By Aaron Collier
I remember being in the 6th grade and watching the Big East Tournament Final. Outside of watching the Wildcats of Kentucky with my grandfather, my college basketball knowledge wasn’t as robust as other sports. I was more of a football guy and leaned more towards the NBA than college basketball.
At the time, I was also really big into drawing professional sport logos. I would take a logo and attempt free handing it or I would just trace it and color it. I would usually turn the television to ESPN or Nickelodeon while I was engaged with my new favorite hobby. On this night, I happen to have it on the 6 P.M. Sportscenter that lead into the Big East Championship Game featuring Georgetown and Connecticut.
The game started and I didn’t pay much attention to it at first. I continued drawing listening to the commentators for background noise for the night. But as the game progressed, I found myself watching more and more of the game. Even though I didn’t know much about college basketball, I could still tell what players were taking the spotlight. Being a NBA fan during the Jordan-era, I knew an elite player when I saw one. Guys that just took the game over like Jordan, Olajuwon, and Miller.
Ray Allen was one of this guys. Shooting long threes, hitting mid-range jumpers, and blowing by guys when they tried to take the former two weapons away. He was in the zone that night and showed just a glimpse of what would make him one of the all-time best NBA shooters to ever enter the league.
As great as Allen was that night, he wasn’t the player I was paying the most attention to.
Georgetown’s Allen Iverson was lightening quick and was throwing his small frame (he was listed at 6-feet tall, but let’s be honest, that was probably with the assistance of the Washington DC phonebook to stand on) around like he was a 6’ 7”, 260-pound power forward. The guy had no fear and was going to score anyway he could. He was a wrecking ball with a step-back jumper.
I started following #3 as he dashed around the court and scoring bucket after bucket. It was like two heavyweight fighters and I found myself rooting for Georgetown and their pint-sized scoring machine. The commentators were narrating his every move: “Iverson scores in the lane!”; “Iverson scores with the jumper!”; “Iverson with the bucket and one!”
Looking back at the stats, in reality, Iverson had an off night. He only shot 4 for 15 with 13 points and 6 assists. Allen didn’t have a great game either by his standards going 5-20 for 17 points with 12 rebounds. It showed just how great both players truly were as they did more to help their teams than just their knack for scoring. As kid’s do from time-to-time, I probably felt he scored 40 points that night due to how relentlessly he attacked the basket.
The game was an instant classic and was heavily due to Iverson and Allen’s shootout. I don’t want to sell Allen’s performance short, it was an amazing performance and he ended up hitting the game winner, but it was Iverson’s due-or-die mentality that stuck with me. He wanted the ball and didn’t care if everyone in Madison Square Garden or the great state of New York knew he was going shoot it. He wanted the game to be on his shoulders and no one else’s.
Even though Allen’s UCONN Huskies got the win that night, it was Iverson that had the impression on a young kid in Southwest Virginia who wanted to play every sport with the same effort and mentality as the little guard from Georgetown just displayed.
After that game, I had a new favorite basketball player.
Iverson was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers with the 1st overall pick of the 1996 NBA Draft. The 76ers was in the basement after trading Charles Barkley to the Phoenix Suns in 1992 for Jeff Hornacek and a bunch of castoffs (let that sink in for a second). At this point, the 76ers were sporting a roster with Shawn Bradley, Clarence Weatherspoon, and Sharone Wright. They did have Jerry Stackhouse and, looking back, probably got his best years which isn’t saying much. By drafting Iverson, they found their franchise player to build around, much like they did with Barkley when they drafted him with the 5th pick in 1984’s draft.
Iverson took the league by storm winning the 1996-’97 Rookie of the Year by averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 assists. He used the same bulldog mentality that made him a star at Georgetown and parlayed it into instant super stardom in the NBA. The 76ers were still terrible, but they had a player that people wanted to see on the court. Iverson may have not been the best shot selector, but with every prayer he threw up every fan in the building expected it to go in. Didn’t matter if it was a deep three or a contested drive to the basket, we knew that any second he could do something amazing.
His rookie season was just the beginning. He continued to be an elite scorer and with a play with a “chip on his shoulder” mentality.” He was a blast to watch and he became a fan favorite for his exciting and hard-nosed style of play.
The league took notice and awarded Iverson his first and only NBA MVP award in 2001. He averaged 31-points per game and added 4.6 assists a game in his MVP season. He led the 76ers to NBA Finals that year taking on the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers and their dynamic duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Iverson’s scoring from the regular season just got better in the playoffs as he average close to 33 points during Philly’s run to the finals. Ironically, beating Ray Allen’s Milwaukee Bucks in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. The team was built for Iverson to succeed as the main scorer with head coach Larry Brown pushing Iverson without alienating him (more on that in a moment) and with great defensive players in guards Aaron McKie and Eric Snow and, thanks to a mid-season trade, shot blocking center Dikembe Mutumbo.
Unfortunately, Game One was the only win Iverson and the 76ers would get. The Lakers would win four in a row to continue their dynasty with Phil Jackson at the helm. With the exception of Game 3, all the games were relatively lopsided with LA dominating Philadelphia the rest of the series.
As good as Iverson was on the court, many viewed him as a malcontent thug that was a ball-hog during his career. I’m not going to argue with any of these sentiments, because at times they were true. He clashed with coaches, complained to referees about calls, and would check out on defense at times. He was arrested for marijuana and having weapons and was always getting into trouble at casinos and clubs.
I still believe he was one of the major reasons that the NBA changed their pre and post-game dress code. Iverson’s hip-hop ensemble was always a point of criticism and Iverson was hip-hop personified during his prime years in the league.
Iverson was a product of a rough upbringing and the toughness that brought him out of the Virginia projects to a successful professional basketball player showed on the court, and unfortunately, that environment carried over to his conduct off the court as well. Iverson’s image was everything the NBA feared and most basketball purists couldn’t get past his hip-hop look enough to appreciate his talent on the court.
And who could forget his famous “Practice!? We talking about practice!?” media rant.
Iverson was traded to the Denver Nuggets in 2006 for point guard Andre Miller. Denver rolled the dice and paired him with their elite scorer, Carmelo Anthony. The gamble didn’t payoff as Denver shipped Iverson to the Detroit Pistons in 2008 for point guard Chauncy Billups. During his time in Detroit, it was reported he was unhappy losing playing time to point guard Rodney Stucky and then preceded to sit out the majority of the ’08-’09 season with a back injury. He was picked up by the Memphis Grizzles and the same story developed with Iverson being a malcontent due to coming off the bench. He finished his career playing in the Turkish Eurocup league where he played just ten games after a calf injury that needed surgery to repair.
It became evident that Iverson wasn’t content in being a role player off the bench or a traditional point guard. He wanted to be a scorer first and when he started losing his quick first step it hindered his scoring significantly. Iverson leaned heavily on his ability to get to the basket by using his quickness and speed. He never had a great jumper, but was a streaky shooter that was still dangerous from the perimeter. When he couldn’t get by defenders as effectively as he did early in his career, his jumper wasn’t consistent enough for him to be in a starting role later in his career.
Iverson never adapted his game to prolong his career. I could imagine, if Iverson would have grasped his role as a 6th Man, his later career would have mirrored that of guard Jason Terry who helped lead the 2011 Dallas Mavericks by being a scoring spark off the bench. He was still averaging close to 13 points per game off the bench in his short stops in both Detroit and Memphis. Most teams don’t get that much scoring from their whole bench, let alone one player. I would like to believe that Iverson could have been scoring help to a contender off the bench if he would have embraced the role instead of viewing it as a demotion or a sign of disrespect. The truth is, he may still be on an NBA roster today and, more than likely, with a contender that needed firepower off the bench.
The reason for his article happen on March 1st when the 76ers retired Iverson’s #3 to the rafters of the Wells Fargo Center with the likes of Julius Irving and Moses Malone. That puts Iverson in elite company where he deserves to be. Even his detractors would be hard pressed to make an argument for him not being an elite NBA player. His stats and individual accolades more than qualify him for that status and should make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But for this writer, it marks an end of an era for a player that captured his imagination 17 years ago in Madison Square Garden. A flash of speed and quickness that was always ready to put the ball in the basket. A player that had this guy trying to emulate his deadly crossover while playing pickup games at church.
Iverson showed me, no matter the sport, how to love the game you play and respect that game by giving everything you have on the field. No matter how big you are or what critics say about you, you play the game with passion and a mentality that no one can stop you from being successful.
In short, thank you Mr. Iverson. It was was a spectacular ride.