Iverson’s spirit, brashness — and his crossover — made him my role model
‘It was a learning experience for the other guys to come after me’
“You are not Allen Iverson.”
Fifteen years have passed, but an otherwise forgettable summer league coach’s words still linger in my mind. In the moment — a time when Iverson was leading the Philadelphia 76ers, my hometown team, to their 2001 NBA Finals run — he meant that, despite what I thought, I couldn’t pick every defender apart off the dribble. I needed to execute the mundane motion offense he threw together at the last minute rather than try to show off. I didn’t agree with his opinion or method of expression, but on a deeper level, he was right.
I’m not Allen Iverson: we didn’t grow up the same way; I never faced the same adversity he did. I didn’t come from a single-parent home in the projects, nor did I go from the best high school basketball player in the country to a teenage inmate at the pounding of a gavel. But Iverson’s success, despite his obstacles and mistakes, has always been a reliable well of motivation for me. He was motivated by his obstacles, so in my eyes, if he didn’t let them stop him from succeeding on the highest level, then why should I?
On Friday, Iverson will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, solidifying him as one of the greatest basketball players in the game’s 125-year history. For all of Iverson’s on-court accomplishments during his 14-year NBA career, the legend he built beyond numbers and X’s and O’s has always been more engrossing, for better and for worse. His rebellious appearance, the unspoken trigger for the league’s 2005 dress code, encouraged self-expression among fellow players and the youths who looked up to him. Present-day NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who grew up watching Iverson play, have called him arguably the best player ever, “pound for pound.” But where many celebrated Iverson the player and his contributions to the culture around the sport, others admonished him for his appearance and perceived insolence. And despite every nadir or criticism, Iverson’s greatness hasn’t been stifled. As someone who grew up idolizing Iverson to an extent, the true beauty of this honor is knowing that his whole career almost didn’t happen.
Chaos theory hinges on the butterfly effect: the idea that outcomes are extremely sensitive to the smallest changes. The result — cascading “what ifs?” — can be applied to Iverson, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in a 1993 bowling alley brawl in his hometown of Hampton, Virginia. Just 18 at the time, Iverson nearly became a piece of sports and street folklore: the prodigious talent whose enormous potential was snuffed out due to one bad break. Think playground legend Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland, who chose drug-dealing (and, ultimately, jail) over basketball. Popular culture wields these cautionary tales over our heads as reminders of Murphy’s Law.
Anything that can go wrong, will; not everyone who’s supposed to make it in life does. As rapper Jadakiss asked on Why, his Grammy-nominated 2004 stream of existential questions, Why it’s a brother up north better than Jordan that ain’t get that break? Iverson was never better than Michael Jordan, but was dangerously close to becoming another cautionary tale had he not been given a second chance.
“All I needed was one chance, and God sent him to me,” Iverson told CBS This Morning last year while promoting Zatella Beatty’s documentary, Iverson. He was talking about the legendary John Thompson, who coached Iverson during his two-year stint at Georgetown University. An apprehensive Thompson (in 1995, he told the New York Times it took “many in-depth conversations” with Iverson’s mother to sway him) gave Iverson a second chance in 1994, but not before the very system that incarcerated him. After spending four months behind bars, he was granted clemency by then-Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. The Virginia Court of Appeals overturned his conviction. Iverson was presented an opportunity to start anew, a gift rarely extended to many young black men beset by the same circumstances. Leniency is unusual, and Iverson — despite his conviction being overturned due to reasonable doubt over his involvement in the fight — still received an exponentially harsher sentence than convicted rapist Brock Turner. He was even behind bars for a month longer than Turner, who was freed last week.
Iverson has been my favorite basketball player since his Georgetown days. I wanted those kente cloth shorts, half of arguably the most iconic college basketball uniforms ever, and I still have both of his Big East showdowns against Ray Allen and UConn during the 1995-96 season on VHS. As a child, I sprinted through my parents’ house in glee when the Sixers selected him with the first pick of the 1996 NBA draft. Some of his greatest accomplishments were also personal landmark moments for me. I was at the March 1997 game where Jordan fell victim to his crossover; it inspired me to try to perfect the move myself. I went to my first NBA playoff game in 1999 because of Iverson, and 2001, the Iverson apex, remains one of the best years of my life due to his two MVP awards and that Finals run. When the Sixers traded him to the Denver Nuggets in December 2006, I was furious despite knowing it was inevitable. To a degree, I grew up through Iverson’s exploits.
Like James and Durant, I was enraptured by his play. The flair, the frenetic pace, and the sacrifice of his body in the name of victory were amazing to behold. But, like the rest of our generation, I was drawn to what he represented. At barely 6 feet tall and 165 pounds with bricks in both hands — a common man by all regards — he embodied the live-for-the moment, renegade spirit of youth. Iverson was a complete rejection of the respectability politics of our parents’ generation; he had no concept of the “right way” to be black in front of white people.
I never had braids and, compared to him, barely have any tattoos, but he showed me that I didn’t have to be like everyone else — that I could do things my way and still succeed. And while his youth-in-revolt attitude was infectious and influential, the most important lessons I’ve learned from Iverson are about what not to do. Idolizing someone doesn’t mean being an apologist for them, and Iverson was a mirror for me: Through him, I saw how the world treats black men when given the opportunity. It’s a situation he didn’t handle with care during his younger days, and his immaturity made it easier for the establishment he defied to write him off the moment he lost a step and for the media to keep its proverbial foot on his neck postretirement. The chaos Iverson lived through has also come to define his life, but it didn’t have to. His career didn’t end the way it should’ve, but it ended the only way it probably could’ve: clipped by hubris.
Through it all, Iverson regrets nothing. He says as much in Iverson, and in every recent interview he’s given, it’s clear that he understands things about the world — mainly, how he’s perceived by it — that he didn’t get when he was 26. Earlier this year, Complex asked him what his biggest contribution to the game of basketball was. His response reflected growth.
“My energy,” Iverson said. “My effort. My style. My look. My gift. My mistakes. The positive things that I did. The negative things I did. Because all of it was a learning experience for the other guys to come after me. I just gave the game everything that I had to give.” How effective is an idol you can’t learn something from?