Can’t Knock the Hustle
The Allen Iverson cover story from the iconic SLAM 32 (March, ’99).
Here’s what I remember most about writing the Allen Iverson cover story for SLAM 32: The whole interview took place in the back of a limo over the course of a NYC morning, and we made one stop at Jacob the Jeweler on 47th Street so he could get his diamond and platinum cuff fixed. Given the recent stories this plays tragic, but back then it’s just how things were. And besides, this was when Iverson’s prime earning days were still ahead of him—as were the All-Star appearances and scoring titles (he’d win his first that lockout-shortened ’99 season) and his lone Finals appearance and MVP. There was no thought of legacy, of how any of this would seem a decade and a half down the road. In fact, aside from the bling, Iverson was a purer practitioner of Zen than Phil Jackson, forever living in the moment, playing each game like it could be his last. He was also one hell of an interview, even on a sleepy morning. Enjoy.—Russ Bengtson
by Russ Bengtson / portraits by Clay Patrick McBride
All of you who have been talking, writing, miming about Allen Iverson’s posse, his hair, his Benz, his jewelry, his clothes, his music. Stop for a minute—just a minute—and listen. (The previous sentence should have read “Stop for a minute—just a minute—and watch,” but since the NBA seems intent on killing itself, listening will have to do.) Listen to the one person who has any real stake in Allen Iverson’s life.
Listen: Anything that has anything negative to do with my name, negative people will bring it back up, and they’ll try to tear me down. But it’s going to be like that for the rest of my life, you know?
Allen Iverson says this from the back of a black stretch Lincoln, slowly rolling through New York City traffic, Primo-blessed All City flowing through the speakers. Draped in his signature Reebok fatigues and enough ice-dipped platinum to ensure Patrick Ewing’s family’s “survival” for countless generations, Allen Iverson sounds like a hypocrite. Just another young superstar with an attitude. Look at the 23-year-old with the jewels and the shady friends and the arms full of new tattoos, worrying about getting torn down. Isn’t he doing that himself?
Listen: I dress the way I want to dress, I look the way I want to look— people don’t understand. “He wanna wear the cornrows, and all that, it’s supposed to be some thug image.” It’s not that. It’s I’m tired of being on the road—I go out and I have a game and I wanna get my hair cut, the barber pushes my hairline all the way to the back of my head. I’m tired of that, so I get my hair braided and I can wear my hair like this for two weeks and play two, three games. I’ll never cut my hair again. My son, I’ll never cut his hair. He’s gonna wear cornrows—is he a thug? You know it’s not about that. I guess I am hip-hop, but I’d rather be like that right now. When I get to 30 or maybe—well, I’m 23, and maybe when I get to 24 I’ll want to change.
Explanations can be awfully simple when you let them come out. Allen Iverson isn’t trying to be a gangster—he just never had the chance to be a kid. He grew up poor, spent his 18th birthday in prison on trumped-up charges that were later dismissed. After that, two years under John Thompson’s lock-and-key at Georgetown, then, at the ripe old age of 21, introduced to Philadelphia as the Savior. Black Jesus, Part II. When your name’s been in the headlines since high school, your life is no longer your own.
Listen: You know, people just make mistakes; everybody makes mistakes. The people that write them negative articles, they make mistakes—if not every day, every other day. The same person that’s bashing you on TV, whether it’s a commentator or reporter, that same person has made mistakes in his life but was never in the spotlight, so people didn’t hear about it, you know what I’m saying?
Allen Iverson spends a lot of time defending his life. Too much time. People forget what it’s like to be 23—and will never understand what it’s like to grow up the child of a 15-year-old mother in a crowded house with raw sewage on the floor, and then be given a ticket out. Not only a ticket out, but the ticket—virtually unlimited riches, millions of adoring fans. Success came quickly. Iverson scored 30 points in his first game on 15-19 from the floor; last year’s stats (22 ppg, 6.7 apg and 3.7 apg) were All-Star numbers on any other team. But for every person who wants to see him succeed, there are two hoping he’ll fail. Charles Barkley, who in his illustrious career has spit on a little girl and thrown a grown man through a plate-glass window, called him “playground Rookie of the Year.” Yet through all of this, AI’s remained the same—true to himself, true to those who’ve stayed true to him. Doesn’t this mean something?
Listen: I’m confident, not cocky.
Over the course of four hours, Allen Iverson repeats this phrase many times in many forms, as something of a mantra. It is unclear who he is trying to convince, me or him. The truth is this—whatever it is he’s got, Allen Iverson has earned the right to it. After all, who else has gone from prison to NBA Rookie of the Year? Who else, once touted as the best football prospect in the land, has emerged instead as one of the best basketball players on the planet? Who else has a crossover that broke off Michael Jordan, not once but twice?
Listen: If I played the two-guard position, I know for a fact—and I put that on everything I love—I would lead the League in scoring every single year. But the picture’s bigger than that. I’m a point guard and I want to be the point guard. I want to learn the point guard position, and that’s more important to me than having the scoring title and all that. I want to be a point guard, and that’s that. You know, I want to score and get assists and and steals rebounds and blocks—I want to do every single thing there is to do on the basketball court.
Confidence—or cockiness? Know where this is coming from: ever since AI was a shorty, his dream was to play in the NFL or the NBA. Everyone told him it was a one-in-a-million, a one-in-a-billion chance. “I always told them, ‘Not me, man. I’m different,’” Iverson says. “I always used to feel like that. I’m not sayin’ it to be big-headed or anything, but I had that much confidence in myself.” He still does. He’s earned it.
Listen: I want to be a Sixer for the rest of my career. I don’t want to play for no other team. I don’t think that’s fair to kids and fans, man, to see a guy be here and then jumpin’ around to different teams. I just don’t.
The cover is no joke. Even though he did roll in seven-plus hours late to the photo shoot, AI’s got a lotta love for Philly—a lotta love for the game. The Sixers went 31-51 last season, and A.I. wants to stay? What kind of modern-day power move is that? We won’t go so far to call him a throwback—Nate Archibald 2000, The Funk Doctor—but he’s got roots. Followed Jordan as a kid. Magic. Bird. Because underneath all the perceptions, all the lies, damn lies and headlines, Allen Iverson is a basketball player. This interview probably won’t change your view of AI—as a matter of fact, it will probably just reinforce whatever way you’re leaning. But still, do yourself a favor. Do Allen one. Listen.
SLAM: What’s your definition of a true point guard?
Allen Iverson: Someone that just understands the game, knows how to get people involved with the game. Knows when to go and when not to go. The leader on the court, the vocal leader, the leader by example. The guy who plays every game like it’s his last.
SLAM: Do you want to meet the definition or redefine the position?
AI: No, I want…I trust my coach to teach me how to be a true point guard, whatever that definition is, the real definition. Not out of my eyes, but John Stockton’s eyes and Magic Johnson’s eyes. You know, guys like that. I think my coach will teach me how to be a true point guard, the best I can be at that position. I might never be a John Stockton or a Magic Johnson, [but] I want to know the point guard from John Stockton’s perspective. I think I have more physical talents then John Stockton, but I think he knows it mentally better then me, so I’m leaving it up to my coach to teach me how to be a true point guard from his perspective and with my ability.
SLAM: I know Coach Brown has a rap for being kind of tough on point guards. Is he?
AI: Yeah he is, he is. I mean it was tough in the beginning with my coach, because I didn’t understand him and he didn’t understand me, but eventually just playing together and learning from him and him learning how I feel about different things, we got tighter. That’s what makes me look forward to this season even more, because me just putting my pride aside and listening to how he wanted me to play and run the team—it worked out. I became a better player by listening to what Larry Brown had to offer.
SLAM: Has part of it been you changing after being in the League for two years?
AI: I haven’t changed. I think my game has changed, because I have learned…you know, my first year at Georgetown, I was just reckless, because I was trying to make a name for myself. I was trying to show myself and everybody else that I could be successful on the college level and that I was a good basketball player, and I went through the same thing as a pro. I was young and I didn’t know the game and I still don’t know it like I want to know it. But I haven’t changed, I’m just learning. I guess I have changed but I’m learning—it’s not because I want to change my image; I want to change my style of play.
SLAM: At Georgetown you were the Big East’s defensive player of the year both years. People don’t really talk about that since you’ve been in the pros. Have you been paying more attention to offense?
AI: Well, they might not notice—I was fifth in steals, but people just talk about my offense. I’m not a great defensive player; I know I have to get better—and Coach Brown lets me know that every chance he gets. I gamble too much, ’cause I’m always trying to get a steal. In this league, if you go for a steal and you don’t get it, nine times out of 10 you get hurt for it, they exploit that. I’m always trying to make something happen on both ends of the court, and you hurt the team gambling a lot on defense, because once you miss a steal, the defense is on their heels.
SLAM: Do you think you can become a great defensive player?
AI: I think so. I think all that is mental. That’s like offense. Once you start believing you can become a great offensive player and you feel that way, then your body and your mind are going to respond. So, that’s that same thing with defense. There’s a lot of people that just concentrate on trying to be a great offensive player when you’re supposed to be concentrating on being a great defensive player, too.
SLAM: It seems the offense wasn’t that big a switch, though. You scored 30 your first game in the League.
AI: Offense just—I mean, whether it is good or bad, offense is just the most exciting part of any game—football, baseball, basketball. Defense, you know, you have to be really talented to be a great defensive player, because there are so many great offensive players. And to be a great defensive player, that’s special because you stopping a great offensive player. That’s like a linebacker—if you a great linebacker, that’s serious, man, to able to get to Barry Sanders every time you want to. That’s crazy, that’s talent.
SLAM: Can anybody stop you one-on-one?
AI: No, I don’t think so. And I really believe this in my heart. I respect Derek Harper, because I think he is the greatest defensive player I ever played against and I ever watched, but I don’t think he can stop me. I don’t think nobody in the League can stop me—and I know that there’s a lot of guys in the League that feel the same way I feel, so I don’t think that’s no big-headed or conceited comment. I don’t really think nobody can stop me. Maybe in college, when they ran box and ones on me, but in the NBA, where it’s just man to man? No one can stop me. A team may be able to do something with me, but no one man can stop me from doing whatever I want to do on the basketball court.