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It’s the most iconic cover to date. SLAM 32. “Allen Iverson is Soul on Ice.”
Here, we put together an oral history of that legendary photo, providing the context and compiling the behind-the-scenes narrative of what went down at the memorable shoot in 1999.
As told to Ryan Jones.
Fall, 1998. The NBA has locked out its players, threatening the entire ’98-99 season.
This is a problem for the SLAM staff, which has been reduced to putting Shawn Bradley on posters in the hopes of scaring the League, the players union and anyone else with a stake in the game into getting back on the court. The lockout is also making it increasingly difficult to figure out who to put on the cover, leading EIC Tony Gervino to dig deep through the NBA photo archives for inspiration. He finds it in a photo of Julius Erving, the straightforward realness of which speaks for itself. An idea forms. Calls are made. Fingers are crossed. If all goes well, Allen Iverson will soon make his third appearance on the cover of SLAM—or, maybe, he’ll be scared off by the long-shot concept, Shawn Bradley will actually end up on the cover, and the lockout will drive the magazine out of business.
You know, one or the other.
What follows is the strange-but-true tale of how “Soul on Ice” went down. It’s the story of an up-and-coming superstar and the up-and-coming magazine that documented and shadowed his rise. It’s the story of an iconic image that shouted out the past just as it hinted at the future. It’s the story of a pivotal moment in our history, one that only Iverson could’ve helped us define. Mostly, it’s the story of a legacy: 25 years into our run, and 20 years after SLAM 32 dropped, this remains the strongest and most enduring cover we’ve ever put on a newsstand.
Yes, it’s a classic. But you knew that. And no, it’s not a wig. We promise.
TONY: From the beginning, we wanted to pick somebody who would represent the magazine. We felt like underdogs—I mean, we would go to games in the early years, and the SI dudes would be like, “Oh, here they are, the Wall Street Journal.” And then Iverson came along, and we identified with the small guy they said couldn’t do things, and yet he did. So he was sort of our icon. Jordan was the one who sold the best, but Iverson was the heart of the magazine.
SCOOP JACKSON (SLAM EDITOR-AT-LARGE): The whole thing started with me being down in DC and hearing stories after Iverson’s freshman year and how this cat was killing in the Kenner League. So I went to a game, and as the story goes, his team was down 20 points at halftime, and he had 22. He wound up with 82—he scored 60 in the second half, and they won by I don’t know how many. And that’s when I called [SLAM publisher] Dennis Page. I was like, Dude, we gotta put this guy on the cover.
TONY: We did Iverson as a cover in college [SLAM 9, Jan ’96], and it sold very poorly.
AHMIR THOMPSON (QUESTLOVE): We were featured in SLAM with Allen [SLAM 17, April ’97] talking about music and basketball. That was the first time I’d met him. I was shocked that he knew who we were. I thought he was gonna be real quiet and introverted, but he was cool.
SCOOP: Then we did “Who’s Afraid of Allen Iverson” [SLAM 18, June ’97]. That was the first time anybody wore jewelry on a cover. He wore the neckpiece. After that, we shot Steph and KG, and that was the first thing they asked: “Can we wear our jewelry?” Shaq, too. That cover changed everything.
TONY: We were contrarians in those days. We just wanted to stir things up. But in this case, there was a lockout—it sounds funny, but we were literally afraid for our jobs [laughs]. We didn’t know how long it was gonna last, and we were making light of things. But we were a little hesitant to go do another college cover, so we were trying to find something to do during the lockout.
SCOOP: Tony had this idea, and it wasn’t even about Allen. It was about Julius Erving.
TONY: I was looking through old photos of Dr. J, and I found this iconic photo of him sitting there holding the ABA ball. I saw that, and I started to think of who we could get to recreate it. Since Iverson had braids, we could play off the image and give him an afro—the whole throwback idea. But I don’t even think we called it “throwback” at the time, we were just trying to do a turn-back-the-clock type thing. So we contacted Que Gaskins at Reebok, and he said, “Cool.”
QUE (SENIOR DIRECTOR OF MARKETING AT REEBOK): There was definitely a mutual respect there, a sense that Allen was growing with the magazine. Allen really felt SLAM understood him. I think that’s why there was such a trust level. I can’t really see anyone else convincing him to try something like this. The fact that SLAM wanted him to wear his hair out, I think, is what he really hesitated on in the beginning. But once it was a representation for old school and new school Philly, and Doc—Allen always had a lot of respect for the history. He felt he had a trend in terms of the cornrows, something he was very proud to represent. But Tony really had a vision for what he was doing.
Now it was time to make the vision a reality. While Que Gaskins worked to bring AIlen on board, Tony concentrated on recreating the retro look. Spalding had the ball. AI would (hopefully) handle the hair. And the jersey? A long, winding path eventually led to a small company in downtown Philly, where our man Peter Capolino stepped up to save the day…
PETER (FOUNDER OF MITCHELL & NESS): I had never met Allen. The way I got to know him was really through his mother. She was always sitting behind the basket, and I went by and introduced myself—and then I found myself the official outfitter of Allen Iverson’s mom. I’m sure I made the jersey Allen has on for his mother. Sometimes I would make sure his mother had stuff before he did, so he would steal them from her.
TONY: I’d never heard of Mitchell & Ness.
PETER: I really didn’t know what SLAM was before that.
TONY: I started asking around about who made this jersey, and I found out about this company in Philadelphia. So I called Mitchell & Ness. Iverson had the one he played in, and they had one there. And Peter literally said, “I’ll give it to you for 72 hours, but I need it back.” He was totally down, and they were feeling the “respecting your elders” thing. But he was very nervous about giving it to us.
PETER: That’s true. I was just making sample runs at that point. That jersey is the correct fabric and construction of Wilt Chamberlain’s 1966-67 road jersey. Iverson wore that in his rookie year, but the sale of that jersey with the number “3” on the back didn’t happen for a long time after that.
QUE: You gotta remember, the retro jersey craze wasn’t big yet.
TONY: I really didn’t think there was going to be a throwback trend, because I didn’t think people really cared. I just remember being at an NBA party once, and Oscar Robertson walking through a crowd, and no one knowing who he was. Oscar’s walking through, and a bunch of kids are just standing there. They didn’t know who he was.
PETER: I always thought that putting the current players in vintage jerseys was the way to market them, and here I recognized that I had an opportunity to put my jersey on the back of maybe the most visible player in the League.
The wardrobe set, all that was left was deciding who would capture the image. Up-and-coming NYC photographer Clay Patrick McBride—by his own admission not much of a basketball fan at the time—got the call.
TONY: It was Clay’s first cover.
CLAY: I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even know who AI was. That picture and NBA 2K for Sega Dreamcast is what gave me a love for basketball.
TONY: Now look at him. He shoots for SI.
Finally, it was showtime. The SLAM crew rolled down to Philly, set up for the shoot, and then settled in, waiting for Allen to arrive.
TONY: Source Sports was shooting Iverson the same day. I know this sounds insane, but I was very concerned they were gonna beat us to doing the blowout, and Que’s like, “I’m telling you, they’re not gonna do it, but just to be sure, why don’t you hire Iverson’s hair person?” So I had to go down there with 300 bucks cash. We left at 3:30 in the morning to get down to Philly, and he was flying from DC after the Source shoot. It was one of those deals where, Iverson’s supposed to be there at 11. One o’clock rolls around, Iverson missed his plane. Two thirty rolls around…
QUE: I remember a lot of times having to negotiate with people: OK, what time do you really want to start? They’d say 3, and I’d say, OK, you have to tell him 1. It was par for the course.
TONY: They called us at like one o’clock and said, “He’ll be there at 3.” Then three o’clock rolls around, “He missed another plane”—he missed, like, three planes—“he’s gonna be at your studio at 7.”
QUE: He may have been a little bit late.
TONY: He was eight hours late. I said to Que, “What the fuck?” And he literally looks at me and says, “Welcome to my life.”
CLAY: I think we waited 12 hours. I quickly learned that the reason Tony was at my shoot was to make sure I didn’t leave.
AHMIR: I kept that same photographer waiting six hours for a shoot recently. I was apologizing profusely about it, and he said, “Don’t worry—when you’ve waited 12 hours for Allen Iverson, this is on time.”
TONY: I just remember him finally showing up, and immediately we were all paralyzed, like, “He’s here, we gotta get moving.” It was 7 or 8 at night. The hair stylist, I give her the money, and she says, “I forgot my tools in the Hummer limo.” And the Hummer limo has gone back to the airport to pick up one of Iverson’s people. Now, we only had 35 or 40 minutes to do this entire thing. I was at the end of my rope. Somehow, she got a comb from somebody and did his hair out. And by the time she did that, Iverson wanted to leave—there was a party or something. And he wasn’t really feeling the idea. He was sort of mocking it, that we would do a throwback thing with him. And I was really getting heated.
QUE: Everything with Allen at that time was…I don’t want to say a challenge. It was just different. Allen was and still is very protective of how he’s portrayed. He’s very conscious of his fans not thinking he was manipulated or packaged in any way.
TONY: Literally, of photo time, we probably had 10 minutes. So we did the shoot, and then they left.
CLAY: It’s like your introduction to the fact that the people you’re photographing are a lot more important than you. I think that picture’s a perfect example of that. And it was totally worth it.
Clay was right. When the issue dropped a few weeks later, the rest of the world found out for itself. The verdict? Instant classic.
TONY: We came back, we did the issue, and it was immediately everyone’s favorite. I think it sold pretty well, but after that, it was the issue most people talked about.
SCOOP: I remember, I was just like, This shit is unbelievable. I remember just being froze when I saw it.
QUE: I just remember people going crazy. And I remember AIlen being excited, like, “Damn man, we killed this one.”
CLAY: Allen later said to me, something like, “That’s the best picture ever.”
AHMIR: Before, when I wore my afro around the neighborhood, cats who didn’t know no better were just raggin’ on me. So that was definitely a form of validation. I was like, Oh, man, that’s the coolest thing ever.
TONY: True story—I went to lunch with the executive editor of Sports Illustrated. They were fascinated by us, and he said to me, “Everyone at SI, we all want to know: How did you get him to wear the wig?” Which, to me, was the classic line of all time.
QUE: It had all the right cultural codes for what was cool, what was authentic, what was relevant. Nobody else could pull it off.
SCOOP: He was holding down everything that Michael Jordan wasn’t.
LOU WILLIAMS: Allen is just…he’s always been himself. You can relate more to him than other guys, ’cause he’s remained the person that he always was instead of compromising himself. He doesn’t compromise his beliefs and the things he feels strongly about.
JOHN SALMONS: I just thought it was tight. It was crazy because he’s known for the braids and all this stuff, and then he came with the blowout.
QUE: Allen hasn’t worn his hair out since that cover.
ANDRE IGUODALA: I was a freshman or sophomore in high school. I’d never heard of SLAM until that one—AI with his hair blown out. One kid had it, and it ended up getting to the whole basketball team by the end of the day. It was that crazy. We switched it after every class, like, “Oh, you gotta check this out.” It was real, and it brought the hip-hop edge to it, too.
TONY: Hip-hop was the underdog, you know? We were all about the underdog. This was the part of SLAM that the NBA hated.
IGUODALA: I actually got a pair of Iversons after that issue. He was the icon.
QUE: It just blew kids’ minds.
Blowing kids’ minds was enough to make it a great cover, but there was more to it. This shot was historical and influential. Timeless and trend-setting. A few hundred thousand people copped the issue; within a year or two, it seemed like everyone had copped the style.
SCOOP: The throwback thing—at the time, nobody had even seen that before.
PETER: This cover was part of helping to launch Mitchell & Ness. The jersey was so appealing, and there was no way to get it. It just added to the cachet. I’ve got the cover framed and set up in my office.
QUE: Him being in that retro jersey, him representing Philly in the way that Doc used to-—Doc had the respect of the professional fans and the streetball fans, just like Allen did.
TONY: We were trying to say that he was the new Doctor J, which was the face of the League—the face of our League.
AHMIR: Philadelphia has always been the barometer for the NBA player. Starting with Wilt Chamberlain, then Dr. J, and then Charles Barkley the generation after that. All those people are the standards for their generation, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Iverson defined the next generation. And for him to be in the emperor’s old clothes was rather ironic.
PETER: All the young people, I would say 30 and under, they loved it. But people 35 and over, they didn’t want to diminish the effect of the jersey that Wilt and all the other guys made famous—that would be disrespectful. But I always felt the other way. I think sometimes you need current players to reawaken historic interest.
SCOOP: The ABA ball was classic, too.
TONY: That ball was very difficult to find. My nephew actually has it. I was talking about how my nephew was a really big fan, and Allen goes, “Oh, let me give you the ball. What’s his name?” I go, “James.” And he writes, “James, Stay in School.”
So why, 20 years and 189 issues later, are we still talking about this one? It’s because, having seen the image on a thousand bootleg t-shirts, mixtape covers and All-Star Weekend party fliers in the time since, we’ve never had a chance to forget. They say real recognizes real. To paraphrase: real remembers real, too.
QUE: I think that’s why it sticks out as people’s favorite—it doesn’t look contrived.
SCOOP: If you ask Tony about it, he hated that the wife-beater is showing, but that’s part of why it works. If you take that away, it takes away the rawness.
TONY: Yeah—it looks like we did it so we could show that he’s wearing a wife-beater underneath, but it was literally just folded under. We were in a hurry.
SCOOP: I didn’t realize how much of an impact this cover would have, but the rawness of it—there was no other magazine that could’ve executed this. That cover represents everything that SLAM is about. It’s like a Michael Jackson album. Everything just seemed to work at the same time.
TONY: Well, this was certainly my fondest memory of a specific issue. I guess it’s like a musician, where you’ve done a lot of albums, and then you do the album where you finally define your sound. We finally defined who we were with this issue. To me, this was our high-water mark—and if the lockout didn’t happen, we may never have done it. It was serendipity, and I think it holds up so well because it’s timeless.
CLAY: I would say it’s probably the most significant photo I’ve taken.
QUE: This was the image of what the new generation looked like. And I think it made for a really beautiful cover.
Ryan Jones is a Contributing Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @thefarmerjones.
Photos via Getty.