"I didn't want to be Michael or Magic...I wanted to be Allen Iverson." " - LeBron James
Back in the days of dial-up Internet, I used to go on to the NBA website and wait minutes at a time for NBA games stats to refresh. In particular, I'd follow one player: Allen Iverson. I'd check what he did the last play, how many points he scored, assists he dished out, steals he had. I remember this used to be the highlight of my young childhood nights, and one night, I had the chills and could not sleep from something incredible he'd done: Allen Iverson scored 60 points on February 12, 2015, against the Orlando Magic.
I am a Philadelphia sports fan because of Allen Iverson. Even though I only lived in Philly for one year when I was really young, the Sixers are my favorite team in sports to this day - and to that, I owe one man, the man who made the biggest cultural impact on the NBA: Allen Iverson.
I was working a 7-hour shift at work the other day at my university gym as sports camps for kids were happening, and as I'm doing rounds around the gym, I hear a rumor from one of my co-workers.
"People here are freaking out about a famous basketball player."
"Who?" I ask.
No way, I thought. Someone probably just started a stupid rumor. There was absolutely no way Allen Iverson was actually in our gym, so I didn't get too excited because I didn't want to buy into false hope. However, I saw kids sprinting to the top floor of our building. Apparently, there must have been something there worth checking out.
And walking around the gym, I still didn't see him. Looking closer, there was one person sitting in the middle of the court helping coach the kids that stood out, and he was wearing a red bucket hat. I saw the tattoos, saw the chains, I saw the cornrows. It was actually him. It was actually Allen Iverson.
I stood there for 20 minutes in utter disbelief, completely unable to shut up to every spectator near me, pointing out the person to make sure I wasn't dreaming or hallucinating.
This was my hero, standing only 100 feet away from me. I held him to such status and influence when I was a kid that I never thought I would actually see him in person, and yet there Allen Iverson was, on the phone as he watched the kids play ball.
I had to go back to work for a little bit, but any downtime I had, I went back to the top floor, trying to get as many pictures as I could that weren't grainy and hard to see.
I stayed there intermittently, just staring at him play basketball and take pictures with some of the kids for three hours, still freaking out in utter disbelief. I could never get close enough to take a picture with him or try to talk to him, but just seeing Allen Iverson in person, on the phone, playing basketball with little kids, was the closest I've ever come to seeing Jesus Christ come back to life.
A player built like Allen Iverson should not have been a great NBA player - at 6'0" (5'10" probably without shoes), 165 pounds, A.I. did not have the size to compete with the greats of his time.
There was Kobe, T-Mac, Vince, but then there was the Answer. He was just differently from the rest. He was an iconoclast in not only the way he played the game, but how he carried himself. They called A.I. inefficient, a ballhog, a thug, a basketball player that didn't practice. And with each label, positive or negative, he gained my attention - because Iverson carried on and persevered, and never stopped playing every game like it was his last.
He would drive into the lane and take hits from two guys much bigger than him, and then come back the next play and do the same thing. He would dare to go head-to-head against the greats, like his famous crossover over MJ when he was only a rookie. And then there was one of the greatest shots in NBA history - the crossover and then fadeaway over Tyronn Lue that iced a memorable game 1 against the indomitable Lakers in the finals. If there was any athlete that was the epitome of heart, it was he.
He was David going against Goliath every single possession, and he did it while averaging 41.1 minutes a game his career. The only other NBA players to do so? The greats: Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Bill Russell.
And it wasn't the fact that he was a great player - it was the way he carried himself off the court. Allen Iverson was just different - and inspired a cultural evolution of the NBA.
I don't think of A.I. as a hero in that he was perfect - in an objective analysis of his impact - he is as most humans are: an anti-hero. There was a lot of good, a lot of bad, and a lot of mediocre, and what each depends on who you are and how you see things. I wish he would have agreed to extend his career by agreeing to come off the bench. I wish he would not have gambled as much on defense.
However, Iverson was the realest player to every grace the NBA, and that's what makes people love him. Bryan Arhem Graham of "The Atlantic" captures what made so many NBA viewers of my generation love A.I. so much:
"Yet even as he stumbled—and stumble he did—there was an authenticity to Iverson that made him a magnetic public figure. In an era of sanitized athletes with meticulously cultivated images, Iverson’s lack of filter made him an anomaly. He compromised for no one. Whether you loved him or hated him, you could not look away. "
As such, he was one of the most polarizing and divisive players in NBA history. He has been labeled the NBA's "most controversial superstar." I love Allen Iverson not despite all of his perceived flaws and misgivings, but because of them. Flawed, but accepting of those flaws, the fact that the city of Philadelphia and fans like myself loved him because he was so human.
But I believe, to my heart, that no player was more misunderstood as A.I. No moment of his career is more misunderstood than the infamous practice rant that many attribute humorously a lack of work ethic and immaturity.
What people forget (or maybe never knew), is that yes, without context, that's what it means. But the real story is much murkier once the details and emotions behind the story are known.
The team had just been knocked out of the first round of the 2002 NBA playoffs, a major disappointment from having gone to the NBA finals the year before.
And my gripe with the video now is that it only shows part of the interview, the most meme-worthy part. No one knows the detail that Iverson was still actively grieving the death of his best friend, Rashaan Langford. Only a few days before the interview, the murder trial for Langford's death began.
"I'm upset for one reason: 'Cause I'm in here. I lost. I lost my best friend. I lost him, and I lost this year. Everything is just going downhill for me, as far as just that. You know, as far as my life. And then I'm dealing with this. ... My best friend is dead. Dead. And we lost. And this is what I have to go through for the rest of the summer until the season is all over again."
And that captures another part of what made Iverson such an icon and beloved figure, and ultimately, my hero. Allen Iverson was vulnerable. He was vulnerable his whole career - tell me what athlete is open to the public with their flaws, tribulations, and shortcomings all the time? What athlete carries through those without shame and only acceptance of who he was, who made mistakes and didn't try to cover them up?
That was Allen Iverson. All heart. All the time.