When Allen Iverson officially announces his retirement from the NBA, it’ll be the end of an era that really ended more than six years ago. It’ll also be the beginning of a life that Iverson has been trying desperately to evade for the past six years. The tales of partying, womanizing, gambling, fighting, heavy drinking and lawsuits will, unfortunately, always follow him.
Those tales will be intertwined with tales of a player who blazed up and down the court every night. A player who wasn’t happy if he spent more than four minutes on the bench in any given game. He was a spark-plug who never saw a shot he didn’t like and was never afraid to take the ball to the rim no matter who was waiting to slam him to the ground. He was the fastest and most exciting player some had ever seen. To others, he was everything wrong with the NBA.
He energized a stagnant fan-base in Philadelphia when he dragged a once proud franchise out of the basement with every bit of strength he had in his 165 pound body. By the end, in 2006, his exit was welcomed by fans, teammates, coaches and management alike. Four years later he returned the prodigal son, welcomed back with open arms by the city that could be so unsure of him at times. To have watched Allen Iverson do his job and live his life was to watch chaos, and most often that chaos resulted in something worth talking about.
Allen Iverson came to the Sixers as the first overall pick in the 1996 draft. He was twenty years old. The Sixers, a once proud franchise, had become the laughingstock of the Eastern Conference. Charles Barkley, Dr. J and Mo Cheeks were replaced with Richard Dumas, Sharon Wright and Shawn Bradley. Ownership was inept, the coaching job became a carousel and the fans weren’t coming. Pat Croce led a group that bought the team and they tapped Iverson as the face of the resurgence. It was a role he was born for. He thrived in Philadelphia, winning the 96-97 Rookie of the Year Award.He crossed-over Michael Jordan, became a threat to score forty points every night, proving along the way that he was willing to be “The Answer”.
Reebok gave him a logo and used him to challenge Nike’s dominance of the shoe market. The company chose his shoes when it debuted its new “DMX” comfort system. At one point they even marketed AI stocking caps. Rappers started wearing Sixers jerseys adorned with the number “3” in videos. The organization brought in Larry Brown to teach the young star. They ditched the traditional red, white and blue colors and created a new image around Iverson. Allen wore his hair in braids, and slowly covered every inch of skin with tattoos. Michael Jordan was gone, now it was Allen Iverson’s NBA, fuck you if you weren’t ready.
He released a terrible rap album under the moniker “Jewelz”. White America was ready to say “enough”. They had put up with the tattoos, the slang and the sideways baseball caps. They dealt with the constant tension between him and his coach. They pretended to be ok with his mother Ann’s visibility at games. Now he had crossed lines. The single “40 Bars” was dubbed “too real”. It was also alleged that the yet-to-be released album contained homophobic lyrics as well. Iverson faced deserved criticism both locally and nationally. No longer willing to deal with the headache the Sixers agreed in principle to a deal that would send Iverson to the Detroit Pistons only to see the deal fall through thanks to Matt Geiger’s trade kicker.
Iverson responded the only way he knew how. He faced the controversy head-on. He met with NBA Commissioner David Stern and agreed not to release the album. He then turned his focus to his team and coach. After patching things up with Brown he led the Sixers to the 2001 NBA Finals. Along the way, he won his second scoring title and was named MVP of both the All-Star game and the NBA that season. The Sixers lost to the Lakers in the Finals, but not for a lack of trying on Iverson’s part. Playing through bursitis, and a host of other ailments, Iverson fought valiantly, and though overmatched, he provided one of the NBA’s most iconic images as he left Tyronn Lue in his dirt just as he had with those who had dogged him many times before. He cemented his place in Philadelphia’s sports legacy and turned doubters into his adoring public ready to jump to its feet at the sight of him running around the arena, his hand cupping his ear.
The next season brought more tension. The team had maxed out and was on the way down. Dogs like Matt Harpering became his supporting cast and he and Larry Brown went back to feuding. He asked the media “how the hell am I supposed to make my teammates better by practice?” at a post-season press conference which would go down in infamy.
The summer of 2002 became a crazy one for Iverson. Did he throw his wife out of the house naked? Did he show up at her cousin’s apartment armed? We’ll never know, but the local media camped out in front of his Gladwyn home trying to find out. Iverson turned himself in to police and faced six counts including charges of aggravated assault and making terroristic threats all of which were later dropped.
The next season was Brown’s last in Philadelphia. For all of their constant fighting, Iverson knew he needed Brown and was lost without his coach. He fought through coaches Randy Ayers, Chris Ford and Jim O’Brien. The team continued its decline.
Ownership attempted to repair the team by bringing in former assistant Mo Cheeks, a man with whom AI had worked closely with early on in his career. They brought in Chris Webber in order to try and give Allen the support he needed on the court. Webber, however, didn’t care anymore. After both showed up late to the arena on fan appreciation night, GM Billy King declared that he had had “enough of this bullshit”. After being kicked out of practice by Cheeks in December of 2006, Iverson was sent to Denver in a mid-season trade.
From Denver, to Detroit to Memphis, Iverson bounced around. Not content being a bench player he left the Grizzlies and returned to Philadelphia. When he took the court for his first game back he ran to center court, knelt down and kissed the logo on the floor. The reunion was to be short-lived. Iverson left after twenty-six games to be with his ailing daughter. He tried to play overseas in Turkey before returning to the US for one more shot at the NBA, but to no avail. The league had moved on. It was Lebron’s NBA, the league no longer had any use for scrappy underdogs, especially those who were on the wrong side of thirty-five. Flashy guards and brusing but skilled forwards were the new guard. Christ, even Tim Duncan had a tattoo now. Allen was no longer an attraction, he was a cautionary tale.
Rumors followed that his life was in shambles. He was headed for divorce, and it was said that he was broke after years of lavish spending, excessive gambling and drinking heavily on a regular basis to cope. People close to him worried about his physical and mental health. He was lost without the game.
The NBA’s most exciting player was its most controversial, and surely its most frustrating at times. He was the NBA in the early 2000’s. He was the little guy on the court with the sleeve, the tats and the cornrows wowing fans and terrorizing opponents.
Now it’s 2013 and one would hope that with his upcoming announcement he has found some closure and is ready to move on. Is it possible that he has come to terms with who he was and where he is going next?
When he returned to the Wachovia Center for the first time as a member of the Denver Nuggets during the 2007-08 season the sellout crowd jumped to its feet to greet him, roaring as he blew kisses and waved. As he cupped his hand to his ear it was apparent that even in another uniform, Allen Ezail Iverson would always own that building and his public would somehow always endure for him. Will he endure for us?