I (Still) Like Allen Iverson
Adding one more voice to the chorus of Iverson fans still holding on to his legend.
by Allen Powell II
It’s funny what memories stick with you.
One summer day in 1996, the fullback on my high school football team opened up his car doors and beckoned for us to gather around. All he said by way of explanation was “I got that new Tupac joint.”
Funky with post-practice football stench, we huddled around his tiny car and were smacked in the face by the words “That’s why I f*@cked your bitch.” For the next half hour we repeatedly listened to the greatest diss song ever written by the rapper we all believed was the greatest of all time. I remember standing there shaking my head in disbelief.
Tupac’s “Hit ‘Em Up” shocked me in a way that no song ever had, and that’s saying something considering I was raised on New Orleans bounce music rife with tales of raunchy sex, violent murder and heroin use. Pac’s lyrics and his delivery struck a chord in my 16-year-old mind that has only been duplicated on one other occasion.
The day I first saw Allen Iverson play basketball.
I don’t remember who Georgetown was playing that day, but I remember the blur. I remember watching the smallest player on the court throw himself at the opposing team in a one-man wave of offensive brilliance. His game was raw, and his physical talent was breathtaking.
Iverson’s every movement seemed to spring from a desperate yearning. Even when he talked to a towering, grey-headed John Thompson on the sideline, it was like he could barely force himself to stand still. He needed to play the way most people needed to breathe. I didn’t know the story about the bowling alley fight, or the time behind bars, I only saw the hunger.
It hooked me.
I wish I could claim to have been a discerning fan of college basketball when I sold my soul to Iverson, but that would be lie. The college game didn’t excite me. I preferred the pro version where the athletes were top flight and the action was unrelenting.
But, Iverson’s quest to conquer the NCAA consumed me. I even listened to Georgetown’s games on the radio when my father bogarted the only television in our house during the NCAA Tournament. The memory of the pain in my stomach from listening to Iverson fall to Marcus Camby and UMass in his sophomore season still gives me cramps.
Allen Ezail Iverson’s every movement on the basketball court drew me and every teenage boy I knew the same way Tupac’s voice instantly demanded our undivided attention. If Tupac gave voice to our emotions, then Iverson was the embodiment of the athlete we all wanted to be. Brash, fly and unstoppable. He was Deion Sanders on the hardwood.
I am too young to truly remember Jordan’s debut. But, I imagine that Iverson’s impact on my generation was a reasonable facsimile of what MJ did to teenagers in the 1980s when he showed up with his bouncing gold chains, wagging tongue and obnoxious shoes. Just substitute tattoos, cornrows and arm sleeves for the aforementioned accessories.
If Tupac was a confusing amalgamation of Public Enemy, 2 Live Crew and NWA, so was Iverson a combination of all that made Jordan great and infuriating to his early critics.
He subverted and ignored basketball norms, and refused to be contained by any system. He was a 6-foot scoring point guard in a league where little men were expected to pass the ball, run the team and keep their mouths shut. Iverson never did any of those things preferring to expend his energy on tip dunks, crossovers and explicit rap albums. Hell, despite routinely embarrassing opponents with a signature move that was borderline illegal, when the League cracked down on his lethal crossover, Iverson abandoned it, and created a new one without a backwards glance.
He was desperate to prove he belonged in the NBA even as he refused to respect the established pecking order. When basketball royalty like Charles Barkley, Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan showered disdain upon his game, Iverson would not be cowed. He wasn’t worried about playing the right way because he played his way.
Simply put, that boy just didn’t give a fuck.
At least that’s the image Iverson sold us and that we lapped up. Looking back, it’s clear that he cared, and that he wanted to be loved, embraced and cherished. You don’t shed the tears Iverson has shed if you really don’t care. You don’t make the speeches he has made if the opinions of fans and sportswriters have no bearing on your life.
But, Iverson wanted those things on his terms, and that’s not the way the world works. You don’t demand love on your terms, you receive love on the terms of those doing the loving. Iverson would never learn that lesson, even as he complained that fans and media members were intent on misunderstanding who he was as a man. How could they understand him if he refused to explain himself?
But that didn’t matter to me because I loved him for his stubbornness.
With the unrelenting devotion that only deluded teenagers and young adults can muster, I committed myself to defending him at every opportunity, and emulating his game as much as my offensive tackle’s body would allow. The greatest compliment one of friends ever gave me came after a 1-on-1 game when he said, “You really do play like Allen Iverson.” I’m still not sure he meant that as a good thing.
But, blind loyalty is only cute in the young. As I aged, my relationship with Iverson changed. Although still fiercely devoted, I was frustrated that Iverson refused to compromise when my own life was teaching me that bending is preferable to breaking. While I cherished his commitment to “keeping it real,” I wondered if being real was worth the headache.
Even Iverson’s most enamored fans must admit that he could have been so much more as a player if he embraced the work ethic of Kobe, and the humility of Hakeem. His ceiling, in my humble opinion, was pound-for-pound the greatest basketball player of all time. He will never get there now. Just like Tupac, Iverson seemed more concerned with reaffirming who he was instead of concentrating on who he could become.
Ultimately, all God’s gifts have a time limit, and Iverson’s unique physical gifts have eroded. While he’s developed other skills, they are not enough to overcome his weaknesses both on and off the court. He is a pariah, and his own bad habits and unwillingness to conform cast him in that role. Rightly or wrongly, the headaches he brings to a team are no longer outweighed by the joy he brings to fans’ hearts.
But, I will always be an Allen Iverson fan for one simple reason.
Memories, like legends, never die.