By Isaac Javier
He’ll come up the court with the ball, have a few glances here and there to check the clock, score, and where his team mates are. Then he’ll look the defender in the eye, switching the ball from left to right to see if the defender would move enough and bite, projecting the image of a predator looking on its prey, waiting for its little movements and mannerisms to determine what it’ll do next. Within the next bounce of the ball, his whole figure shifts from one side, bringing the defender with him. And as slow and lackadaisical the hesitation is, he shifts the ball to his right at peak ferocity, breaking free from his defender and nailing the jumper on his face as he recovered. The sell-out crowd gets up from their seat with the realisation that they are seeing something special, an iconic moment. Allen’s minuscule figure runs back on defence. And just like that, Michael Jordan suffers the infamy of being on Allen Iverson’s list of victims.
Whenever we think of all-time greats, we look back at a player’s career. Their career statistics are a factor, how effective they were in their playing days. But when we truly look back on how great a player was, the numbers are trivial in comparison to their influence in the game of basketball. Allen Iverson’s influence, in particular, transcended the hardwood, as very rarely an individual does.
We think of special individuals when we speak of that hardwood transcending influence – Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, and of course, Michael Jordan. These players, in their respective era’s, elevated basketball to new heights. When the league was struggling and building itself up amongst the other American sports, these select few players exemplify sheer gravity, enough to rock buildings from left to right, electrifying the crowd as very few players would make watching a basketball game a life-defining experience. Allen Iverson, all 6 foot and 170 pounds of him, belong in that special list of individuals.
“Pound for pound, the greatest basketball player ever” Allen Iverson’s story is one of the greatest and most tragic ever heard.
Hailing from Hampton, Virginia, Allen was born to a single, 15-year-old mother in a setting less desirable for any youth to grow up in. Iverson never truly knew his biological father, but he was blessed with good people looking after him and would gladly testify his character growing up – a respectful and caring friend to his peers. Nevertheless, Iverson showed athletic potential, as a starting quarterback and point guard for Bethel High School.
Either one would be his ticket out as he was state champion, as well as earning The Associated Press High School Player of the Year in both sports during his junior year. But the story’s never really as interesting without any deep and significant pitfalls that jeopardises our hero’s future. And then there was the fateful night at the bowling alley. Anti-social behaviour gave way to a racially fuelled spat which ended up an incarceration for the future Hall of Fame inductee. Convicted as an adult at age 17, drawing a 15-year sentence with at least 10 years suspended. It looked all but over for Iverson.
After spending 4 months in at a Newport correctional facility, the stars aligned as Iverson was granted clemency with his conviction being overturned due to insufficient evidence. The whole fiasco evidently left an inedible impact on the community. An ethnic minority adolescent from a less than desirable background, on the national spotlight for a nonsensical altercation, Iverson has this to say: “I had to use the whole jail situation as something positive. Going to jail, someone sees something weak in you, they’ll exploit it. I never showed any weakness. I just kept going strong until I came out.” A shining light and example among his peers, he resonated his supporters and the community in maintaining his innocence from it all. And even through the incident and acclaiming heavy baggage for any college recruiter to look past (every recruiter – both basketball and football dropped their offers), his three standout years at Bethel were more than enough to convince Georgetown University’s John Thompson to offer him a full scholarship. The rest was history – the beginning of Iverson’s inedible impact on basketball as one of the most polarising individuals in sports.
Drafted first overall in the 1996, he shook arenas and damaged vocal cords from day one. Already a polarising figure due to his imposing personality. He had endless charisma and infallible magnetism, becoming a cultural icon who had the potential to match Michael Jordan’s global notoriety. And as ironic as the fact he’s the smallest person on the court, as cliché as it sounds, Allen Iverson played with the biggest heart.
Statistics can only tell so much about a player, but his was nothing short of sensational with career averages of 26.7 points, 6.2 assists, and 2.2 steals in 914 games played. Although failing to capture the all-elusive championship, A.I didn’t leave basketball empty-handed with his fabled 2001 MVP (including a trip to the Finals that year), along with four scoring titles, 10 All-NBA selections, 11 All-Star Game appearances, the 1997 Rookie of the Year, and of course, countless memories and lives changed.
During the twilight years, A.I spent time bouncing around from team to team with the faint chance of winning another championship. Upon retiring and bowing out, the only unanimous thought amongst fans is that he has nothing left to prove and he deserves to put his feet up and enjoy the rest of his life in splendour with his career earnings. But, seemingly, in his post-basketball life, paying bills wasn’t on his to-do list. In life, he established everything he could do through force of personality, and very little else. With his frail and ageing body, his playing style needed a refined update that he hadn’t picked up. As well as his personality, his ego needed a critical compromise with his diminishing skills. Slowly, but surely, he is losing basketball – the only thing that held him together and everything he had.
But even through the pitfalls that entailed his life so far, there were more lessons to be learned as, soon enough, shortly after he retired his life fell apart at a downright tragic rate. A basketball legend who, for a period of time, we would only hear about when his Lamborghini is impounded or his creditors are knocking on his door. The once universally adored ant-hero was struggling with his next greatest challenge after basketball: life.
Before his Hall of Fame induction (in which his speech was as emotional and genuine as it could get) which launched him back to relevancy, and for a long period of time, it was as if he was never with us. His presence eradicated as fast as it spawned when he took the spotlight. His most notable and lasting imprint was the NBA’s dress code, a measure to help eradicate some of Iverson’s cultural influence.
From the get-go, everyone knew that Iverson was a fighter, and he fought so hard in his playing career that he got respect from every individual in the game which still resonates now with the younger generation. But A.I’s influence stretches further than the hardwood with his self-expression and profound aura that projects his authenticity as an individual. And because of this, Iverson, throughout his career, has been a lynchpin for hate and doubt. His authenticity made people who doesn’t even relate to him inclined to root for him, if only for the purpose to spite those who despise him. No one was as immune to consultations as he stayed true to who he was, quite aware of what he was going through, even if those who judged him were not.
An icon of the rock star mould, Iverson was eagerly associated with hip-hop culture. He rapped, rocked a du-rag, wore t shirts and sneakers wherever he went, resonating to the chunk of the public who were tired of being treated like criminals just because of how they dress. “Hell” was what Iverson described the experience of going through all that he did. It didn’t seem real that he was being slandered for his blatant and undeniable flaws, or even simply for being young black minority. Rather, he caught hell for refusing to believe there was something wrong with who he was, how he dressed and how he wore his hair – everything that makes him who he is. It wasn’t just a plain rebellious refusal to conform. It was a demand for his right to exist.