Allen Iverson wasn’t exactly a “good man.” But what was he, and why should we care about him?
We’ve all seen this video. ”I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re in here talking about practice,” Iverson tells an assemblage of reporters after his Sixers lost in the first round of 2001-2002 playoffs to the Boston Celtics. Never mind, of course, that Iverson averaged 31.4 points per game that season and won another scoring title. Never mind that he played through numerous nagging injuries while leading an untalented squad of role players and scrubs back to the postseason. Sadly, the way Iverson acts in this short clip is how many will choose to remember him–as a petulant thug who “turned it on” only when the mood struck him. He deserves better.
I’m a historian by trade, and in this capacity I’m occasionally asked to make sweeping generalizations about all sorts of things. Whether I know anything about the subject in question or not, the answer I almost always give is that “it’s complicated.” What’s complicated? Everything, everything is so goddamn complicated. And few athletes outside of Mike Tyson and Ricky Williams were as complicated as Allen Iverson.
At his peak, he represented the apotheosis of what some refer to as the “street” athlete: a low-efficiency, high-usage, and heavily-tattooed ball hog who played with a permanent scowl. Many viewed his Sixers’ brand of basketball as ugly and unwatchable, the opposite of the kind played by the well-oiled 1985-1986 Celtics and the high-scoring 2004-2005 Suns. Yet he was every bit as ferocious a competitor as Larry Bird or Steve Nash, perhaps even more so given that he never had the privilege of working in tandem with a player of Kevin McHale or Shawn Marion’s caliber.
Of course, there remains the whole question of whether he could have ever coexisted in such a situation. After his trade to Denver, where he was forced to play alongside the younger but equally low-efficiency and high-usage ball hog Carmelo Anthony, he continued to score his points but did little to improve the overall quality of the Nuggets. He collapsed in Detroit, gave up on the Grizzlies, and according to some reports now appears to be in dire financial straits.
Iverson’s various rises and falls seem to have been of great interest to a certain breed of fan that scorned him and other players like him. His career nearly ended before it began, after his run as a stellar two-sport athlete at Bethel High School in Hampton, Virginia culminated in a 15-year prison sentence for his role in a fight that occurred at a local bowling alley. Although he was granted clemency several months later by then-governor Douglas Wilder, Iverson–hot on the heels of leading both his school’s football and basketball teams to state championships–was forced to miss his senior year at Bethel.
Georgetown coach John Thompson–who, owing to his confrontational nature and willingness to recruit talented but unorthodox inner-city players, had drawn the ire of that same breed of fan adverted to earlier–signed Iverson and was rewarded with two straight Sweet Sixteen appearances and two years of stellar play. The Philadelphia 76ers selected Iverson first overall in the 1996 NBA Draft, whereupon he proceeded to make 11 All-Star teams, win four scoring titles, and appear on the All-NBA first or second team a combined six times.
By a lot of advanced metrics, Iverson wasn’t a great player. He was a good player, certainly, and a tremendous volume scorer for someone who was barely 6′ tall. He was, at a minimum, his generation’s Tiny Archibald–although Archibald, surrounded by better talent on 1980-1981 Celtics, managed to win a title.
But Iverson was also, in one very specific sense of the term, a role model. His life experiences and attitude were shared by a generation of NBA players from its Junkball Era, a period of low shooting percentages, over-abundant three-point attempts, and brutal defense that lasted until D’Antoni’s Suns began lighting up the scoreboards in 2004-2005. Derrick Coleman, Latrell Sprewell, Isaiah “J.R.” Rider, Stephon “Starbury” Marbury, and numerous others were cut from similar cloth. They had tremendous talent, but simply wouldn’t be brought to heel by the coaches under whom they played.
The institutional history of the NBA appears likely to efface these men and their unlovely contributions. It will put aside Coleman’s once-in-a-generation inside-out game. It will neglect to mention Sprewell’s legendary defensive intensity. Rider’s extraordinary dunks, which make coddled postmodern dunk artist’s Blake Griffin’s in-your-face slams look tame by comparison, will rarely be shown on the official highlight reels. And what of Iverson’s artistry in the face of adversity, his unparalleled will to score?
Those memories will, I suppose, persist for a little while, a sort of “Legend of the Baggy Pants” that’s passed via word of mouth from one thirtysomething hoops aficionado to another. Bits and pieces of the Iverson mythos may reemerge from time to time, as in the case of Reebok’s recent reissue of his signature “The Question” shoe. And of course we’ll keep hearing about Iverson’s money troubles, his begging for a fourth chance at a first start, because that’s what a certain breed of fan wants to hear about all of these players–what he or she will want to be hearing about, say, DeMarcus Cousins in a decade or so.
So yes, Iverson was truculent and difficult to manage. Sure, he made a mediocre rap album that contained some homophobic content. Certainly he’s finished, as washed-up as washed-up can be. Perhaps that has made the game easier for best-selling author Buzz Bissinger to watch.
However, as Iverson himself noted during that infamous “practice” interview, nobody worked harder once the game began. Mind you, he wasn’t a hero, and the most fulsome biographer could make not make him one. Yet during his prime, even as he alienated a certain breed of fan, he managed to be relatable, warts and all, to a subset of NBA spectators who recognized where he was coming from. This has angered a lot of people–look, for example, at what the website Stuff Black People Don’t Like has to say about him–but that wasn’t his problem. He played his heart out, and he will be missed.