Can’t Knock the Hustle
The Allen Iverson cover story from the iconic SLAM 32 (March, ’99).
SLAM: Do you think you deserve $100 million?
AI: Do I deserve it? Yeah, I think I deserve it. I don’t know if that’s what I’ll ask for, but I think I deserve it. I think I deserve more, you know, that’s just who I am. I feel everybody deserves whatever they want, really. Whatever the franchise feels they need or want to give you, they should give it to you, you know? And that’s real. They got enough money to give people whatever, you know what I’m saying?
I think the crazy thing about this lockout [is] when you look at guys like Kevin Garnett’s salary, pshhhh, Kevin Garnett—I think—should have gotten more than what he got. And they’re able to pay him that, you know. All that money the [owners] got and they’re getting off of us, it shouldn’t be no problem—nobody’s salary. They pay Kevin Garnett what they know they can pay him. They give him this money, and everybody’s beefing, when number one he deserved it and number two they felt like he deserved it. And they felt like they had to give it to him, so what’s wrong with that? I don’t see anything wrong with that.
SLAM: Who did you start out watching when you first followed basketball?
AI: Zeke. Michael [Jordan], of course, but Zeke was always my man. I loved Isiah.
SLAM: Did you like the Pistons?
AI: Nah, I was always a Bulls fan, ever since Michael got there. I remember one time the Knicks beat ’em, and I damn near cried—I had tears in my eyes.
I was a Bulls fanatic. Because I love Mike, I love Pippen, I love Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong and Paxson, Luc Longley, Cartwright and I just loved the Bulls, and now that I play them I hate them. Because I remember Scottie Pippen when the Knicks used to beat him all up—and you know they used to try to treat him like he was puss—and then now, for them to talk shit to me on the court while I’m playing? I still love Pip today and Mike and Dennis Rodman, ’cause they great basketball players. Then to hear the way they talk shit on the court, I’m like, “Dog, I remember when you didn’t say shit on the court, you know you was so humble and you wouldn’t say nothing on the court and now even you talk shit?”
SLAM: When did you start playing basketball?
AI: I think I was like nine or 10 years old. I always thought basketball was soft. Now I come to find out I was outta my mind, playing against Shaq and Barkley and Kevin Willis. Charles Oakley. Serious. I never wanted to play it, when my mom bought me some Jordans—I came home from school, she was like, “You going to basketball practice today,” and I was like, “I ain’t playing no basketball, it’s soft. I don’t want to play no basketball, I don’t like basketball.” I’m crying all the way out the door, she pushing me out the door. I got out there and seen kids that was on my football team and, um, I just enjoyed it. I came home and I thanked my moms, and I’ve been playing basketball ever since.
SLAM: What was your home court growing up?
AI: Newport News [VA]—Anderson Park, that’s where like it first started. And then Hampton [VA]—Aberdine Elementary School, ’cause that’s where I watched my uncles and my uncles’ friends, the people I thought that were sooo nice, so cold on the court. I watched them, and I had to play right after school—in the 8th grade or 7th grade—when it was blazing hot, like 105 or something like that. Then they came at five, six o’clock when the sun is going down, and they ran. I could never play with them, ’cause they would never let me. I guess they thought I wasn’t good enough, I was too young. And then, ninth or tenth grade, they want to pick me first—“Yo, I got AI.” It was just a great feeling, man, because that’s where I always wanted to play. [Before] they hollering at me to get off the court and they screaming at me because I was trying to play while they were playing. And then to go back and be able to play against them and kill them.
SLAM: Is there any one who you really learned the game from?
AI: Coach [John] Thompson. He the one that really taught me how to play basketball. I still don’t know it like I want to know it, but he gave me a clear picture of how to play it.
SLAM: Are you up on your NBA history? I know your rookie year was the NBA at 50, so you were at All-Star Weekend with all those guys…
AI: That was crazy, playing the rookie game and looking in the stands and seeing Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain—I was like, oh my god. Doc—Doc! It just felt crazy. I was like, I’m gonna show in front of these cats tonight. It ain’t gotta be scoring, it could be everything else, but I just want to perform for those guys. I was so hype, it was showtime and it was fun. It’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. Red Auerbach—my coach—during the [rookie] game at halftime, he was like, “I don’t know what you out here doing, Allen. People came here to see you score; you ain’t have to prove no point. I understand you out here passing—and I respect that—but put the ball in the hole, too. Everybody want to see the whole game.” ’Cause I wasn’t trying to take over the whole spotlight and shine and score 30 points and all that, I was just dishing crazy, and he was like, “This half I want to see you score.” I was like, “A’ight,” and that’s what I did. In the second half, I started scoring.
SLAM: So he was actually coaching out there?
AI: Coaching. Really coaching. He was talking to me during the game, and at one point I just blacked out, I couldn’t believe he was coaching me—it felt so good man. I wanted to, right there, scream up in the stands—“Mom, did you see him talking to me? Did you see him coaching me?” I mean, he was one of the greatest coaches ever, and just for him to say something out of his mouth to me was enough. Even if it was not coaching me, even if he was just speaking to me, it would have made me feel good, but he was coaching me. I felt like crying, because I felt like I really did something in my life for me to be on the sidelines with him coaching.
SLAM: Talk to me about Doc a little bit.
AI: Doc was Mike in his time. Everybody was like—there will never be another Dr. J, da da da. That’s how crazy this thing is. Nobody ever thought there would ever be anyone better then Doc or like Doc. Or Magic, and then come Mike. It’s crazy, Doc started all that. Mike did some shit that Doc never did and vice versa, but Mike took it to a completely different level.
SLAM: What was it like playing against him for the first time? How different was it from just seeing him play?
AI: It was just wild. I can’t even remember the feeling. Just me being on his court, playing against world champions and the greatest basketball player in the world. I wasn’t out there crazy in awe or anything like that—’cause that’s just not me. I’m in the same profession you are and I respect you and what you did for your family and team, but once we get on the dance floor, I’m in a whole ’nother mode. I might feel different if I meet you before the game in the hallway, but once we get on the dance floor, I’m a do my thing and I’m not going to be in awe of nobody. But it was a crazy feeling just playing against him.
Really the only guy that flipped me out when I was on the same court with him was Sprewell. ’Cause if I could be any other basketball player, I would be Sprewell. What he did was foul, everybody know that, and I would never do no shit like that. I mean, I guess he just flipped out and snapped and he’s going to learn a lot from it and he’s a good dude, ’cause I know him as a person. But as far as talent, if I could be any other player, I wouldn’t be Michael Jordan, man. I wouldn’t take Michael Jordan’s game, I would take Latrell Sprewell’s game. I love the way he play. I love the way he play and he hard, hard on the court. You know, he might talk shit to you, he might not. He might give you 30 or 40 with a regular look on his face, like, “Whatever. This is what I do. That’s the way I play. I don’t gotta talk shit, ’cause I do this. I do this nightly. I don’t have to talk no shit to you to prove nothin’ to you.” But Spree, man. Spree’s something else.
SLAM: What is it? What is it about his game?
AI: Energy. He can play the whole damn game. He got pride with his game, you know, And he just hard. When I look at him I see myself, ’cause he don’t care who you are, he just go at you. He go right at your chest, crazy, hard. He can shoot, he can run, he can dribble, he can jump. He’s smart, he know the game.
If not Sprewell, if I had a choice, it would be Shaq. I don’t think nobody could beat my team 10 to 15 times if Shaq was on my team. Never. I mean, that guy has talent that’s just unbelievable. He’s unbelievable. If I played with him, I don’t think nobody could beat me. I don’t know if you beat me in a series, but you won’t sweep me. That’s why I look at [the Lakers] and I’m like—Utah was a great team, Karl Malone, John Stockton did great, but you got Shaq on your team. How can you live with yourself knowing you got swept and you got Shaq on your team? Shhhh…
SLAM: If Mike steps and the Bulls are no more, who’s the next squad?
AI: Who do I think? Really, in my heart? Philly. I’m not gonna say nobody else, ’cause I don’t believe that. I just believe it’s my time. I believe it’s our time. Philly was always one of the great teams. I think it’s time for that to come back.
SLAM: How bad do you want that?
AI: More than anything in the world. [Pause.] Anything. I think that’s the only thing that gonna separate me from a great player. Great players win, man. I’m not a great player. I’m nowhere near a great player now, ‘cause I don’t know the game mentally like I should. But I’m learning, believe me—I know so much more then I knew when I was a rookie, and great players win. You can be a great player, [but] if you lose, you lose. You can have the greatest stats ever, but if you lose, you lose. Ain’t nothing better than winning. When I win, then I get the respect I deserve. Until then, I’m just another basketball player. The average player, you know.
SLAM: What do you want your NBA legacy to be?
AI: Titles. I gotta have titles. Hopefully I can play, like, Robert Parish years, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar years. Hopefully. I don’t wanna go until I get some titles. And not just one. I want titles. Plural.
SLAM: Add some gold to that platinum?
AI: No doubt. Add some gold. I need it, man. I’m hungry—I’m starvin’—I’m starvin’ for success. That’s what I want now. I love lookin’ at my mom and sayin’, “You made somethin’. You made somethin’ outta me.” I love that. So I’m starvin’ for success. I mean, I wanna be good. I want to be somebody.
SLAM: How important is the individual stuff—MVP, scoring title, that sort of thing? You wanna be remembered as the best player in the game? The best point guard?
AI: I wanna be remembered as the best player in the NBA. I want to be the best, the very best. And with the company I’m keeping right now? With the guys I’m playing with? Boy. That’s a huge statement. With the talent that we got right now in this league, with the Shaqs and Grant Hills and Latrell Sprewells and Gary Paytons and Tim Hardaways and Penny Hardaways. [Pause.] That’s a big statement, but I’m willing to try and back it up. I want to be the greatest basketball player. With Michael Jordan, that’s some big words, but that’s the challenge of my life. Maybe people won’t consider me to be the best, maybe some will. Who knows? I mean, the sky’s the limit.