In a lot of ways, it was the perfect nickname for Allen Iverson. He wasn’t just the Answer for the Sixers, who took him with the first overall pick in 1996 to change the fortunes of a franchise in desperate need of saving. Iverson was that, yes; but he was something more. He was the Answer for the entire NBA, a league looking for an identity in the post-Magic, Bird and Michael era.
“I wanted to jump like Mike, I wanted to shoot like Bird, I wanted to be fast like Isiah, rebound like Barkley,” Iverson told ESPN during the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction show on Monday. “I honor and respect the guys before me because they gave me a vision.”
There are a lot of people who didn’t care much for that vision. Iverson, who is headed to the Hall along with Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming as players, was, to put it politely, an acquired taste in the NBA; something different than anyone had ever seen before. The cornrows, the tattoos, the headbands. If Iverson didn’t invent them he made them famous. Hell, David Stern put in a dress code because the league had developed a “thug” persona. Thank (or blame) Iverson for that.
Here, in Philly, Iverson was a hero. He was the Answer to saccharine press conferences and superstar athletes who would tell us one thing when we knew he meant something else. Iverson wasn’t boring. He wasn’t phony. He was real, take him or leave him.
In Philly, we took him, we loved him, we celebrated him. He was our MVP, or chance at an NBA title, an opportunity to be basketball relevant again.
Elsewhere, Iverson took a lot of the blame for an era of NBA culture nobody saw coming, and even fewer wanted.
“I wanted to be Mike, just like the commercials,” Iverson said. “I wanted to be just like Mike. I’m not 6’6”. I had to do it at a 6 foot frame, 165 pounds.”
On the court, Iverson was a miniature Jordan, but off the court, he wasn’t like that at all. Jordan was a corporate sponsor’s dream. Jordan didn’t share his personal thoughts because, as he famously put it, Republicans buy shoes too. Iverson was decidedly, purposefully not that. There was nothing corporate about him. He was a street kid, even after the millions; even after the shoe contracts. He may have wanted to be Jordan on the court, but he was nothing like him off it. And that made him who he was. That made him real.
That realness hasn’t waned. When ESPN’s Rece Davis said in their brief interview on Monday that Larry Brown was always hard on his point guards, Iverson smelled blood, firing back, “I wasn’t a point guard. I was a killer. I was a two guard.”
He was small like a point guard, but he certainly was a scorer first. And second. And third. From a basketball sense, Iverson was a bonafide killer. According to basketball-reference.com, he ranks seventh all time in NBA history in points per game (26.66 ppg), netting 24,368 career points, of which nearly 20,000 were dropped in a Sixers jersey.
He almost never came out of games, either. Iverson ranks fourth in NBA history in minutes per game, with 41.12, one of just five players in league history to average more than 40 minutes per contest. The others? Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor.
He was, pound for pound, the toughest player in NBA history, and he wanted everyone to know it, too.
When asked about his legacy, Iverson’s answer was as pointed as it was obvious to anyone who ever saw him play.
“Playing every game like it’s your last,” he said. “Giving everything you got, loving your teammates, loving your coaches, loving your fans and giving them everything you got. That might be the only game they ever get to see Allen Iverson play, so I took it like that. And I approached the game like that.”
Iverson wasn’t without his faults, on and off the court. Practice was an issue. So was passing. He needed the right mix of role players around him to be successful, and even then the Sixers never won a title, and only got to the NBA Finals one time in his career. He was a prolific scorer, yes, but he was not a great shooter, rating 53rd all time in PER (player efficiency) but outside the top 250 in NBA history in effective FG%. At .452 career EFG%, he might be outside the top 500. And yet, when the Sixers needed a bucket, there was no other option. He was the answer, sorry, The Answer, hit or miss. Every time.
Iverson played for 14 seasons, suiting up with four teams. (Who could forget his three games with the Memphis Grizzlies before returning to Philly at the end of his career?) He played overseas too, because he either loved the game so much that playing in Turkey was better than quitting the game, or because he was broke and needed the money. Through it all, he never let up, and even as his skills diminished, that drive was still there. That gravely voice was always ready with the perfect quote. Perfect, because it was real.
In that way, Iverson was the perfect NBA player for Philadelphia. He was brash, flashy and tough as nails. And he was real. We will never forget him here, and whether those around the country think he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame this year or not, he is. Something tells me Iverson doesn’t care what those people think today. He really never did.