Iverson’s legacy will not be titles, unless you count those of the scoring variety. The closest he got was 2001, when he capped off a road upset for the ages in Game One of the NBA Finals by cold-bloodedly draining a jumper over Lakers guard Tyronn Lue right in front of the L.A. bench, then emphatically stepping over him. The Lakers went on to win the next four games, but the point was made. Iverson, the regular-season MVP, had taken a team of misfits all the way to the Finals and beaten the Lakers, handing them their only loss of the postseason, on their own turf. It would have to do.
It was all downhill from there. Iverson led the league in scoring again in ‘01-02 at 31.4 points per game, but the Sixers didn’t even make it out of the first round of the playoffs, getting bounced by the Celtics. Following the last game of that series, he went off on his infamous “practice” rant. A year later, coach Larry Brown would depart. And, on Dec. 9, 2006, the Sixers did what was once thought unthinkable—they traded Iverson, to the Denver Nuggets, for Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two first-round picks. He teamed up with Carmelo Anthony to create a literal one-two scoring punch (given their respective positions on the leader board), but it was still the beginning of the end. From there he was shipped to Detroit, then on to Memphis. After that didn’t work out—he said he would accept a lesser role, but simply couldn’t—he wound up back in Philadelphia, but it was more of an epilogue than a rebirth. Allen Iverson always said he played every game like it was his last. On Feb. 20, 2010, he actually did. He scored 13 points on 5-13 shooting. The Bulls beat the Sixers by 32. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. But it’s worth celebrating the fact that any of it even happened at all.
Yes, he missed a lot of shots, but no statistic could have possibly measured his need to take them just for his team to have a chance, or the heart it took for him to drive directly into the teeth of a defense designed expressly to stop him.
Iverson’s legacy will be complicated. From a basketball perspective, his style of play is as passé as his cornrows. Volume scorers are becoming a thing of the past, as the advanced-stat revolution places a premium on efficiency (sorry, Monta). But anyone who watched Iverson play knows that he shouldn’t be defined by his numbers alone. Yes, he missed a lot of shots, but no statistic could have possibly measured his need to take them just for his team to have a chance, or the heart it took for him to drive directly into the teeth of a defense designed expressly to stop him. What, he was supposed to draw the double team and kick out to...George Lynch? Matt Geiger? Eric Snow? At 5'11" (at best—his listing at six-foot was sheer exaggeration) and 165 pounds, Iverson played like someone six inches taller, fighting every step of the way. Still, if the ‘96 Draft happens now, Iverson probably isn’t the first pick. Maybe he even falls out of the top five.
But it’s his other legacy that will be longer-lasting. Without Iverson enduring the scrutiny he did, do guys like Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James (who both grew up watching him) become global pitchmen? Does hip-hop culture infiltrate the league so thoroughly so soon, to the point where commissioner David Stern feels the need to instill an explicitly worded dress code? Iverson disturbed the NBA’s Jordan-to-Kobe (or Jordan-to-Shaq) continuity of PG superstars, injecting a much-needed dose of street reality into a family-friendly league. That will be his real legacy when all else is forgotten—defiance of the norm that can never be swept away.