BY: Kwame Fisher-Jones
He walked among giants and at times stood the tallest. His career was loved by many and loathed by most. There is no one word that can define Allen Iverson, except perhaps indefinable.
With one of the most anticipated and exciting seasons taking place, it is difficult to fathom that it has been over ten years since Allen Iverson led the Sixers on a meaningful postseason run.
It was the 2002 – 2003 season and the Answer scored over 40 points five times that year. For good measure Iverson opened up the playoffs with 55 points and 8 assists as he led the Sixers to a victory against the heavily favored New Orleans Hornets. Iverson’s 76ers would take that series in six games. Until last season, that was the last time the Philadelphia had won a playoff series and coincidentally it was the last time A.I. mattered, on-the-court.
On November 1, 1996 a six foot gladiator entered the arena and Rome would never be the same. When the former Georgetown Hoya hit the then CoreState Center everything changed! The 76ers went from nonexistent to relevant once again. The miniature dynamo brought notoriety to a team and a city that the NBA world had forgotten about. All the while “the Answer” became one of the most notorious athletes in Philadelphia sports history.
In A.I.’s first season the guard scored 40 or more points in five straight games, rocked Jordan TWICE, told Scottie Pippen to kick rocks (while dropping 44 on him) and gained the admiration of Boston Celtic architect Red Auerbach during All-Star weekend.
Who could forget Iverson’s first game at Madison Square Garden where he fouled out New York Knick' point guards Charlie Ward and Scott Brooks, in just THREE QUARTERS! The performance would give the 76ers their first win at MSG in two years.
The media is still fuming from the guard informing the imperial Michael Jordan that he did not have to respect him.
Iverson was a breath of fresh air for a new generation. A generation that did not wear dress shoes with jeans. A generation that listened to hip-hop at 7AM on their way to work.
The Answer had just begun and already the guard was legendary. Hall of Fame NBA beat writer Peter Vecsey compared Iverson’s rookie year, and its impact on the NBA, to Michael Jordan’s rookie year. One of the most exciting rookie campaigns in NBA history began with a 30 point explosion against the Bucks, and ended with A.I. scoring over 30 points in eight of his final nine games.
The rookie’s final numbers that year 23 ppg and 7 apg. In all, Iverson failed to score in double figures just three times the entire year and for good measure hung 50 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were number one in opponent’s points per game that season.
However, in typical A.I. fashion he giveth and he taketh away.
The 40 or more points in five straight games were overshadowed by each of those games ending in losses. Off the court there was the marijuana charge, the gun possession charge, the fights with Jerry Stackhouse and the civil suit regarding Iverson’s moniker “the Answer”. Before anyone got an opportunity to celebrate the guard’s outstanding rookie year, they were forced to chastise No.3 for his perceived attitude and off the court issues.
SportsCenter, in fact, led each Iverson story with “if he’s the answer I don’t want to know the question.”
Ousted was Coach Johnny Davis, and the freedom to shoot first Davis bestowed upon Iverson, and welcomed was veteran Head Coach Larry Brown. Brown had worn out his welcome with the Indiana Pacers the year before, after the club finished 39-43. Brown was compelled to right the ship and get the most out of this talented rebel.
For many this would have been an indication to slow down, but A.I. just went harder. That year the Sixers beat a Houston Rockets team that featured three future Hall-of-Fame players, swept a Los Angeles Lakers club that registered 61 wins, and defeated the eventual World Champion Chicago Bulls.
Iverson was an aberrant talent who many thought would never adhere to the fundamentals necessary to obtaining an NBA title. Yet, with the NBA reeling from another Jordan retirement and attempting to rebound (pun intended) from another asinine lockout, the league was searching for its next Jordan to lead them. Instead they got their first A.I..
The bald head that had become mandatory for any young inspiring black ball player was replaced by cornrows. Italian suits were replaced by Girbaud jeans and Tims. More importantly, the old lottery bound 76ers were replaced by the new perennial playoff bound 76ers. From 1998 – 2002 the Sixers never lost in the first round of the playoffs, despite routinely being over-matched.
In the summer of 2001, after numerous feuds with Coach Brown and a much anticipated album, Philadelphia attempted to banish the All-Star to the Detroit Pistons. Some would say 76er center Matt Geiger saved the guard by refusing to waive his no trade clause, thus negating the attempted trade. However, what appeared to be divine intervention at the time would actually prove to circumvent history and the guard remained in Philadelphia.
The 2001 season culminated with a trip to the NBA Finals against the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers. The Western Conference champions were undefeated in the post season, which meant nothing to the Sixers. For one night the world belonged to the overachiever and their flag bearing Czar.
For one night A.I. was the greatest basketball player ever, for one night.
That evening David literally beat Goliath and there remains no greater vision then watching No. 3 in black hit that baseline jumper over Lakers’ guard Tyronn Lue in game one of the 2001 NBA Finals.
Los Angeles would win the NBA title in five games, however the mercurial guard accomplished something he failed to do at Georgetown, in high school, or even in his first few years in the NBA. He finally made “them” love him.
Iverson’s NBA Finals appearance would be the last time the star among stars would shine so bright, from that moment on he was never the same.
On the court the guard’s body began to let him down. The Sixer still scored but not at the pace or ferociousness that he once did. The dunks and fearless drives to the hoop became floaters and pull ups. Iverson no longer bounced back up quickly after being knocked on the hardwood instead he rolled up slowly.
Philly went from legitimate championship contenders to barely making the playoffs. Off the court it became about “practice”. The games were the subplots and fights with Coach Brown were the lead stories.
Two years after the dream NBA Finals appearance, Coach Brown resigned. Brown would land on the Detroit Pistons sidelines less than two months later, the very same Pistons who knocked the Sixers out of the playoffs.
A litany of coaches followed but none could handle Iverson the way Brown did. There was the Chris Ford fiasco, where he wanted the icon to come off the bench. The guard bulked and eventually did not play. Allen was invited to participate in the 2004 Olympics and be reunited with Larry Brown. The team was scrutinized for playing selfish basketball and managed to escape with a bronze medal. Things continued to spiral out of control for the Sixer.
The iconic 76er was eventually traded to the Denver Nuggets and when he left a little bit of Philadelphia left with him. A.I. was Philly; he was not Lansdale, Cherry Hill, or Bryn Mawr. Allen Iverson was Philly and he connected with that city and its residents the way a fictitious boxer connects with Flyer and Eagle fans.
Who can forget him sitting at the podium after winning game one of the NBA Finals with a Donovan McNabb jersey on?
He was the NBA’s begotten son. Iverson was not what the league wanted but what the league needed.
For ten years the guard stole are hearts and we forgot about trying to “play the right way” and just wanted to watch him play. Yes, the star never won a championship and in that regard he is a failure, but what he did for and to the NBA will never be forgotten.
No matter how hard the NBA attempts to distance themselves from his influence on the game.
No matter what dress codes are implemented.
No matter how many pundits sigh anytime his name is brought up.
Iverson played with a burning desire to succeed at that moment and unfortunately never grasped that it took more than a successful moment to truly be successful.
Each season since his untimely demise, the little man that captivated so many is venerated by a public request for his services. Each season a new owner or general manager offers Iverson one last chance to return to the forum he once ruled over. It is in this pursuit of the game’s most infamous enigma where we all get to take a moment and reminisce about the transcendent play of our Hercules.