Many words will be written about Allen Iverson as he seemingly ended all possibilities of an NBA comeback by officially retiring this week at the age of 38. But one word would suffice: Defiant. Defiance was how Iverson’s NBA career built to its stirring crescendo in the early 2000s. But that same defiance which allowed Allen Iverson to succeed in the NBA brought his career to an untimely end when he still undoubtedly had more to give. And it’s his defiance—of his coaches, of his elders, of the odds, of practice, of damn near everything—that we’ll remember him for, ahead of the MVP, the four scoring titles, the 11 All-Star selections, or any other numbers that can be found on Basketball Reference.
It’s easy enough to forget (or outright deny) now, but for all his basketball talent and cultural impact, Michael Jordan wasn’t anywhere near the trendsetter off the court that he was on it. He listened to Anita Baker, for God’s sake. Allen Iverson wasn’t like that. He didn’t need a fictional foil to make him seem cool. He was cool, in a way that ‘90s kids could identify with. He wasn’t necessarily accessible, but he wasn’t someone from their dad’s generation, either. And while Jordan’s being cut from the varsity in 10th grade was an oft-told story, it didn’t resonate the way Iverson’s ongoing struggles did. Not with a new generation of fans, anyway. Iverson listened to the same music, dressed the same way, and wasn’t any taller than the average 17-year-old. If he could make it, anyone could.
Of course it wasn’t nearly that simple. "Anyone" can't make it, and Iverson defied incredible odds—growing up in poverty the son of a single teenage mother, being jailed on a dubious conviction following a bowling alley brawl—just to make it out of Hampton, Va., let alone reach the NBA. John Thompson took him in at Georgetown when all other coaches and colleges deserted him, and two years later he was ready for the next level. As the No. 1 overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, with a new Reebok deal under his belt, the lifelong struggle appeared to finally be over. But when struggle defines your life for long enough, maybe it’s there to stay.
Iverson listened to the same music, dressed the same way, and wasn’t any taller than the average 17-year-old. If he could make it, anyone could.
Something else that’s easy to forget is that Allen Iverson didn’t enter the league with cornrows and hand tattoos and heavy platinum pendants. That all came later. Look at the footage of his first NBA game (in which he scored 30 points, of course) against the Milwaukee Bucks. Close-cropped hair, just a single tat—of a bulldog—on his skinny bicep. Dennis Rodman, with the Bulls by then, easily out-crazied him. What Iverson did enter the league with was boundless confidence, blinding speed, and a complete absence of fear. After all he’d been through, what was there in the NBA that could possibly scare him? A double team? Please. The ‘96-97 Sixers weren’t very good, but Iverson shone—winning Rookie of the Year and going a rookie record five straight games scoring 40-plus points. The Sixers lost all five games.
A few years later, I would write the SLAM cover story that accompanied his most iconic image—Mitchell & Ness jersey on his back, cornrows blown out into a Dr. J-inspired afro. The interview wouldn’t take place at the cover shoot (which he was seven hours late for) but in a limo, accompanying him on appointments in NYC on a weekday morning. It was the fall of 1999, the NBA was locked out, and Iverson had yet to be named to an All-Star team or win a scoring title. He was 23 years old, and the future stretched wide ahead of him. He’d averaged 22 points a game in his second season, down from his 23.5 rookie average, but on better shooting from the floor. He was finding his way—and would capture his first scoring title that lockout-shortened season.
But that morning he talked less like a blossoming superstar and more like a hungry rookie. Already things were weighing on him: “Anything that has anything negative to do with my name, negative people will bring it back up, and they’ll try to tear me down. But it’s going to be like that for the rest of my life, you know?” And: “I guess I am hip-hop, but I’d rather be like that right now. When I get to 30 or maybe—well, I’m 23, and maybe when I get to 24 I’ll want to change.” And: “I’m not a great player. I’m nowhere near a great player now, ‘cause I don’t know the game mentally like I should. But I’m learning, believe me—I know so much more than I knew when I was a rookie, and great players win. You can be a great player, [but] if you lose, you lose. You can have the greatest stats ever, but if you lose, you lose. Ain’t nothing better than winning. When I win, then I get the respect I deserve. Until then, I’m just another basketball player.” He made that even more clear when asked what he wanted his legacy to be: “Titles. I gotta have titles. Hopefully I can play, like, Robert Parish years, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar years. Hopefully. I don’t wanna go until I get some titles. And not just one. I want titles. Plural.”