Like It’s My Last
Part Two: “He gave white America a chance to understand black America.”
Maybe you’re tired of reading Allen Iverson’s name, I don’t know. He signed to play in Turkey last week (not the first four-time scoring champ to head overseas, just so you know), and the consensus was that it’s a sad way for him to exit the game—and our conscience. In reality, it’s a backlash that has been brewing for some time. Backlash and Allen Iverson, hand in hand since 1993. As his career was winding down, I was constantly hit by the thought of how history would remember Iverson. I was curious as to how he was marketed, how he’d been written about, about how great he really was as a player, and what type of guy he was. Last May, I decided to at least try to find out. Unlike perhaps some who’d written about him, I wanted to try to understand. I spoke with people from Newport News, Georgetown, Reebok, Philly, you know, people who actually knew him. What Iverson evokes in those close to him is the loyalty that he was famous for; the amount of people who returned my emails, who readily agreed to talk, who defended him as a man like family and as a player like a teammate—they provided the Answer. This is part two of two. (Click here part one.)
by Todd Spehr
“God granted that kid just some unbelievable skills: Artistic skills, speaking skills, basketball skills, a rapport [with people]. He has a skill set that could be maximized in any work of life, any walk of life.”
—Pat Croce, president of the Philadelphia 76ers from 1996-2001
Allen Iverson was both real life and megastar. He didn’t do the crossover, apparently, he was the crossover, there never conjecture or confusion surrounding his essence. Some of the game’s other stars, like Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, had played in bigger, more intense games with greater frequency, and yet, the consumer was no closer to understanding them, what or who they truly were, what made them great. Iverson never had that; the warts were visible, all was laid bare, mystique need not apply.
There was the one transcendent postseason, the 55 days in 2001 where Iverson’s frenetic and cutthroat style became entwined with winning. It was the closest America came to embracing Iverson; winning, the allure of all. Some have played better, some have definitely played more efficiently, but few have played harder, through more pain, with a greater degree of difficulty. The classic Iverson traits—will, competitiveness, heart—once enjoyed only by the insiders and those who loved him unconditionally, was embraced by a wider community. The games were big and the national networks, thirsty for a true star to catch them ratings in this post-Jordan panic, beamed his exploits into homes, emphasizing his injuries and his heart, the cameras following, the moves and points flowing, the audience, finally, with an opportunity to judge for themselves. What they saw was an original, a style, a game that had gone unchanged since grade school, one never fully harnessed and never fully understood by those who coached Iverson, and in reality, by Iverson himself, but dramatic and luring nonetheless.
They still talk about that season. 2001. It has come to serve as the Iverson Holy Grail, the unequivocal high point, the flash in the pan when a mad genius of a coach and an ordinary mix of players somehow helped a 70-inch shooting guard win the MVP award, play in the NBA Finals, and inspire a notoriously hard-to-please city. It was something of a fluke: Not that it happened, but that things aligned for it to happen. There was a proposed trade the prior summer, continued problems between Iverson and Larry Brown, and a good-but-certainly-not-great supporting cast. And perhaps it’s that sense that heightens the memory. Those close to Iverson and close to that team don’t remember the numbers or the individual games as much as they remember the feeling of that season. The feeling lingered far longer than the results, and that, rightly or wrongly, is somewhat fitting with Iverson. There was no championship, no string of Finals appearances, certainly no team dynasty but instead an individual one, where somewhere along the line he subconsciously became bigger than his teams.
The Iverson-led team was assured of several things: Great attendance, high merchandise sales, national television appearances, a star that was capable of scoring in the 40s and 50s and leading his team, on any given night, over anyone. But while Iverson’s game was buoyed by a confidence that resulted in scoring titles and All-Star appearances, he also needed a specific cast surrounding him to have success; the dichotomy being that his teams fared far better when accompanying him with less talent and far less successful by embedding him amongst more talent. The very good teams had players with names—Snow, McKie, Lynch—bland and unheralded. The bad teams had players—Stackhouse, Coleman, Webber—with renowned talent but a poor track record, in winning and in staying together. Iverson-led teams always appeared overmatched, always were capable of providing an upset, but ultimately, never had the pieces that the ultimate success required.
Of course, what went without dispute was the talent. There was the crossover on Jordan as a rookie, a move that, while still arguably Iverson’s most famous, became vulnerable to sensationalism, where some thought torches were passed and mountains moved. In actuality, it nothing more than a nightly occurrence: Iverson lining up an opponent, every mismatch slanted his way, a situation that former Sixers general manager Brad Greenberg liked to call “the cobra and the mongoose.” Simply put, it was a move that revealed a young Iverson in all his glory: a 21-year old kid with the cojones to take on, and embarrass, the game’s best.
There was the way Iverson was configured, a body that his rookie trainer Kevin Carroll felt was made up of ill-matching parts: Arms too long, hands too big, feet too quick, an ego and charisma capable of producing erratic and brilliant play—sometimes on the same possession. Carroll would watch Iverson in awe, not of his leaping or his ball-handling, but the way he ran, how he almost glided, how the ball somehow found energy when it met with Iverson’s hands. There was electricity and anticipation, not necessarily voyages of sure success, but voyages of excitement and spontaneity just the same.
There was always the demand that he work harder on his game and his body from the front office and coaches, that he religiously devote himself to the lonely hours of work like the other greats were so celebrated for. But, as Iverson knew, his was a game of instinct, not of preparation but of reaction; a philosophy that is illogical to the core and that perhaps shortened his career but one that still somehow embedded Iverson among the prolific scorers of the game’s history. “The greatest scorer,” says longtime Sixers broadcaster Marc Zumoff, “pound for pound ever.”
A prisoner and beneficiary of both his talents and confidence, Iverson’s game—the high shot totals, the daring nature, the defiance – was vulnerable to ridicule yet at the same time open to interpretation. Those who played with him, from high school to college to the pros, claim he wasn’t selfish, that in fact his game was the end result of an abnormally high confidence, of unshaken belief. He was almost forgiven for playing a way that most players, no longer The Man on their teams, abandoned when they left for college, an allowance granted to Iverson in large part because of his insistence on playing copious amounts of minutes in a battered state, always hurt, always hard, and always carrying the burden of the offense and of superstardom. It wasn’t that Iverson didn’t trust his teammates, but that he was a player (and person) of self-reliance; shots and moves were created by him and only him, just like in life, where a potentially decaying youth was avoided or escaped from because of the athletic gifts granted to him. That’s how he grew up, that’s what he knew, and that’s what gave him success. If anyone were going to take Iverson off this pedestal it would be him and no one else—the game and life were acted out accordingly.
Eventually, as Iverson’s career wore on, gaudy statistics once compiled in meaningful games slowly began taking place in games of less importance. Larry Brown had left. The cast that had helped Iverson take the Sixers from irrelevant to the Finals gradually departed, replaced by players with names of note, incapable of providing the unique chemistry that existed so unusually in the successful Iverson teams. The worse the teams became the harder Iverson pushed, his numbers reaching almost epic proportions—30 and 8 in 2005, 33 and 7 in 2006—to the point where his image took on a new form, not one of a star simultaneously capable of thrilling us while winning, but singularly, just one capable of thrilling us. Finally, a player who long felt he was never truly treated as a franchise player, no longer wanted to be one. He asked to be traded from the only team he ever wanted to play for.
There was a stint in Denver, with Carmelo Anthony, where the constant of impressive statistics was equaled by that of failed team success. Iverson came back from the summer of 2008 and the Nuggets, once considering an extension, were shocked at the deterioration of his knees and traded him. Detroit was a disaster; a team on the way down yet still set in its ways, its team-based ways, and just couldn’t incorporate Iverson. It was messy. Then there was Memphis, a move of desperation on both accounts: Iverson to remain in the league, the Grizzlies to sell tickets. He somehow found the Sixers again—the glorious welcome home. Those close to him noticed how reflective he had become. He worked with the younger Sixers, he was obliging to the media, and he knew the end was near. That was also short-lived. There were personal issues, health issues, that explosive first step, once the bane of every perimeter defender’s existence, was no longer feared. The most talented little man the game had known walked away after 25 games.