Somewhere in the middle of the New York Giants crapping the bed against the Denver Broncos on Thanksgiving night, I resisted the urge to throw my remote against the wall and instead decided it would be a better idea to use it to change the channel. I flipped over to NBA-TV and ended up watching the 2001 NBA All-Star Game. A few things struck me from this game...
The quality of play in this game was absolutely atrocious. This was back when NBA All-Star games were basically two hours of uncontested layups, no-look passes going out of bounds and big men awkwardly bricking wide open threes.
The East won the game 111-110, which is unbelievable if you look at the rosters . Only two guys from the East team (Vince Carter and Ray Allen) are still relevant players while for the West, six guys are still going strong (Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess).
Did we really have a league where Antonio Davis and Anthony Mason were all-stars? Good Lord. No wonder people hated the NBA in the early 2000s.
After a while, Allen Iverson was the only reason I kept watching this game. He was the most exciting player on the court and he cruised his way to the All-Star game MVP award.
I’m assuming the reason this game was on was in honor of Allen Iverson’s recent retirement. It’s an odd choice considering this was a meaningless all-star game and they could have shown one of his dozens of truly epic performances.
But I guess the one thing this game showed was that earlier in this decade, before there was LeBron, before there was Wade, and before Chris Paul or Dwight Howard, AI was the league's biggest star.
In fact, for better or worse, Allen Iverson is the most important superstar in the NBA since Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls.
Iverson is the man most responsible for bringing the “hiphop culture” into the NBA. He was one of the first mainstream stars with multiple tattoos (including one on his neck), he popularized cornrow braids, brought back the headband, introduced the elbow sleeve and wore baggy shorts down to his ankles.
He was the ultimate trendsetter, and his bending of the uniform rules is the reason NBA players get fined for having their shorts go an inch pass their knee, and why the NBA adopted a dress code for players in 2005. He made it okay for players to wear throwback jerseys, doo-rags, and Timberlands, and David Stern put an end to it.
Perhaps most importantly though, besides just the culture, Iverson also introduced the hiphop style of play. Everyone knows Jordan was the best player ever, but his style of play just didn’t resonate for young people the way Iverson’s did.
There’s no coincidence that the AND1 mix tapes took off around the same time as Iverson’s career did. He legitimized that type of thing. Nobody could beat a guy of the dribble like AI could in his prime.
Iverson was the guy everyone my age wanted to play like growing up: the point guard with an attitude who maybe had slight Napoleon complex, but made up for his lack of height by utilizing his killer handle to get to the lane at will. The little guy who couldn't windmill dunk or block shots now got his street cred through breaking ankles.
That’s how you got noticed then. Cross someone over in a rec league and crowds would go nuts; do it in the NBA or college and you made it onto Sportscenter. Sure, it was the epitome of style over substance, but culturally, this meant a lot to a lot of people.
The official passing of the torch from the Jordan era to the Iverson era was the famous video of AI crossing up Jordan during his rookie year. I remember thinking, “Holy crap!! Nobody makes Jordan look bad! This guy is awesome.” Iverson’s defiance and swagger instantly vaulted him to cult hero status.
Iverson was the “coolest” player in the NBA from 1998-2005 and loved by everyone under the age of 25 at the time. He sold billions of jerseys, and other than Jordan, he probably had the most successful run of signature shoes. People are still wearing The Questions to this day (you could also argue that he single-handedly saved Reebok in the '90s).
We all know about his negatives: shot too much, didn’t make his team better, questionable work ethic, etc. Most of the criticism is valid, but honestly look at this roster he played with in 2001. Remember, he took this team to the Finals! He should have been taking 40 shots per game with that supporting cast.
Iverson had no choice but to go one vs. five on most possessions to give his team the best chance to win. Jordan and Kobe basically did the same thing at similar points in their careers, but those guys were lucky enough to eventually get good teammates and good coaching (aka Phil Jackson) while Iverson toiled away on mediocre teams.
Jordan and Kobe were also considered the ultimate competitors while Iverson was seen as a petulant, ballhog who represented streetball and thuggery. Not surprisingly, that happened to the guy with braids and covered in tattoos.
Anytime Iverson is brought up in the media, his press conference where he mocked “practice” is way overblown compared to a solid decade of toughness and competitiveness that has rarely seen in the NBA.
And unlike most of the problems that have plagued the NBA for the past 50 years, this wasn't even a race thing. This was strictly a generational gap. A 59-year-old black guy did not appreciate Iverson's impact as much as a 19-year-old white guy did in 2001.
No doubt he brought some of the bad media attention on himself. He had numerous run-ins with the law; many of them were stupid and completely unavoidable. But honestly, he’s no worse than 90 percent of the league. Athletes are not perfect human beings—never have been, never will be—so there’s no reason to really hold that against him.
I don't see anyway that AI doesn't come back and play again. In 2008 he averaged 26 points per game, shot a career high 46 percent from the field and played all 82 games. This was only two seasons ago! But sadly, his reputation precedes him, and no GM on a good team seems particularly interested on taking a flyer on him at this stage in his career.
Even if he never plays again, Iverson has left an indelible stamp on this league. Since MJ retired there have been better players that have come along, but none were more important than The Answer.