Allen Iverson entered the NBA as the No. 1 overall pick in 1996 and, 20 years later, was inducted into the Hall of Fame. In his 14 NBA seasons he was an 11-time All-Star, a four-time scoring leader, a three-time All-NBA first-teamer, and the 2001 NBA MVP. More than that, he was a cultural icon and an incredibly polarizing figure—to some, he represented everything that was wrong with the NBA, to others he represented a much-needed generational shift. He was the NBA’s Tupac Shakur, whose debut came just two months after Shakur himself passed away at 25. Like Pac, Iverson was a product of his time—one whose rise to prominence both defined it and was defined by it. He was great, but an all-time great? Perhaps not.
About the “all-time” thing: this allows for a fairly narrow definition, being that an all-timer would be a superstar in any era. It’s a definition that encompasses most Hall of Famers, from Shaquille O’Neal to Michael Jordan to Wilt Chamberlain to Larry Bird. Their skill sets were such that, transplanted to any time, they would have been amongst the best players in the game. They would have won championships and MVPs, had teams built around them. Iverson, to me anyway, belongs to a different group. This is not meant to belittle either his greatness or his Hall of Fame spot, both hard-earned. But it’s difficult to imagine Allen Iverson becoming ALLEN IVERSON during any other era.
Iverson made the Hall of Fame. But if he had to do it all over again, if Allen Iverson was drafted in 2016 rather than 1996, would he wind up being the same player? It’s hard to imagine.
Iverson grew up in poverty, son of a teenage single mother. He excelled in both basketball and football—was the Virginia player of the year in both as a junior—only to see all of his scholarship offers evaporate when he was jailed for his role in a bowling alley brawl. Facing the prospect of a long prison term, his sentence was commuted, and thanks purely to his mom’s efforts, he wound up attending Georgetown, where he played for Hall of Fame coach John Thompson. Small and slight, Iverson dazzled with his speed and athleticism and court vision. He broke presses and threaded passes, dropped threes and dunked in traffic. He stayed just two years, and in 1996 became the first point guard selected first overall in the NBA Draft since Magic Johnson.
He joined a Philadelphia 76ers team that was still looking for an identity after trading Charles Barkley back in 1991. They had Jerry Stackhouse, drafted third overall out of North Carolina the previous year. While talented, Stackhouse wasn’t nearly the force of personality Barkley was. Love Philadelphia and Philadelphia will love you back, ferociously and unconditionally. Stackhouse, who’d spent all his life in North Carolina, had a dynamic game and a quietly Southern demeanor. Iverson, in turn, was everything Philadelphia was predisposed to love—a defiant, undersized underdog, one who had already faced down challenges and won, one who’d they’d soon discover was every bit as fiercely loyal as they were. It was the perfect match.
As a rookie, Iverson dazzled in much the same way he did at Georgetown, scoring 35 points in his very first game. He dropped 40-plus points in a rookie record five straight games including his first 50 spot. At home, against the mighty Bulls, he crossed over Michael Jordan—twice!—before burying a jumper. More importantly to his rapidly growing fan base, he earned the veteran Bulls ire by telling them he didn’t have to respect anybody. He was the Rookie of the Year.
But respect for him came slow. He didn’t make an All-Star team until 2000, by which time the Sixers’ patience with their star was wearing thin. Iverson played the game hard, but he insisted on playing it his way, which meant being disdainful of practices (and being on time) and taking shots that would have been impossible for other, lesser players. His quickness gave him paths to the basket where none would have existed, and he seemingly tried to exploit them all. Had the Sixers had their way, they would have dealt Iverson to Detroit that summer. But the deal fell apart, which meant Iverson and then-coach Larry Brown had to make the best of it.
The next season would be Iverson’s finest. Surrounded by complementary, defense-first players that allowed him to freelance at will, Iverson averaged a career-high 31.1 points and won his second scoring title, the first in a full 82-game season. He was voted an All-Star starter, and, after leading a fourth-quarter comeback, was named the game’s MVP. He led the Sixers to the best record in the East and was named MVP of the regular season as well. His Sixers stormed through the Eastern Conference playoffs to their first NBA Finals in nearly 20 years, where he dropped 48 in a Game 1 upset of the Los Angeles Lakers, their first—and, as it would turn out, only—loss of the postseason. He was at the top of his game, and had just turned 26 years old the day before Game 2. He’d only win one more playoff series.
Iverson’s career—the Hall-of-Fame meat of it, anyway—was bracketed by developments, one beneficial and one, had it come earlier, detrimental. The first involved the NBA’s physicality, and the degree to which it had become a literal game-deciding factor by the early ‘90s. Players were targeted (hello, Jordan Rules), entire games became plodding slugfests. The Pistons surrounded the sublime Isiah Thomas with goons, and rode their rugged play to a pair of championships. Rather than see their best players beaten to pulps—even Thomas himself needed a couple dozen stitches following a retaliatory Karl Malone elbow—the NBA chose to police things more carefully. Then, to open things up further, they eliminated hand checking in 1994. Speedy, fearless Allen Iverson joined an NBA that was being remade to fit his style.
His speed and athleticism and force of will alone would have made him a fan favorite and a regular NBA player. But the Hall of Fame? It seems unlikely.
The second development occurred as his career was coming to a close, bouncing from Denver to Detroit to Memphis and finally back to Philadelphia. Born out of baseball, analytics and advanced statistics found their way into basketball, as efficiency became increasingly important. Iverson was a lot of things, but efficient wasn’t one of them. He scored a lot of points yes, but he took a lot of shots to do so, shooting just 42.5 percent from the floor for his career. He wasn’t a great 3-point shooter either, topping out at 34.7 percent in ‘06-07 and finishing at 31.5 percent overall. These numbers, suddenly considered the important ones, did not reflect well on Iverson. And when Malcolm Gladwell reviewed Wages of Wins, basketball as viewed by stat-nerd economists, he focused on Iverson, the ultimate example of a star redefined by numbers:
“According to their analysis, Iverson’s finest season was in 2004-05, when he was worth ten wins, which made him the thirty-sixth-best player in the league.”
In the end, the nerds lost. Iverson made the Hall of Fame. But if he had to do it all over again, if Allen Iverson was drafted in 2016 rather than 1996, would he wind up being the same player? It’s hard to imagine, in the age of PER and Win Shares, a team turning the offense over to a 40 percent shooter, an undersized guard with an unreliable 3-point shot. His speed and athleticism and force of will alone would have made him a fan favorite and a regular NBA player. But the Hall of Fame? It seems unlikely. To be sure, though, I decided to ask another inductee.
Like Iverson, David Aldridge grew up in the DMV. He covered Georgetown basketball, among many other sports and leagues, before becoming primarily an NBA reporter in 1996. This year he was was one of the Hall of Fame’s two annual winners of the Curt Gowdy Award. “With small ball being dominant, he’d probably get more chances to stick around today,” Aldridge said. “That first step could still get him buckets at the rim and his ability to draw fouls would still be valuable, kind of like a quicker Jeff Teague type.”
Teague is nice, an All-Star even, but not exactly Hall of Fame material. A little later, Aldridge had another comparison. “Thought about it more and it's more a Monta Ellis-type game,” he said, “and he's bounced around.” Iverson did too, of course, but by then his legacy was set.
Iverson’s cultural timing was perfect too, of course. Jordan was a favorite player of the hip-hop generation, but he was never part of it. Iverson was the first player who hip-hop era kids could look at, with his chains and his tattoos and his cornrows, and say “Yes, he’s one of us.” He listened to the same music, wore the same clothes. Some of those same kids who wanted to be Jordan already WERE Iverson. He was slight and small and dynamic and defiant. And, when it mattered most, he arrived on time.