For 14 years, Allen Iverson has shocked, awed, and confounded NBA fans. As he faces the twilight of his career, what will the Answer’s legacy be?
Birmingham, Alabama offers few temptations. By dusk downtown is a quiet collection of shuttered buildings and lifeless streets. An enterprising delinquent could investigate the car wash that doubles as a “private club” or indulge in the local literary scene at Alabama Adult Books, but Birmingham is a fairly sleepy place. This could be one reason the Memphis Grizzlies chose the midsize Southern city as the location for their 2009 training camp: There’s not much mischief for the team’s newest player—and easily its most infamous—to get into. But Allen Iverson isn’t looking for trouble.
It’s the evening after his first practice with his new team, and Iverson has retreated to his room at the Hyatt. Draped in an oversize team T-shirt and gym shorts, the 34-year-old icon perches his narrow six-foot frame (closer to 5'11" up close) on his bed beside a half-eaten container of takeout food and an empty bag of Doritos. His trademark cornrows—cut last season in a possible bout of existential confusion—have grown back. Despite the day’s activity, basketball is not on his mind. “I swear I would never want to meet Michael Jackson,” Iverson tells a handful of friends sprawled on the carpet. They’ve flipped to a CNN special about the deceased singer, who also happens to be Iverson’s favorite artist of all time. “Fuck around and faint or something, the way I feel about him,” Iverson chuckles in his gravelly voice. “Soon as you see Mike, next thing you know, you wake up and you’re in the fucking hospital.” It’s a moment of comic vulnerability from a man known for Napoleonic bravado, but perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he sees something special in an eccentric talent who inspired both love and loathing. Maybe Iverson recognizes that some people deserve to be appreciated while they’re still with us.
At this point it’s difficult to know whether to speak of Allen Iverson in present or past tense. Despite owning the fifth-highest scoring average in NBA history and having reshaped the sport of basketball in his own tattooed, baggy-denim-clad image, he has almost become an anachronism. The 50-point games with adrenal moments where he cupped his hand around his ear and reveled in the roar of the crowd, the acrobatic drives where he levitated to the hoop by sheer force of will, they are glories of the past. Even Iverson grudgingly acknowledges that he has lost a step. The question now may not be whether he remains an unstoppable force capable of turning defenders into leaden sculptures, but whether one of the most important athletes of our lifetime still matters at all.
To the trained sports fan, he does. In his recent Book of Basketball, ESPN columnist Bill Simmons describes Iverson as “one of the all-time athletic superfreaks,” who for most of his 20s was “the Association’s single most menacing player.” Beyond Iverson’s on-court dominance, however, Simmons notes what may be the bigger story, Iverson’s cultural impact, calling him “one of the most influential African-American athletes ever, a trendsetter who shoved the NBA into the hip-hop era and resonated with blacks in a way that even Jordan couldn’t duplicate.” To those too young to have seen him in his prime, too old ever to have understood him, or too threatened by his appearance and his checkered past to see beyond them, Iverson is nothing more than an afterthought, one of a handful of players who held things down between the age of MJ and the rise of King James. What they don’t realize is that without Iverson, there might be no LeBron. Without Iverson, a generation of fans might have walked away from the game they loved. He brought the style and swagger of the streets to the NBA, along with a sense that the miraculous could happen—the little man could be the victor.
Following a brilliant, decade-long tenure with the Philadelphia 76ers and a pair of respectable years on the Denver Nuggets, things went shockingly awry for Iverson when he was traded to the Detroit Pistons early last season. While the Nuggets surged to the Western Conference finals, the Pistons, a perennial powerhouse, spiraled into mediocrity and dysfunction. After posting career lows in several categories, Iverson was removed from the starting lineup for the first time ever. Citing a back injury that many in the media believed was imaginary, he spent the end of the season on injured reserve. Criticism came from all corners, and it cut deep. Iverson’s legacy, leadership, and heart were questioned. “He’s holding this team hostage because he cannot accept the responsibility of coming off the bench,” said former All-Star Reggie Miller during a TNT broad-cast. Even after four scoring titles, 10 All-Star Game appearances, and a league MVP award, every slight that had ever been cast his way was, to many, finally given credence. He was egotistical. Undisciplined. A loser. “I felt like I was going to be used as a scapegoat,” Iverson says. “It opened up an opportunity for people to throw all the bricks at me. Look at my whole résumé, my scoring and all that. You predicate my whole career on last year?” Unfortunately for him, some of the people who reached that conclusion were also the men who cut checks.
The summer of 2009 was Iverson’s first opportunity to test the market as a free agent, but by the end of August he was one of the few remaining players without a team. “He’s used to being a marquee player,” says the GM of an Eastern Conference franchise who passed on Iverson’s services. “If you have a younger team, he may win you a few more games, but he’s not going to do a lot to develop other players.” On September 10, Iverson settled for a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the lowly Memphis Grizzlies, a salary that constituted a serious pay cut from his previous $22 million-per-year contract. Two months later—after Iverson had seen limited time in just three games and retreated to his home in Atlanta for “personal reasons”—the team terminated his contract. After a career of glory, controversy, and seismic cultural impact, is this how things end for the Answer—in basketball purgatory?
Players like Jordan and Kobe dominated due to superb athleticism, technique, and guile, but only a handful of superstars in the modern era have been so physically unique that stopping them with one defender was impossible. LeBron has a guard’s agility and a power forward’s frame. Shaq is a glacier in human form. And A.I. is a bullet.
Continue to Part II