make those around him better, to name a few. One thing was for sure, though. The kid had heart.
And now, at a completely different stage in his career and point in his life, some of the questions about his game linger in the eyes of critics, but his contribution to the L in the ten years since KICKS 2 is one you can’t question. And that heart only got stronger with time. So, with KICKS 12 on the horizon and the best days of Iverson’s career almost certainly in his past as he continues to look for work, we take a trip down memory lane.—Adam Fleischer
by Michael Bradley
We told you so. When everybody was running for cover and hiding their children from the menace that was young Allen Iverson, we told you to wait. Let the man grow up. Give him a chance. Just because he looked different and dressed different didn’t mean he was ready to jam a stick of dynamite into the game of basketball and blow it to smithereens.
We asked you to remember what you were like when you were young. We asked you to imagine what you might do at age 21 with a couple of million dollars in your pocket. Be honest. Would you have it all in a mutual fund and live on a reasonable allowance? Or might you just take some of it and buy a car/boat/mansion/toy store? When you were alone, and you looked deep into your soul and recalled those wild days, when you were young and indestructible, you knew. You knew that there would be no stopping you with some fame and a roll of cash.
But you would have grown. Wouldn’t you? And when the fun times got old, and the responsibilities of adulthood didn’t seem so awful, you would have slowed down. Would have worn a suit. Would have said the right things—even if they came through gritted teeth every now and then. Would have gotten your rest. Eaten right. Smiled for the cameras.
Behold Allen Iverson. You may think he’s new and improved. We know he’s just three years older than the young ball of hip-hop energy who hit the NBA with a flurry back in ’96. By the time the Sixers had finished their improbable run into the second round of the ’99 NBA playoffs, Iverson was out in front, leading the way on and off the court. The fans loved him. The media couldn’t stop writing and talking about how he had developed. Here’s a little pointer for those of you who want to write off America’s youth, particularly African-American youth: Put a sock in it. Wait a couple years. Remember your own high times.
And look at Allen Iverson.
Now there are still some who think Iverson is too much to be in the forefront of the NBA’s Millennium package. We love Dr. J. Can’t get enough of those highlights. But when he ripped The Answer for being nothing more than a glorified playground baller, it set off alarms in those of us who remember the ABA Doc, who didn’t exactly conform to the accepted way of playing and never met a defensive challenge he didn’t avoid. But enough about that.
Iverson may not be the classic NBA point guard—who is these days?—and he won’t ever pretend he is. Once Sixers coach Larry Brown shifted Iverson to the two spot, the guard’s whole game crystallized. Freed from the restrictions of running the show, Iverson was a full-fledged revelation. He scored. He set up his teammates. He defended. He played with the enthusiasm and work ethic that many in the NBA’s alumni association claim is missing from today’s game. Better still, the 23-year-old (he turned 24 on June 7) handled the bright lights of the NBA post-season with style, grace and intelligence. Once portrayed as a main reason for the league’s troubles (present and future), Iverson showed that he might just be the man to help squire it into the next 1000 years.
“I thought he did an amazing job,” Sixers coach Larry Brown said. “You always wonder how young guys will handle that.
“The games are more meaningful. The pressure’s greater. The attention is greater. You like to find out how guys react in situations like that.
“I loved [Iverson's] comments publicly. I liked the way he conducted himself on the court. I loved the way he competed. I think he grew up a lot.”
Brown wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Iverson entered the ’99 season as a kid and exited a young man, more than capable of handling all the demands of stardom. Save an early-season dust-up with Brown over some missed practices, Iverson was a model citizen. Hell, he even wore a suit to one of the playoff games, proving that his wardrobe has expanded beyond the baggy-jeans-and-boots stage. Not that he took off any of his jewelry, but a man has to draw the line somewhere.
And the fans gobbled it up. Iverson now owns Philadelphia and not just because of his playing. The locals have succumbed to his charisma. They have been seduced by his hard work. In a town that has gone 16 years without a world championship of any kind, there is a sense that Iverson is the only man around capable of raising a championship banner. And yet, there are those who still criticize him. They sing the same chorus as Dr. J, complaining that Iverson shoots too much. Here’s a stat for you: while Erving was with the ABA, the fewest shots he attempted in a season was 1,719, a full 215 more than Iverson’s largest single-season launch total. Once he moved to the big league, Erving still had two seasons (’79-80, ’80-81) with more attempts than Iverson’s rookie year figure. In both instances, Dr. J had a much more talented supporting cast (Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks, Henry Bibby, Lionel Hollins). Take a good look at Iverson’s teammates in ’99: Larry Hughes may yet become a superstar, and the others are solid, hard-working players, but there was nobody else around to score every night. Nobody.
We can excuse the comments of Charles Barkley, who considers it his job to point out all of Iverson’s shortcomings to the sporting world while conveniently forgetting his own faults. But that comes with the Charles package. Throw a guy through a window one day; campaign for governor of Alabama the next. Brag that you were paid to play ball at Auburn; rip the new guys for wanting too much money. Criticize one of the league’s top young stars for three years; float a trial balloon after the ’99 season that you wouldn’t mind concluding your career on his team.
The current Iverson package is much more appealing than when he entered the league, but that doesn’t mean it’s sanitized. Iverson has not sold out. This isn’t a case of somebody trying to impress The Establishment at the expense of his own essence. He still wears corn rows. He still has tattoos. And on any given night, he’s wearing enough platinum and diamonds to outfit an entire charity ball. The real revelation here isn’t a revelation at all. Allen Iverson is getting older. He’s growing up. Had he remained at Georgetown for a full four years, ’99 would have been his rookie season. At a time when most college grads are just entering the workforce, Iverson is a three-year vet of the real world. To his credit, he didn’t answer his critics (and there were plenty of them) by enclosing himself in a surly cloud and retreating to count his money. Iverson has discussed his rough childhood candidly. He rarely bolts after games, choosing instead to face the media members who track his every move and utterance. He is slowly becoming a team leader, something quite different than being its top player. “I’m real comfortable about [being a leader],” Iverson said. “It’s been like that on every team I’ve been on all my life. I’m comfortable with it.”
Iverson has even made his peace with Brown, a demanding coach who obsesses over details and has more than a little things-were-better-in-the-old-days side to him. At first, coach and star sparred over Brown’s vision of a point guard’s responsibilities. During the ’97-98 campaign, Brown harangued Iverson for not running the team properly, for putting himself first. It wasn’t all the rantings of somebody trapped in a time warp. The man had a point. And Iverson hated it. He complained about it. By the time this season ended, however, both sides had made concessions. Brown understood that Iverson could be most effective off the ball, while Iverson learned that when Brown critiqued his game, he wasn’t attacking him personally. Brown was helping the player get better.
After Iverson struggled mightily in the Sixers’ loss to Indiana in the second game of the Eastern Conference semis, someone asked Brown if Iverson had been angered by halftime “criticism” the coach made about his star guard’s lax defense. The coach gave a glimpse of the two men’s relationship in his reply.
“It wasn’t criticism,” Brown said. “I was coaching him. He responds to me. He does what I ask. He’s really grown up a lot. I think there’s a trust there. I’m really proud of what he’s done and how far he’s come.
“He’s not afraid to lay it on the line. He doesn’t shun responsibility. And when you tell him something, he takes it as coaching now. He’s really just getting better and better in that respect.”
Iverson did just about everything better during the ’99 season. He led the NBA in scoring with a career-high 26.8 ppg. He was voted first-team all-league, the first Sixer to earn that distinction since Barkley. He rebounded better. He played better defense. And in the playoffs, Iverson was on fire, scoring 28.5 ppg; he was basically responsible for each of the team’s three victories. The Sixers are his team, and neither the organization nor the city has a concern in the world about that fact. The ’99 playoffs gave Iverson the perfect stage to demonstrate what kind of person he is, and he delivered—in every way. In just three seasons, he has gone from a defiant rebel to a star with a unique personality and the kind of crowd-drawing charisma that the NBA needs.
We told you so. Now, about your problems with Spree….