There is always a certain sheen of fondness and longing for a false innocence that surrounds most nostalgia. Our past tends to hearken back to a time when the issues we dealt with seemed simpler, or the times where we felt like we owned the world, without being weighed down by the mechanical world or unfortunate self-awareness that comes with age. Nostalgia is the reason that adults go to their class reunions, or why grown men were reduced to tears when Mickey Mantle passed away.
Of course, the feelings associated with nostalgia mask the realities of what we were living through. It also masks the true identity of the figures we witnessed. An eight-year old child usually cannot grasp the realities of the lives many of these men led. The carousing, double-lives, and the dark side that arises with a life lived at full throttle with cut-out brakes is lost on us. The world is only one shade when it comes to our heroes. There is no black and white.
I never saw Allen Iverson as a mythical hero, although I probably should have. The problem was that the media never let it be. Iverson was the embodiment of White America’s fear and distrust of the NBA. If Iverson was indeed the future, basketball would have probably not survived as a professional sport. He was prolific. Of that, there was no doubt. However, he was an unapologetic ball hog, a criminal offender, and an athlete who bristled at the thought of practicing. He was tattooed like no other athlete to come before him, and (according to Bethlehem Shoals) “looked like the denizen of a back-alley dice game as imagined by BET.”Viewers were reminded of this at every turn.
However, they had to be. The survival of the NBA depended on it. Michael Jordan’s retirement left an open spot for any player to come in and take hold of the NBA. Iverson was not the right person for the part, but like so many times before, he took over it. Viewers were turned off by the “thuggery” Iverson represented and David Stern knew this. While it is doubtful that this was the case, Iverson had to be seen as the exception. Iverson could not be seen as someone who was representative of what the NBA was. Of course, the “practice” rant did nothing to help his case. Iverson, always the exception to the rule, was now the stereotype of “Black America.
Despite whatever was being made of AI off the court, he was a vision to behold on the hardwood. Iverson was a disciple of the street basketball game, as it was so often nailed into our heads when we watched. He never had much help to speak of from his teammates, although that was probably more a function of his play than anything else. He was theatrical, often performing countless unnecessary cross-over dribbles before finally shaking his defender (in isolation, as always) before careening into the paint like a ricochet bullet into defenders that were often one hundred pounds larger than him. I often wonder whether it was selfishness on Iverson’s part, or more the only way that he could see the game.
If a basketball team was a machine, with numerous cogs inserted to fit specific and somewhat banal functions to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, Iverson was the mad engineer trying to turn conventional wisdom of how it should run on its head. His frenetic energy did more for the team than anyone could have imagined in the short term while still not offering much hope for the long haul. He played like he knew this. Greatness wasn’t his goal. The fleeting second of immortality was. It’s the reason why his 2001 MVP season isn’t an anomaly of his career as much as it is the only possible antidote to the homeostasis that begat dynasties such as the 90s Bulls and the 2000s Lakers.
Unfortunately, the MVP run was stopped by the Lakers in the NBA Finals in five games. The Lakers were the machine that Iverson had run into. They had star power, yet were somehow not flashy. They were as predictable as it got for the NBA. There was no poetry of backdoor screens and sharp cuts to the basket in the Lakers. There was a target and a ruthlessly efficient way of achieving it: pound the ball in to Shaquille O’ Neal. The only possible outcomes were that the opposing center submit to O’ Neal’s size and strength or that he draw a double-team and kick it out. It was not without flourish (one of the greatest individual performances ever by Iverson in Game One), but eventually, Iverson had to fall to the powers that be.
There was always a strange sense of pre-destined Calvinism surrounding Iverson’s career. We knew what would happen, just never could predict the manner in which it would. He was always doomed. He just behaved like he didn’t know it. It’s somewhat sad and fitting that the 76ers had tried to trade him to the Detroit Pistons before he gave them their greatest season since the days of Julius Erving before failing because of Matt Geiger, a rather irrelevant player, blocking the deal. Even more fitting is the fact that Detroit would win the title four years later against the Lakers.
Allen Iverson taught me more about life through one season of basketball than I could have ever learned through experience. It saddens me to believe that despite the most courageous of efforts, changing the world is just a noble idea that cannot be left to the hands of mere mortals. He fought against the machine his whole career. Whatever conventional wisdom was, Iverson went against the grain. However, he wasn’t a contrarian. He was merely on a mission. Bethlehem Shoals says it was debatable whether Iverson chose to die that season or stay young forever. I think the choice was obvious. By dying by his own hands (the reckless play, even more reckless lifestyle), Iverson achieved immortality.