Remembering Allen Iverson’s career
Allen Iverson will announce his retirement in Philadelphia on Wednesday to coincide with the Sixers’ season opener against the Heat. When SlamOnline.com reported in August that Iverson’s official retirement was expected soon, the news was met by guffaws in some corners, mostly because he hasn’t appeared in an NBA game in more than three years. That was unfortunate, because there was true genius to what Iverson did well. And, really, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s taken years for the 38-year-old guard to process his separation from a game that he helped shape on the court and a generation of players he helped shape off it.
Statisticians will look back on Iverson’s numerical product with wide eyes. Even with a famously slight frame, Iverson led the league in minutes per game seven times in a 10-year span, and he averaged an outrageous 45.1 minutes during his eight postseason runs. The four-time scoring champion will go down as a man who gobbled up possessions unlike any player before or since. Only one player in Basketball-Reference’s database has posted a usage rate higher than 35 percent while shooting less than 40 percent (in at least 200 minutes in a season). That player is Iverson, and he managed the feat twice. To put that into perspective, notorious chucker Monta Ellis has never had a season in which he had either a usage rate higher than 30 percent or a field-goal percentage less than 41.
Still, Iverson carried the Sixers to the playoffs year after year; averaged more than 30 points three times; earned the 2001 MVP award; made seven All-NBA teams; and came within three wins of winning a title, in 2001.
Some might argue that his pure brashness eclipsed those basketball heights, an unbending personality that reflected a hip-hop culture he proudly helped carry to mainstream America. The baggy clothes, sneakers, throwback jerseys, tattoos, headbands, jewelry, cornrows and even the shooting sleeve were all new, at least for a player with his talent and profile. They were also incredibly polarizing: An entire generation of guards cite him as the singular role model, while commissioner David Stern instituted a dress code to squash a developing image of NBA players that, then and now, is largely associated with Iverson. This stuff might come first in the “legacy” discussion.
Paying tribute to Iverson’s career requires photographs and video: He was as photogenic off the court as he was smooth on it. With that in mind, here are 10 scenes by which to remember Iverson’s time as a basketball icon, which began nearly 20 years ago.
1. Allen Iverson as flash point
It was clear early that Iverson was destined for a career of headlines. More than three years before Iverson made his NBA debut, he was the subject of an unforgettable Oct. 25, 1993, Sports Illustrated article that chronicled a racially charged bowling alley fight. An 18-year-old Iverson was convicted of maiming by mob and sentenced to five years in prison. The NAACP and the SCLC came to his defense, and the justice system’s treatment of Iverson sparked civil rights protests in Virginia. Here’s a passage from Ned Zeman’s story:
Last Saturday 150 protesters marched through Hampton, chanting, “Free the Hampton Four” and “No justice, no peace,” and singing Which Side Are You On? All the police ringing the demonstration were white; only one protester was white.
Around Hampton and nearby Newport News these days, blacks are wearing FREE IVERSON T-shirts; graffiti on buildings reads JUSTICE FOR BUBBACHUCK. Members of the Bethel High football team have refused to talk to reporters, and some black leaders have contemplated an economic boycott against local merchants and the media.
2. Allen Iverson as phenom
Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder eventually granted Iverson a conditional clemency after four months in prison. The electrifying guard went on to make an immediate impression at Georgetown, where he led the Hoyas to the NCAA tournament twice and averaged 25 points as a sophomore on his way to All-America honors. His national reputation as an unstoppable force off the dribble and instinctual scorer blossomed. So, too, did his role as a fashion trend-setter, as the combination of Georgetown’s gray jerseys and the iconic Jordan XIs holds up to this day, and will for decades.
As Jack McCallum noted in a Dec. 5, 1994, Sports Illustrated article, the force of Iverson’s brash personality was present at the beginning of his freshman season.
All speculation about whether John Thompson would turn the reins of his usually conservative sleigh over to quicksilver freshman point guard Allen Iverson ended when Iverson pushed the ball upcourt after both makes and misses, took three-point jumpers whenever and from wherever he damn well pleased, scolded his teammates when they screwed up, and in general conducted himself like the second coming of Isiah Thomas. Which he is. Never mind the ugly numbers that Iverson put up on Sunday—5-for-18 shooting (19 points) and more turnovers (eight) than assists (two). He is one of the most exciting guards to come along in years, and Thompson should be praised, not buried, for giving Iverson a lot of rope. If his young supporting cast (Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bull teammates never liked that phrase, either, but there it is) can keep up with Iverson, the Hoyas will be a factor come tournament time.
And how about this incredible one-liner from a January 1996 SLAM Magazine story by Scoop Jackson.
How nice IS Ive? Right about now, Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson says, “I’ve been to three calf shows, nine horse ropings and seen Elvis once. But I ain’t never seen anything like it in my life.”
3. Allen Iverson as Jordan-crosser
Few highlights stand the test of time as well as this one: Iverson, closing in on the 1997 Rookie of the Year award after being the first pick in the 1996 draft, unleashed a vicious double crossover on Michael Jordan, who was on his way to his fifth title. The play endures because it combines Iverson’s signature dribble move with his trademark fearlessness. Here’s Mark Perner of the Philadelphia Daily News setting the stage.
On March 12, 1997, as his rookie season was reaching the finish line, Iverson and the Sixers were facing the NBA champion Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. Iverson lit up the Bulls, tying a then-career high with 37 points, although the Sixers, despite a solid showing, bowed to the Bulls, 108-104. But what defined this game was one move, Iverson’s signature, the crossover.
He rocked Jordan once with a small crossover and then dropped the big one, moving to his right and swishing a 20-foot jumper just ahead of the flailing Jordan. The crowd at the CoreStates Center, anticipating what was about to occur, rose and erupted in joy. Our guy went one-on-one with the greatest player ever and our guy won, they were thinking. At that moment, Philly fell in love with Allen Iverson. He was ours. He was our David to the NBA’s Goliath. We had a star, too.
Here’s how Iverson recalls it: “I used to always tell my friends that when I get on that stage, I’m going to try my move on the best. I’ll never forget the play. I’ll never forget coming off the screen and him switching and [Bulls coach] Phil Jackson hollering his name, telling him to switch out on me. I gave him the first little one, and I see that he’s biting on it. And I hit him with the second one and I made the shot. But the craziest thing about it is I hit him with my best move and he still almost blocked it. That lets you know how great of a defensive player that he was.”