For This Young Philadelphian, Allen Iverson’s Retirement Bitter Sweet

Reports have surfaced indicating one-time NBA MVP and perennial All-Pro Allen Iverson will announce his retirement. Bouncing around the NBA after being traded from the Denver Nuggets for Chauncey Billups, the polarizing personality nicknamed ‘The Answer’ left the NBA, played overseas, contemplated several times coming back, finally refusing an offer to play in the developmental league. The depressing end of Iverson’s career should be celebrated, but it should also shame us all; the fans who longed to see him hit rock bottom and the league he helped build but tried to wash their hands of him, pretending as if Iverson never existed.

As a twenty-three year-old young man born and raised in Philadelphia, my peers and I literally grew up watching Iverson cross up futilely-stout defenders, crash the lane, endlessly run around screens, dive after and intercept passes.  He defined how my generation played basketball. Play basketball at a local rec center in Philly, and you’ll see that everyone can put the ball on the ground. Men five-foot-nine, 220 pounds full of tone-less body fat and muscle can put the ball on the floor and can cross you up and down as good as any. Everyone’s hands are lightning-quick. They can rip the ball very quickly, drive with dexterity and have great anticipation skills. Think of the this generations’ influx of players from Philadelphia—the Morris Twins, Tyreke Evans, Dion Waiters, Kyle Lowry- all players with a unique and vast array of skills– an ability to handle the ball and little guys with an edge, toughness and grace to them that defines the city. Philly loves A.I. (pronounced tightly as ‘Ayah’ ) he gave courage to a lot of guys much smaller to him on the court. And for as long I live I will always be reminded of the legacy of Allen Iverson every time I step on a local playground.

First-hand experience can testify to how A.I. had an entire city of basketball players in the palm of his hands.

Iverson had cities full of young boys walking around proudly with braids, a hairstyle bound to develop in communities deprived of male-presence and poverty, where mothers use their hair-braiding skills to their son’s hair for free in lieu of paying up to $40 per month for haircuts. Iverson’s popularity took it out of that context and made it a overwhelmingly embraced hairstyle in the culture. While he was certainly not the first, Iverson put his culture on display and did so unapologetically. Filled with tattoo’s from his toe to his chin, Iverson was an individual. But within his unabashed individualism, he also was as every bit as human as we can imagine. He was filled with insecurities and emotion, cried in front of audiences and was a great interviewee. Behind Iverson’s boisterous demeanor was also treads of vulnerability that seemed so aligned with the communities that Iverson and I come from. Iverson grew up in a town that became racially divided because of his talent and the controversy surrounding a spar between his friends and a group of white kids, He grew up in a single-parent household that struggled to provide for him. Almost every step of the way was chastised for things that may have or may not have been any fault of his own. Iverson just wanted to play basketball. And you saw that tension on the court.

Basketball is an amazing sport because a player’s skills are usually never an extension of a persona, like wrestling. They tend to be extensions of who the person actually is. While in football, players need celebrations and antics to display their personalities and are overshadowed by a 55-man roster, basketball players can display their character organically within the game. The NBA is a player-driven league, driven by personalities, observable through how aggressively they attack the rim, when and how (or if)  they pass to teammates, complain to referees, or even facial expressions through the course of the game. Everything Iverson did felt organic and genuine because that character seemed to extend onto the court. He was candid during interviews and was adamant about letting his play on the court speak for him. Iverson wanted what every person arguably wants—to be himself and to be allowed to be that way because that is how he was made.

Though Kobe was the hometown dude, we adored and adopted A.I. 

Iverson’s most iconic moment—his step over Tyronn Lue—is usually taken out of context. The image, along with context illuminates his greatness. People forget that Lue did a great job shutting down Iverson in that second half up until those waning moments of the second half and Overtime, all this after scoring 30 points in the first half. Iverson finished the game with 48 points in what had been his third consecutive game of 44+ points. Iverson dominated those playoffs, having two 50+ performances in one series against a Toronto Raptors team one shot away from winning the series. Iverson barely sat on the bench in any of those series for the exception of one missed game against the Bucks. The 2001 playoffs was owned by a great Lakers team that only lost one playoff game, but it was dominated by the smallest man on the court.  He was small but lanky looking, lacking the muscle and build that the best point guards today have. Fans liked watching this mini miracle.

Iverson’s second most-iconic moment as a player, his infamous tirade about practice, is also taken out of context. And while it is argued that Iverson’s tirade is proof of the fact that, in that moment, he was overlooking the importance of team cohesion and performance, people overlooked what was hidden behind Iverson’s larger point: his team did not have any talent.

Currently the reigning Eastern Conference champs but a significantly worse team during the 2001-2002 season, the Sixers experienced a first-round loss in a five-game series against a young and talented Celtics team. Talks had surfaced about his practicing habits, as then-Coach Larry Brown had discussed it the day following the series’ conclusion. When asked about Coach Brown’s comments, Iverson’s larger point about practice was that it was a non-factor in losing the series. This is best seen in his simple explanation as to why his team lost. “We lost man. It ain’t a whole bunch to that. Simple as that, we lost.”

How the hell am I gonna make my teammates better by practicing? 

The Sixers were demolished in game 5 by 33 points. When asked by a reporter “Is it possible that if you practiced, not you but you would make your teammates better?”,  Iverson emphatically asks “How the hell am I gonna make my teammates better by practicing?”  Iverson knows it is a team game, but he also acknowledging there is a major individual component. It was clear to Iverson, the Sixers lacked individual talent across the board. After watching a series where all-stars Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker gashed the Sixers game after game while Iverson scored an average of 30 points per, he needed players who were better. Iverson needed players with more individual talent that team practice would not solve for. It is a simple, unaudacious point made by Iverson that he has received much condemnation for.

What is often forgotten is how intense the rest of the interview gets. If you read the transcript of the interview, you can hear Iverson growing frustrated with lingering rumors of him being traded and having to address his daughter telling him about people approaching her about the fate of the iconic star. Throughout the interview, Iverson points out his frustration with it all— how confounded he is at the idea of why reporters are talking about trading Iverson if it is clear he’s the best player on the team, the Franchise player and the MVP. Iverson is perplexed at why people are focusing on him and why they are not asking questions about the people who comprise the rest of the roster—the non-MVP’s, the less-talented players. Iverson was tired of taking blame and being the called the source of the problem when he was the only solution the Sixers had, especially when the team lacked any play of consequence.

His talent, while definitely filled with high-volume scoring, made for some of the most memorable Sixers teams to memory. Perhaps if you gave Iverson, in his prime, a 3-and-D wing athlete that every team seems to have today, the Sixers could have reasonably stole a championship during those years. Instead the Sixers signed players like Matt Harpring, Keith Van Horn, volume shooter Glenn Robinson, and a past-his-prime Chris Webber. The best complimentary players the Sixers drafted were a young Larry Hughes and Andre Iguodala, both players who needed time to develop. The best low-post presences in Iverson’s time were all players the Sixers picked up while on the tail end of their careers. Perhaps Iverson was difficult to play with other talented players. Volume-shooting comrade Kobe Bryant will tell you that complimentary players are necessary to win games. If Iverson was given the Lakers teams from 2008-2010, minus Kobe Bryant, then he likely wins just as many championships as Kobe had during that period. Iverson did many things really well. For the exception of a post-game, Iverson could create his own shot, ran around screens perfectly, and could run an offense. And the increase in shooting percentage he experienced in Denver indicated a serious personel and scheme problem in Philadelphia.

Iverson’s inability to win a championship will likely be the same reason many talented players like him never win them. They run into dominant teams and players that are difficult to defeat. But people seem to blame Iverson for the Sixers’ failure. They how awful the Sixers were. There was no reliable offensive weapon other than Iverson.  Name a legitimate offensive threats the Sixers had on their teams other than Iverson , compared to the other championship-winning teams during his era and that should answer the question as to why Iverson never “won” anything. We demanded a lot of Iverson. And we should re-assess if that burden was fair.

But outside of reassessing our personal expectations for Iverson, we should also reexamine whether things would have turned out differently had the league embraced him more. The NBA should be ashamed as to how they have treated Iverson. He was never truly embraced by the league, never hailed or advertised by the NBA.  Though, they have reaped the benefit of a gamut of Iverson-ites in the NBA. Since Iverson, the league has recently seen an influx of small guards who play with tons of heart. They slash to the rim, some dunk, some use flashy layups, some take bad shots. Many break ankles. In fact, Iverson perfected a crossover that hadn’t been seen in the NBA yet. The ability to put the ball on a string, using a mix of body motion and ball gestures as a form of misdirection to keep your defender off balance, while making him pay for ever planting his feet is something that Iverson famously mastered. It is almost a prerequisite for any novice ball handler in the NBA who has any ambitions on getting to the lane to possess now. We’ve even seen players as lanky as Kevin Durant use the crossover in his array of moves. Once again, while Iverson is not the first but he’s mostly the reason why kids were experimenting with those moves on the playground during my upbringing. I certainly tried. Now the NBA is getting populated with young talent my age.

Embracing the “Thug”

Even the dreaded tattoos Iverson has helped foster in almost every sport. Players proudly dress their bodies in ink. Iverson was featured on magazine after magazine, brazenly showing off his tats from head to toe. The NBA wants to pretend these things do not exist. The NBA wants to disassociate itself from elements of threatening components of an American sub-culture, even if it has almost everything to do with the fascination of the sport from the perspective of those that populate—and will continue to populate—the league. Part of that required a barring of Iverson from the NBA. The NBA initiated a dress code, and they required the jerseys be tighter on the skin, and forbade wearing leg or arm sleeves for the purposes of fashion. They could not be more pleased with Iverson’s immediate fade from the NBA. Instead of looking at menacing 5X white tees and gold chains that slide down to his navel, we can now discuss Dwayne Wade’s ankles, Russell Westbrook’s next-best Prince impersonation, or Amare Stoudemire’s fedora’s. We can even feature fashion experts op-eds about NBA fashion trends on the website (as if none of this could be done without a dress code). The NBA has worked hard to eliminate the things Iverson unapologetically fostered.

Iverson’s fade to black will be a product of many factors. One of which is his own arrogance in his own ability (which I find we are frustratingly inconsistent in how we admire or demean that quality). But could any league MVP ever subject himself to the D-League? Not likely. Another will be a bad image and reputation, some of which is earned and some of which is not. His (mis)fortune post-NBA has created justification for some that hold negative views toward him. You’re not likely to see him on NBA TV or ESPN, despite his magnetic personality and charisma. He was built for basketball. And while that definitely had to come to an end, I am not sure if we—or even Iverson himself—could imagine what that end would look like. As ESPN personality Bomani Jones indicated in an article last year, it will probably be best if we never hear from him.

Undeniable Legacy

In the meantime, I will think of Chris Paul, Steve Francis, Dwayne Wade, Brandon Jennings, Juan Dixon, Dion Waiters, Louis Williams, and Rodney Stuckey. These are players who don the #3 jersey proudly. I am confident it is derived from them watching Iverson during their adolescence, probably mastering crossovers and developing their touch around the rim after seeing highlights of the superstar. Iverson contributed to the sport in ways that some of the best players will never be able to claim, and his popularity and iconoclasm has left a mark on the NBA for better or worse. But we should always acknowledge when we’re in a presence of a legend. This is fact; meaning that it is exists whether we’re comfortable about it or not. Pay your due respect.

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