The NBA I Grew Up Watching: Allen Iverson vs. Everybody

Have you ever seen something so audacious and disrespectful in your life?

It wasn’t enough for Philadelphia 76ers superstar guard Allen Iverson to cook Los Angeles Lakers reserve Tyronn Lue with a filthy crossover and stepback plus the score. He decided that he was going to snatch Lue’s soul in front of the Lakers’ bench and in front of the millions at home who were watching Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals.

He stepped over Lue like he was trash.

So nasty. So rude. Yet, the moment was fitting.

That move epitomized the essence of who Allen Iverson was as a player. He didn’t give a damn who you were and what you’ve done. He was going to go at you and do it his way. And to hell with the critics or even the consequences.

None of it mattered because “The Answer” never changed, even if the questions around and about him did. He never bent. Never folded. At times, Iverson was more than willing to be controversial on and off the court.

But he was also brave enough to be unapologetic about who he was as a player and who he is as a man.

At a time when the NBA was looking for the next “face of the league”, Iverson could have conformed. It would have been very convenient for him to attempt to be the league’s “next”. But he bet on himself by being himself.

His authenticity might have made Iverson a polarizing figure to some. But it also made him beloved by many, including myself.

BALLIN HIS WAY

In this game, I believe that there are two types of people. Either you are a basketball player or you’re a hooper.

The basketball player plays the game. They play the game for various reasons, spanning from the love of the game to only loving what the game brings.

The hooper, on the other hand, runs the game. They dictate pace, movement and style. Hell, the hooper is the one who made basketball cool and is the reason why many basketball players picked up the sport in the first place.

The hooper and the culture that surrounds him or her also drives so much of the interest to the sport—providing all of those amazing highlights that casuals and die-hard fans alike consume while the media uses it for click inducing-content.

The basketball player’s instincts are more manufactured. They process system after system and react accordingly. A hooper’s instinct is more organic and “natural”. After “checking” up at the top of the key, the plays just unfold. And when they do, it’s poetic as well as dynamic.

The basketball players may have the corporate trappings and the glamour, but the soul, grit and passion of the game resides with the hooper.

To me, Iverson was a hooper moonlighting as a basketball player.

I’ve been a basketball player and a hooper. I’ve played organized ball in high school and AAU. And I hooped, playing pickup with the boys on my block and other blocks. The hooper in me enjoyed Iverson making the NBA his personal 30-city playground during his MVP season in 2001. He led Philadelphia to an Eastern Conference-best 56-26 record and averaged 31 points per game.

He spoiled the Lakers’ perfect postseason run by hooping:

But it wasn’t what he did that was the most impressive to me. It was how he did it.

At 6’0″ and 165, Iverson became the smallest and lightest player to win MVP. With his brand of iso ball, devastating crossovers and crafty finishes to the paint, Iverson put the Sixers on his back and led them to their first Finals in 18 years.

Watching him cross up the entire NBA was so fun, even if his own coach didn’t think so at times.

THE LARRY BROWN DYNAMIC

The contentious relationship between Iverson and then-Sixers coach Larry Brown was common knowledge. Quite frankly, they got on each other’s damn nerves. Brown was an old school coach to his core and didn’t care for Iverson’s edgy, hip-hop lifestyle or his defiance.

Iverson thought that Brown didn’t get him and was too rigid.

Back then, I thought that Brown was just another critic in a long line of them—that he needed to let Iverson be himself on and off the court.

Now, I wonder ‘what if’, and I wonder that for both men.

What if Iverson made more of an effort to ‘buy in’ to Brown’s principles and philosophy? Had he leaned in more during the seven years they were together, the trajectory of Iverson’s career might have been even better (and longer).

Maybe he would have earned another trip to the Finals and won. He might not have been dealt to Denver, Detroit, Memphis and (briefly) back to Philly to end his career at just 34-years old.

With Brown, I wonder: What if he took the time to better understand and connect with his star player? Instead of grumbling about why Iverson operated the way he did on and off the court, what if Brown tried to understand and relate to him?

What if he appreciated Iverson then the way he seems to now?

By no means am I saying that Brown should have coddled Iverson.

Legendary former Georgetown coach John Thompson managed to get through to Iverson and lead him. Why? Because Thompson took time to understand his star guard and his environment. That opened the door for him to be tough on Iverson when needed and for the latter to be more receptive to it.

Had Brown made a conscious effort to try and relate to Iverson, their on and off-court relationship might have been better. Iverson might have bought into Brown’s system and he wouldn’t have been so defiant. That would have built more trust, which would have built more buy-in and so on…

Brown probably would have stayed in Philly with Iverson, and the Sixers could have been a consistent contender.

Ironically, Iverson, for all of his unapologetic swagger, had one regret in his career. That regret was not listening to Brown more.

THE DON OF DRIP

Pregame in today’s NBA is a fashion show.

En-route to the locker room, players enjoy showing off their latest tats, chain and kicks. Some of them come to the arena rocking ripped jeans and tees and whatever they feel like wearing on that particular game day.

They are all doing it for the ‘gram and trying to get a “fit” off. Today’s league doesn’t seem to have a problem with it. In a way, today’s players have Iverson to thank for it.

The NBA implemented the dress code in 2005. Back then, Iverson felt the league was targeting him and people who dressed similarly.

Iverson wore his du-rags underneath his caps, along with chains and baggy clothes. It was apparently a problem to the point of former commissioner David Stern implementing that dress code. I, too, thought he was being targeted as usual. Wanting to make Iverson and others conform.

Fast forward to Adam Silver’s NBA where expression is encouraged. Players are wearing whatever they want, but Iverson was picked on for his expression. If Iverson ever had a ‘get off of my lawn’ moment, it is the criticism of the player’s fashions of today:

“And you see these dudes. The s__ that they w (ear). And to each his own. To each his own. I ain’t knocking nobody. I don’t want nobody to be taking shots at me. But that’s what the dress code’s supposed to be implemented now. This is Halloween every night. It’s the 31st of October every night.”

Given Iverson’s past, it sounds a bit hypocritical. However, it’s not like he lied. Chains and du-rags at the podium are one thing. Cowsuits, crazy patterns and housecoats are something a bit different.

During his career, Allen Iverson was considered to be a rebel and selfish among other things. But when I think of Iverson, I remember a player who had just as much heart as he had swagger.

He is also a man secure enough in his own skin to celebrate the players of today without feeling the need to bash them at every turn. (That’s pretty rare among the old guard players who seemingly find it so difficult to celebrate their successors.)

Most people think they have the answers about “The Answer”, but time has a way of changing the questions.

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