Heart of A Lion

Despite an unspectacular supporting cast, Allen Iverson carried the Philadelphia 76ers all the way to the Finals in the best season of his NBA career.
by August 25, 2016
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It was a long two. People often forget that.

The unforgettable, ice-cold-classic frozen moment of Allen Iverson’s greatest NBA season came in June 2001. It happened in Los Angeles, in a building where few thought the Philadelphia 76ers were likely to win a game, let alone steal the Finals opener. It came at the expense of a certain reserve guard whose future as a championship-winning rookie coach was unimaginable at the time. It came with a crisp pair of those oh-so-wavy black and white Reebok Answer IVs on his feet. And it happened right on the sideline, practically on top of the Lakers bench.

But the shot itself, the game-clinching OT jumper that AI hit in Tyronn Lue’s eye to set up the infamous step-over? Thanks to years of seeing that sideline step replayed in video and GIF form, it sure feels like a three. But it was only a long two, good for what proved to be the winning points in a massive upset. In that moment, two was plenty.

Iverson scored in every way, shape and form that season en route to a League-leading 31.1 ppg. It was only the third-best season scoring average of his career, but given the context, it’s hard to imagine a better season from nearly anyone, let alone a sub-6-foot guard surrounded by role players. It’s possible no single player in NBA history has carried an otherwise average squad higher and further than Iverson did in 2000-01, his epic production and undeniable will lifting the Sixers to 56 wins and an Eastern Conference title.

No disrespect to Theo, Dikembe, Aaron, Eric, George and the rest of a hard-working roster—with that Philly squad, effort was never in doubt. But at a time when the Mike-and-Pip Bulls dynasty was followed by Shaq and Kobe in L.A., Allen Iverson was a solo superstar. It’s even harder to imagine now, when only “super teams” need apply for a chance at playing for titles: One dude, a buck-sixty soaking wet, leading a squad to the summit.

His frame was barely broad enough to fill out those classic wide-shoulder jerseys, but there was never any doubting the size of AI’s heart. Coming off a 2000 season in which he stole a single MVP vote and kept Shaq from being the Big Unanimous, Iverson found new ways to lift his game. He averaged a too-easy 23 per as the Sixers jumped to a 10-0 start, then worked his way into the sort of rhythm that left defenders grasping. He broke 30 points six times in the month of December, going for 45 against the Jazz a few days before Christmas and pouring in 46 against the Kings in the last game before the calendar flipped. He picked up where he left off in the New Year, dropping 41 and 54 on back-to-back (!) nights against the Sonics and Cavs in early January. Over the course of the season, he went for 40 or more 17 times, and broke 50 twice.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - 2001: Allen Iverson #3 of the Philadelphia 76ers attempts a layup against the Indiana Pacers played at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2001 NBAE (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

In the middle of it all, there was that unforgettable All-Star MVP performance in DC, when he scored a game-high 25 in leading the East back from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit. The Playoffs wouldn’t provide such a storybook ending, the Lakers’ Hall-of-Famer duo and supporting cast proving too much even for AI. It would be his best chance at a title, and in averaging nearly 36 ppg in a losing cause, Iverson solidified his ultimate-underdog, heart-of-a-champion rep for all time.

And that moment, in L.A., down the stretch in Game 1: A hard right dribble, pulled back through the legs, high-arcing from 18…wet. Like a great throwback—and like AI himself—the shot, the sneakers and the celebration remain timeless.

Product photos courtesy of Mitchell & Ness, Action photo via Getty Images

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