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.”
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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.