WASHINGTON — Allen Iverson was as real as you come across from professional athletes. Iverson announced his retirement Thursday and there was plenty of talk about what he’ll be remembered for and what his legacy might be, or if he’s a Hall of Famer.
I was nine-years-old the first time I saw Iverson in that gray Georgetown uniform, before the cornrows, the tattoos or his famous rant about ‘practice’. What I remember fondly was a guy who wore every game on his sleeve and truly loved the game of basketball. Iverson was the No. 1 pick in the 1996 NBA Draft and I immediately became a Philadelphia 76ers fan.
Right off the bat, Iverson made it clear he was ready to play on another level by winning Rookie of the Year honors by averaging 23 points and seven assists per game. He even had a chance to go one-on-one against Michael Jordan. Jordan became one of the first victims of Iverson’s patented crossover dribble.
The 2000-01 season was Iverson’s finest hour. He led Philadelphia to 10 straight wins to start the season and a spirited run to the NBA Finals and a regular season MVP award. The Sixers beat the Toronto Raptors - led by Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady and the Milwaukee Bucks - led by Sam Cassell, Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson on its way to the Eastern Conference Championship.Game after game in the 2001 playoffs, ‘The Answer’ wouldn’t be denied and the world marveled at his ability to score in so many different ways. Iverson scored 44 in the deciding Game 7 in front of his home crowd to put away Milwaukee, but his greatest performance was on the horizon.
No one gave Philadelphia a chance to upset the defending champion Lakers, but in Game 1 Iverson put on one of the greatest single-game performances in Finals history. Iverson’s 48 points led the Sixers to an overtime victory and shocked the basketball world. The defining moment of the night, and possibly the Finals was Iverson’s step back corner jumper over Laker defender Tyronn Lue, who was placed on the Los Angeles playoff roster for the possibility to cover Iverson in the Finals.
After knocking down the jumper in front of the Laker bench and legendary coach Phil Jackson, Iverson stepped over Lue, who had fallen down trying to block the shot and Iverson stared down Lue to let him know he had no shot at guarding the MVP. It was a moment frozen in time that was pure Iverson.
At his best, he was cocky, egotistical, explosive and unpredictable, but he was always 100 percent real. The Sixers lost the series in five games and Iverson would never reach another NBA Finals, but the message was sent to the rest of the basketball world that he was a force to be reckoned with.
Iverson was the most polarizing player I can remember in the NBA – even more than LeBron James. Iverson’s cornrows, tattoos from head to toe and baggy clothes forced NBA Commissioner David Stern to implement a league wide dress code. His tenuous relationship with coach Larry Brown made for plenty of front page headlines, but also highlighted one of Iverson’s many flaws – he wasn’t a very good teammate.
The Iverson-era Sixers’ offensive game plan was give ‘The Answer’ the ball and get out of the way. In today’s efficient NBA game, there would be no place for Iverson’s terrible 40 percent shooting night-after-night. Carmelo Anthony is criticized for shooting too much and he hovers around 45 percent.
What I’ll remember and everyone should is the 2001 playoff run to the Finals. He was unlike any player we have ever seen. He was himself whether you loved him or hated him, but how could you hate a player who consistently gave everything he had every single night on the court. He’s arguably the best ‘small’ player of all time and no one did more with such a slight frame.
A common joke during Iverson’s playing days was that he weighed 160 pounds soaking wet.
Yet, despite such size and weight disadvantage, he averaged 26.6 points per game for his career, which is good for sixth all time to go along with four scoring titles. Unfortunately, Iverson’s legacy will be his infamous ‘talkin’ about practice’ rant, where he implored the reporters in attendance that it made no sense for anyone to have an issue with him missing practice.
Throughout the entire press conference, Iverson was himself - unabashed and up front. Iverson had no filter and he didn’t care what you thought about him. Allen Iverson’s don’t grow on trees, and that’s the real shame. I’d give anything to watch "The Answer" just one more time.