What Allen Iverson Really Meant To Us

April 4, 2016, is a day that that I will never forget and one that holds incredible significance to my sports fandom. On that night, my favorite college basketball team won the National Championship. Earlier in the day my favorite athlete of all-time, Allen Iverson, got his call to the Hall of Fame.

For Iverson, and for his fans, it was a moment of vindication. After a rollercoaster ride of a career, one with Everest-like highs and Mariana Trench-like lows, Iverson would take his place amongst the best to ever play the game of basketball. Iverson’s journey, from the breathtaking and exhilarating plays to the clashes with coach Larry Brown, from the accolades to the off-the-court troubles, from the iconic moments to the unceremonious end to his career, would officially culminate with the highest honor that can bestowed upon an athlete.

If ever there was an athlete perfectly bred for Philadelphia, it was Allen Iverson. Here was this 6-foot guy dominating in a game of giants. One tenacious drive to the basket would end with a frightening fall to the floor, and on the next possession there he would go again, right back to the spot where most of us would still be writhing in pain, daring the defense to stop him. As brilliant as his play was, his heart, tenacity, toughness, and passion endeared him to his fans just as much as the crossovers, the buckets, and the out-of-nowhere dunks.

Of the many moments that A.I. produced in his career, whether it be crossing up His Airness or stepping over Lue, one less noticed moment sticks out in my mind that epitomizes Iverson and his career. It was a mid-season game in Miami, and Iverson was dribbling at the top of the key. The Miami defender took a swipe at the ball and raked Iverson across the face, causing him to stumble backwards. The whistle remained silent, and Iverson took a moment to stare daggers at the closest official with a clear expression of “What the f*** you looking at?” in his scowl. Iverson managed to maintain his dribble through this sequence, gave a little nod, took a few dribbles forward and then drained a pull-up three. The look Iverson gave the defender and the official after the bucket was priceless. He would get the job done regardless of outside circumstances.

It wasn’t always easy being an Allen Iverson fan. I’ve had countless arguments with people who had a laundry list of gripes against Iverson: “He doesn’t practice,” “he shoots too much,” “he doesn’t take care of his body,” “he’s too arrogant,” and “he gets in trouble off the court.” Time and again I would defend him, arguing he shoots so much because he has to, the practice thing is blown out of proportion, his off-the-court issues are simply growing pains, and that his “arrogance” was simply misunderstood, all the while secretly wondering if any or all of these issues would derail the career of this little ball of energy who had captivated my attention and adoration.

With every report of him missing a practice or a friend being pulled over in his car with contraband, a knot would develop in my gut, knowing it would just be more fuel for the critics and wondering if this would be the incident that convinced my beloved Sixers to part ways with Iverson, or worse, end his career altogether. But through it all, Iverson just kept plugging along. He kept scoring, he kept making fools out of defenders, and he kept standing there in the spotlight defiantly, warts and all, basically saying “this is me. Take it or leave it.”

Iverson’s cultural impact off and on the court is unquestioned, and has been discussed at length. As epic as those contributions are, they still remain only part of his story. There are lessons to be gleaned about realness and being true to oneself. There are lessons you can take to heart as we live in an increasingly whitewashed society where social media allows us all to present hand-picked versions of ourselves to the world and dissent is shouted down from anonymous know-it-alls. And there are lessons about toughness and perseverance and overcoming great odds.

Iverson has spent a lifetime overcoming. He overcame the poverty of his youth and the affront to justice that landed him in jail in 1993. He overcame being only six feet tall to dominate a world of bruising forwards and centers. He overcame missteps, mistakes, and growing pains to define basketball for a generation of fans. Whenever any of us are feeling overwhelmed or defeated, we can look at A.I.'s life and career and be reminded that any obstacle can be defeated.

Iverson was not Michael Jordan. He was not Derek Jeter. In an era of clean-cut athletes with carefully manicured brand strategies, he was none of that. He was Allen Iverson. He was brash, he was arrogant, and he was honest. He was real. And he showed the world that it was OK to be different and it was OK to be yourself, even when that meant being imperfect.

Above all, Iverson was human. Even as he dazzled us on the basketball court, we could relate to him. He had thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears. He made mistakes, and he tried to learn from them. We got to watch him grow up, from an immature kid from Georgetown to the man who will accept his place in basketball history tonight.

While most of us will never possess his athletic ability or the money he’s earned, his size, his willingness to be himself at all times, and the fact that he basically willed himself to become what he did through toughness and tenacity made us all feel like we could have a little Iverson in us. It made him feel more “ours” and it made the things we could take from his career feel more tangible and true. The fact that he wasn't perfect made him even more perfect for us.

It was a delight to watch Allen Iverson play basketball every night. Watching his journey unfold was fascinating, and it is a privilege to have been so close to it all. He was a special basketball player and is a special person. We will never see another one like him on the court, and I don’t know that we will ever see another fan/athlete relationship like the one Iverson has with his fans, particularly in Philadelphia. Iverson is larger than life, and it is rare to have an athlete who meant so much to so many people on the court, but also so much to them off of it.

It will be an honor to watch him take his place in the Hall of Fame and to listen to his words as his basketball career finally reaches the pinnacle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *