Many will remember Allen Iverson as one of the lost ones. A phenomenal talent who retired with a future unlived. His legacy was tainted by the inability to change his game and his brand of "hero ball," which was scintillating and frustrating in equal parts.
But I implore you to remember Iverson at his best. His problem was never about effort, but that he only knew one way to win. He always left everything on the court, and he won the respect of basketball fans around the world with his fearlessness.
He was an ambassador of the game—one who David Stern did not approve of—and while he had his problems (e.g. his controversial rap album and objections to the NBA dress code), his significance to the NBA is often overlooked.
Michael Jordan made the sport a global game, but the transition from Jordan’s second retirement to where we are today was a little scary for the NBA.
The void left by Jordan’s absence was cavernous, and the following lockout-shortened season did nothing to reassure the NBA bigwigs that the game would continue to grow as it did under Jordan’s reign. His style of play, good looks, charisma and flair for the dramatic on the court made MJ a natural poster boy, and his departure had left the league without a face.
There are many stars that were important in maintaining the NBA’s burgeoning global reputation. Many of them are nearing the end of their careers (Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett) if they aren’t already on television (Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Chris Webber).
One name that has fallen through the cracks is Allen Iverson.
Ironically, he may be the one who was most responsible for carrying the league.
He had an iconic playing style with an essence that can only be imitated—but never captured. He was unique off the court as well, always willing to speak his mind, which resulted in some memorable quotes.
His prolific scoring and ability to break defenders down off the dribble captivated the imagination. A 6’0”, 165-pound guard shouldn’t have been able to relentlessly attack the paint and repeatedly take the punishment that he did—but he kept getting back up.
Iverson represented the underdog. As a standout high school athlete in basketball and football, he had to overcome legal issues to even get to Georgetown. His award-filled collegiate career led the Philadelphia 76ers to make him the shortest first-overall draft pick ever.
His short stature was by no means a reflection of his competitive fire. "The Answer" had no quit in him, and that quality was never on display more than in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals.
Iverson was the league MVP, and he carried the Sixers all the way to a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers on basketball’s biggest stage. The series pitted Allen Iverson against Shaquille O’Neal, in what was truly a battle of David versus Goliath.
The defending champions had strolled their way into the finals by sweeping the Portland Trailblazers, Sacramento Kings and the No. 1-seeded San Antonio Spurs. The Philadelphia 76ers, on the other hand, were coming off back-to-back seven-game series, and nobody was expecting the series to be more than a speed bump to the Lakers.
Nobody except Allen Iverson that is.
He was all over the court in his 52 minutes of playing time, dropping 48 points on the Staples Center crowd and recording five boards, six assists and five steals. Iverson’s heroics pushed the game into overtime, which was a shock in itself.
But he wasn’t done.
He scored seven straight points in the extra period to give the Sixers the lead for good. It was the only playoff loss that the Lakers suffered that year, and it was Iverson’s crowning moment.
On that night, he loaded the weight of the 76ers on his shoulders and carried them to victory. On that night, he was everything that he was supposed to be. On that night, he was the people’s champion.
That’s how he should be remembered.
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