The one time Allen Iverson absolutely beat Michael Jordan took place on March 12, 1997. You can just call it The Crossover. Two crossovers, actually, both left to right—the first to see whether he’d bite, the second to create space for the shot. Iverson would finish the game with 37 points to Jordan’s 23. The Bulls won the game 108-104—at 55-8, they were on their way to their second-straight title, and at 16-46 the Sixers were on their way back to the lottery—but Iverson won the battle that everyone remembers.
Now, 22 years later, Iverson and Jordan are on the same rarefied plane—iconic Hall of Famers and undisputed legends of the game. The current NBA is full of guys who grew up worshipping both Jordan and Iverson—the guy who wears No. 23 for the Lakers, for starters. But while Jordan represented an unattainable ideal, Iverson was the people’s champ. He was just so much more accessible, and not just in the sense that you could catch him at TGI Friday’s on the Main Line on any given night.
Jordan was damn near everyone’s hero growing up—well, unless you were a Knicks or Pistons fan—and attained god status before he ever won a title. He also enjoyed the benefits of a career played before social media and the 24/7 news cycle ensured that every last detail of his life would be strip-mined for content. His image was built through Nike commercials, All-Star appearances, and fawning Sports Illustrated features. By the time anyone wrote anything critical about him—Sam Smith, with his 1992 book The Jordan Rules, was one of the first—he was already a two-time champion and one of the most beloved people on earth. As for hardships, there weren’t many. The best-known motivational story of Jordan’s youth—one referenced often—was failing to make the varsity squad as a sophomore. Has anyone ever even paused to think how insane, how psychotic, you’d have to be to let something like that drive you for decades?
As for Iverson, he didn’t need to build molehills into mountains to find motivation. He was born to a single, 15-year-old mother, grew up in poverty, and was arrested at 17 following a brawl in a bowling alley. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and wound up serving four months before he was granted clemency by the governor of Virginia. Only then did he get to play his senior season of high school. And, with all other college offers withdrawn, despite being Virginia’s Player of the Year in both basketball and football, he found a home with John Thompson at Georgetown. The first Hoya to leave school early, he was drafted first overall in 1996. Even Jordan didn’t achieve that.
Iverson joined an NBA where Jordan was the undisputed king, one who ruled by equal parts on-court dominance and withering trash talk. The first time Iverson met his childhood hero, Jordan called him a “little bitch.” But Iverson wasn’t fazed. Not on the court, anyway. After all, what had Jordan ever endured that Iverson hadn’t? In their first game, Iverson’s second NBA game ever, Iverson scored 15 to Jordan’s 27. In their second, a little over a month later, Iverson had 32 to Jordan’s 31. In their third, well, we talked about that one already: The first little crossover to see whether he would bite, the second to make the move. Buckets.
Iverson? He was flawed from the start, and instead of fighting his flaws, he embraced them.
After that second game, Jordan had this to say about Iverson: "At one point, I mentioned to him that he was going to have to respect us,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “If you don't respect anybody else in this league, you have to respect us. He said he doesn't have to respect anybody." Which was kind of similar to another quote about another brash rookie that ran in the Chicago Tribune a little more than a decade earlier, following the 1985 NBA All-Star Game: “Michael is a rookie and he has to learn,” said George Gervin, “just like we all did.”
As rookies, Jordan and Iverson had a lot in common. They were score-first guards who put up gaudy numbers for bad teams who had the utmost faith in their own abilities and quickly became fan favorites. Each won Rookie of the Year, clashed with coaches, and would go on to win scoring titles, plural.
But Iverson came up in a world that Jordan had made. And while Jordan enjoyed privileges that few others had—private dressing areas in trainers’ rooms, strictly monitored media sessions, and, apparently, according to Iverson, the freedom to smoke cigars in coaches’ offices during All-Star weekend—Iverson was tasked with living up to those standards despite not being blessed with any of Jordan’s advantages. For Iverson, just surviving his childhood—let alone becoming the No. 1 overall pick and a Basketball Hall of Famer—was a more unlikely success story than anything Jordan accomplished. Focus on his shooting percentages or his turnovers or his lack of championships and you’re missing the entire point.
And through it all, Iverson remained true to himself, whatever the cost. He wore throwbacks on the bench, got his hair braided, filled his arms with tattoos when that was something that NBA players outside of Dennis Rodman just didn’t do. “For me, my main legacy,” he wrote in that Players’ Tribune piece earlier this month, “the one that I’m most proud of? It’s how I flipped people’s perceptions of what a young, rich, black athlete had to be like in order to find success in this game.” As for how successful he was, just look at the NBA now. Allen Iverson helped build that.
At the same time, Iverson was always an approachable superstar, and not just at Friday's. The very first time I met him, during his rookie season, I handed him the first issue of Slam he appeared on as a pro—”Who’s Afraid of Allen Iverson?” was the rhetorical question on the cover—and he responded by giving me a hug right there in the locker room. He was an otherworldly talent on the court, yes, but the realest of people off of it. There was no pretense and no filter. The first time I actually interviewed him, back in 1998, he said that if he could be any other NBA player, it would be Latrell Sprewell—who at the time was still suspended for choking then-Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo. Sure, Iverson may have been an hour or eight late to a photo shoot once in a while, but he was always worth waiting for. Still is.
Meanwhile, Michael Jordan was everyone’s hero, but one you never got to have a real moment with. Everything felt scripted, every question seemed like it had been answered before. You didn’t get to Jordan without going through countless gatekeepers, and you hardly ever got to talk to him one on one. Jordan became a god, yes, but at a cost. You certainly weren’t going to run into him at the local TGI Friday’s, or even at the club unless the VIP section had a VIP section (or it was a club of his own). He remains on that pedestal today, and damn, it must be a lonely place sometimes. Although he’ll always manage to find places that let him smoke cigars.
Iverson? He was flawed from the start, and instead of fighting his flaws, he embraced them. He was one of us, one of everyone, not necessarily someone to emulate in every way, but someone who by making it by being himself convinced a whole new generation of kids that they could make it by being themselves, too. Which, as it turns out, was far more valuable (and realistic) advice than Be Like Mike. All Allen Iverson ever wanted you to do was be yourself. And anybody can do that. Anybody at all.