Many Questions, Only One Answer

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Last week’s announcement that Allen Iverson was retiring from basketball came as a shock to no one. In most people’s minds The Answer effectively retired from basketball in 2010, following a highly emotional, yet disappointing return to his beloved Philadelphia 76ers. A brief spell in Turkey barely registered on the radar of most NBA fans. When Iverson has appeared in the news over the past couple years it’s been for things unrelated to the hard court—articles about his supposed drinking and gambling problems, and close friends and associates announcing to the media that he’s essentially broke. Type sentences such as ‘the rise and fall of Allen Iverson’, or ‘the tragedy of Allen Iverson’ into Google and you’ll probably find more than a few matches.

As was the case during his playing days, Iverson remains one of the most polarizing players to ever play the game—a 21st century Wilt Chamberlain. Five years from now there will be some people—a minority perhaps, but some—who will argue that he shouldn’t be enshrined in the Hall of Fame (for the record, he absolutely should). The cornrows, the tattoos, the clothes (no one was more responsible for Stern’s decision to implement the dress code), the music, the seemingly endless trouble with the law; all of these things associated with AI made, and still make, people feel uncomfortable. Most importantly, as it relates to his mainstream reputation, it made white America uncomfortable—the same white America that embraced the (at least on the surface) clean, corporate image of guys like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan.

Today’s superstars—the likes of LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant—place a high priority on maintaining the marketability of their ‘brand’. In that sense they are all cut from the same cloth. They are image-conscious, AAU-disciplined disciples, intent on being beasts on the court, and angels away from it. They’re role models and fashion models, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But Iverson wasn’t and couldn’t be that way. He was who he was—a product of his upbringing in Hampton, Virginia, unchanged by the softening effects of stardom. He was a warts-and-all kind of character—a beast on the court, and less-than-angelic off it.
 
 

Iverson was an underdog, but not the type of underdog that people always find easy to embrace. He was an underdog with a mountainous chip on his shoulder. The type of chip that gets formed when you spend your formative years in dire poverty, become the man of the household at age 12, and grow up in a town with sinister undercurrents of racism and prejudice. And it’s a chip that gets formed when, at age 17, you’re sentenced to a ridiculous 15 years in prison for a bowling alley brawl.

Iverson was difficult to embrace because he was an underdog who lacked humility and who failed to show proper deference to authority. He represented the angry, rebellious, and thrilling bridge between the clean-cut worlds of MJ and LeBron. Some hated him, some loved him, but no one, absolutely no one, failed to take notice.

How could you not?

Whether you loved or loathed Allen Iverson, in his prime there was no one in the league that played the game the way that he did. There was no one who could take over a game, cross over an opponent (poor Tyronn Lue), and attack the rim quite like AI. Listed at 6 feet tall (Here’s the thing, when players are listed at exactly 6ft, they’re not) and 165 pounds, Iverson was David in the NBA world of Goliaths. And for the better part of a decade Iverson slayed every giant that came his way. 11 All-Star appearances, 4 scoring titles, and the 2001 MVP award are a testament to that.

 
 

Through the lens of today’s NBA, where an emphasis is placed on efficiency, and much less so on points-per-game, it’s easy to view Iverson as a selfish gunner (Barkley famously nicknamed him ‘Me, Myself, and, Iverson’), a player more concerned with his stats than with his team’s overall success. And sure, Iverson could be brutally inefficient at times, only shooting 45% from the field once in his career. But Iverson’s teams—especially his Sixers teams—were successful regardless. Iverson’s gunning took the Sixers all the way to the NBA Finals in 2001, creating unforgettable NBA moments along the way, most notably his epic duel with Vince Carter.

And Iverson was more than just his shooting percentage. He was a force of nature on the hard-court—a whirlwind concoction of attitude, swagger, and God-given talent. While he may not have been so motivated off the court, on it he was a fearless competitor. He cared about basketball as much as anyone, and he terrified opponents. Iverson heating up was both the scariest, and most exhilarating sight in the league—depending on which team you cheered for, of course. And he was one tough son of a bitch. No one was tougher. No one took harder falls, drew harder contact in the lane, and bounced back up to his feet as quickly as AI. You could question his lifestyle choices, and his professionalism off the court, but no one could question his heart.

 
 
At some point in his career, when his prodigious talent waned, Iverson could’ve reinvented himself as a role player. In another world maybe Iverson spends the past few years spotting up in the corner for a title contender, or giving a young, talented team 15 minutes of offensive spark off the bench. He’s still only 38—he was only 35 when he exited the NBA—and guys like Jerry Stackhouse, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, and most recently, Vince Carter, seamlessly transitioned from being the man, to being just one of many men, as their physical gifts diminished. But AI could never play that role. He always seemed destined to burn out overnight, rather than slowly fade into the background. He’s not Grant Hill. He’s not Vince Carter. He’s Allen Ezail Iverson, and for better or for worse, there will never be another player like him in the NBA.  
 

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