SLAM 146: Allen Iverson was often SLAM’s—and many other observers—favorite player at All-Star Weekend.
by Tzvi Twersky | @ttwersky
“I’ve always said, there are a million people who love Allen Iverson and a million people who hate Allen Iverson. It’s just important for me to concentrate on the ones who love me.”—2002
If you watched his NBA career closely, no matter if you were enthralled or, somehow, turned off by him, you know Allen Iverson was never capable of remaining idle. On the court, he played with an Ali-like mix of butterfly and bee verve, constantly floating and buzzing around the hardwood, jabbing and jawing and dribbling at irritated defenders, searching for the best if not always most efficient way to sting. Even on the rare occasions when he was seated on the pine, white towel wrapped like a scarf around his tattooed neck or draped over his meticulously braided dome, he fidgeted, jabbered or looked down the bench at his coach with wide, pleading eyes—wings momentarily clipped but animatedly flapping nonetheless.
There was a sensible explanation, at least according to some, for the restlessness Allen Iverson always exhibited. “Think about what’s happened in that child’s life,” John Thompson II, the Virginia native’s coach at Georgetown once said, explaining why he accelerated the pace of his previously plodding offense for his ebullient, excitable recruit. “The last thing he needs is structure. He needs to be free as a bird. He needs to fly.”
Playing for a bevy of coaches in a trio of cities (not including a short stint in Memphis) for over a decade’s worth of NBA seasons, this is exactly what Allen Iverson did. Given the rock, given freedom to create like the artist he was, given a singular objective (get buckets!), he flew—admittedly, at times, turbulently—like a bird with a jet pack strapped to his back.
He flew past defenders to the basket. He flew to the ground and then, often, went to the free-throw line after some Goliath punished him for being so damn good at getting to the basket while being so damn small. He flew in and out of passing lanes, intercepting both limp and crisp passes, like the high school safety he once was. He flew and grew from child to Rookie of the Year to MVP to iconic trendsetter, all the while accompanied by a soundtrack the NBA had never heard before. With an appreciation and zeal for balling—for flying—that only a once-caged bird could understand, for the vast majority of his career, Allen Iverson flew the flight of freedom.
Zero championship trophies aside, the on-court flexibility the Sixers and Nuggets (and, for the shortest of time, the Pistons) granted Iverson was rewarded with highlight-reel plays and Hall of Fame-worthy numbers. Over the course of 14 exhilarating and mesmerizing NBA seasons, the 6-0, 160-pound AI led the League in scoring four times, compiling a career average of 26.7 ppg, the sixth-highest total of all time. He led the League in steals three times, finishing with a 2.2 average, good for seventh all-time. With a career average of 41.1 mpg, good for fourth all-time, he led the League in minutes seven times. He also tow-trucked the 76ers to the 2001 Finals, winning an MVP award along the way. Missed practices, turnovers and all, Iverson’s worst year (‘09-10, his last NBA season) was better than many players’ best.
At its tattooed finest, Iverson’s game compared favorably to a Picasso painting: it was never boring, often brilliant and always unpredictable. The more freedom he was granted, the more creativity he played with, the better the on-court results. It makes sense then that in the least restrictive of games, the All-Star Game, AI always showed out.
“There’s no question I’m proud of being elected [an All-Star Game] starter without ever changing.”—1999
It’s rare for a rookie to be named to the All-Star Game, and Allen Iverson was no exception. “Snubbed,” in his humble and probably correct opinion, from 1997’s main game in Cleveland, AI, rocking braids for the first time in his career, played in the Rookie Challenge and took his anger out on the Western Conference freshmen, dribbling and driving his way to 19 points, 9 assists and the MVP award.
An All-Star hero, one that David Stern would later come to call “the star of stars,” was born. Thanks to an outpouring of fan support, two winters after his All-Star Weekend coronation in Cleveland, Iverson finally got a chance to play and start in the real deal. So while Vince Carter hyped the Oakland crowd on Saturday with a Dunk Contest performance for the ages, AI helped everyone stay satiated on Sunday. Not only did the first-time starter lead the East in points (26) and assists (9), he did so in a way that would leave an indelible mark on the basketball viewing nation, showing off a wicked handle, devilish quickness and an unfathomable ability to finish in the paint.
Then, in 2001, Allen Iverson used the game to let it be known that he was even better than people had imagined. Voted into the ASG as a starter for the second consecutive season, the littlest All-Star received the largest ovation from the Washington, DC, crowd. In the midst of his most successful season, Allen Iverson, along with Stephon Marbury, helped the East erase an 89-70 fourth-quarter deficit to capture one of the most entertaining mid-winter classics of all time. En route to earning the ASG MVP, Iverson would leave jaws agape and ankles akimbo. Some of the tricks he pulled—like the reverse self-alley-oop—took serious skill to pull off. More than that though, they took an even more serious imagination to dream up. It’s not that people had never seen some of AI’s maneuvers, it’s that they had never even crossed their mind. On that night in Chocolate City, even Stevie could see Iverson was a Wonder.
The next few All-Star games would be no different, proving and reproving, each in their own memorable way, that AI was a generational player and showman. Every single ASG he did something of note. In 2002, with All-Star being held in Philadelphia, Iverson didn’t wow with his play; rather, to everyone’s delight, he donned a No. 6 jersey to pay homage to Julius “Dr. J” Erving. The next year in Atlanta, in Jordan’s final ASG, moving at a speed that would leave lightning jealous, the 76er had his best statistical game, amassing 35 points, 7 assists and 5 steals. As part of a stirring tribute at halftime, MJ said that he was “leaving the game in good hands.” It’s hard to imagine he wasn’t including AI’s digits in that statement. The next All-Star weekend, in 2004, all Iverson managed to do was lead the game with 11 dimes, a prelude to the second ASG MVP award he would win in 2005.
All in all, no matter how his team was doing and no matter what team he was playing for, Iverson received enough votes to be named an All-Star starter every year from 1999-2010. And, for the most part, finally allowed to play at his creative best, AI razzled with his stats and dazzled with the way he got them. The fans were entertained. That’s why the little gladiator was in the All-Star Game; that’s why we were watching the All-Star Game.
It’s been a decade since Allen Iverson was given his first All-Star Game MVP trophy; a lot’s changed since then. The game was on NBC; it’s on TNT now. Kevin Johnson was a part of the broadcast team; he’s the mayor of Sacramento now. Allen Iverson was an MVP; the 35-year-old is playing in Turkey now.
“Man, I got crazy love like this all around the world?”—1997
The basics are simple enough. Exactly one year prior to the 2011 All-Star Game, on February 20, 2010, Allen Iverson played in his final NBA game. The specifics are a little more complex. Regardless, this past summer, for reasons both easy and hard to understand, no team was willing to take a chance on AI. With the League not an option, to most people’s amazement, the future Hall of Famer signed a two-year, $4 million contract with Besiktas of the middling Turkish League.
Basketball needle not yet on E, Iverson was upset about not being wanted in the League he helped remodel after Jordan had faded to black. Others were upset for him, too. “I think it’s sad having him have to go to Turkey to finish his career,” said Larry Brown, the coach with whom he fought the most but also went the furthest.
AI was upset about people saying he was broke and heading to Turkey only for the check. “One thing I do have, and I can say, is that I do have money. A lot,” Iverson told Philadelphia Magazine. Setting all the talk aside, Iverson pledged to make the best of a backwards situation: “I bet before I leave here I’m going to speak Turkish.”
Three months after being mobbed upon arrival in Istanbul, it’s fair to say Allen Iverson’s a long way from home. Playing in a low-level league in front of 4,000 or so fans (albeit raucous ones), AI’s shown glimpses of what once was. Glimpses of the cunning, daring and speed that once allowed him to drive by any defender. Glimpses of his preternatural scoring ability. Shown enough to confirm that, skill-wise, he should still be playing pro ball on David Stern’s side of the Atlantic.
But he’s not. And, barring a miracle of biblical proportions, he never will again.
“That’s the one thing I don’t care about as far as my legacy: how the media portrays me or who they make me out to be. I know who I am and the guys I’ve played know who I am.”—2008
Ever weary of the media, Allen Iverson’s been communicating of late through his manager and Twitter. As this feature was taking shape, it appeared that AI was leaning toward breaking his silence to speak with SLAM. Unfortunately, a leg injury—the severity of which was yet to really be determined—kept him from communicating with us.
See, we wanted to ask Allen about being, as he sees it, forced out of the NBA. We wanted to ask Allen whom he blames for that. We wanted to ask Allen about Turkey. We wanted to ask him if he thinks this will tarnish his legacy; if it bothered him that the haters seem to have gotten the last laugh. We wanted to ask Allen a lot of things, but mainly, we wanted to ask Allen if this is how he saw it all coming to an end. If, when he was holding the MVP trophy in 2001, he ever could have pictured himself playing in front of 4,000 fans in Istanbul.
Since we couldn’t get answers, and since the Diamond anniversary (60th) All-Star Game has us thinking about him, we’ll leave with a question: Michael Jordan once said, “Originality is what lasts.”
If that’s true, and if you fairly gauge his career stats, will a never idle Allen Iverson remain an idol?