The NBA has seen a lot of polarizing figures come and go over its 65 year history.
Who can forget Red Auerbach and all of his cigar-chomping greatness? How about Dennis Rodman with his outlandish antics (and even more outlandish rebounding numbers)? Ron Artest has punched a fan, gotten drunk at halftime, changed his name, and most importantly played great defense.
Allen Iverson is one of the most hated, most loved, and most recognizable players in the history of the game. Iverson's haters will say he was a punk, a criminal. They say he brought a bad image to the NBA and was a ball hog who never led the Sixers to a championship. He was a me-first guy.
But Iverson's supporters will say he battled through a rough upbringing. They say he was the best little man in the history of the game and one of the most dominant scorers ever. They'll also say nobody other than Jordan or Russell played the game with more passion or effort.
So, which is it? Is Iverson a criminal who happened to have talent, yet was a selfish player who never won anything? Or is he an inspiration to those less fortunate who played every game like it was his last? I don't know, you decide.
Iverson's life was never easy. He was born to a single mother, a 15-year-old one at that. Growing up in Hampton, Virginia; a city where whites and blacks preferred to roll with their own kind, Iverson grew up not having it easy. His family was poor and most of his friends had been arrested multiple times. Iverson didn't have much but he did have one thing: Sports.
Iverson was the star of both the football and basketball teams at his High School. He was a star quarterback and point guard who led both teams to a state championship. Friends credit his football experience for his toughness on the court.
Iverson was listed as 6'0", 165 pounds during his NBA career but he was more like 5' 10", 150 pounds. In high school, he was an option quarterback whose favorite thing to do was run it right into bigger linebackers. Appropriately, one of his favorite things to do on the court is drive it right into power forwards and centers.
Basketball was his true calling, though, and he was considered one of the best recruits in the nation.
Everything seemed to be going well for Iverson. It appeared he found his calling and a way to make a good life for himself. However, that was put in jeopardy on February 14th, 1993.
Iverson and a group of friends were at a bowling alley in his hometown of Hampton, Virginia. There was a large group of white men bowling as well and no one really knows what happened next.
Some accounts have Iverson's friends going up to and making fun of the white men. Other accounts have the white group referring to Iverson and his friend as "niggers," throwing the first punches. But what happened next is known, as an all out brawl ensued.
The brawl was white youths vs. black youths, with chairs thrown as they were used for weapons. After the brawl was broken up, four people were arrested. All were black. But only one of them was a nationally known high school superstar.
Iverson was arrested for supposedly hitting a white women over the head with a chair, knocking her unconscious.
Leading to a trial was racially charged. Only black men were arrested for the incident and prosecutors used Virginia legal statute "maiming by mob," which hadn't been used since the 1800's to drive the case. Iverson was sentenced to 15 years in prison (10 months with good behavior) on three felony accounts.
To this day he maintains complete innocence and swears he left the scene right after the fight broke out. A crime of this nature usually gets community service in the state of Virginia so that added to the racial tensions of the case as well.
Iverson ended up serving four months in jail and was granted clemency by the governor because of insufficient evidence. The next news surrounding Iverson was more positive; he had been offered a scholarship to play for Georgetown.
During his freshman year Iverson won both Big East Rookie of the year and Big East Defensive Player of the year. He averaged 23 points a game and was simply a star. This is where he learned his crossover dribble, step-back jumper, and up-and-under layup.
He declared for the NBA Draft after his sophomore season and was widely considered the league's top prospect. As proven by him being picked by the Sixers with the number one overall in the NBA's 1996 draft.
He would go on to win Rookie of the Year honors and immediately established himself as one of the league's best players. The rest should have been history. His career should have been easy going from there. Everyone thought Iverson would spend his career in Philly, put up huge numbers, and win multiple championships. But with a guy like Iverson, there are no such things as storybook endings.
Iverson's on court play wasn't really a problem. His mix of solid shooting, sweet dribble moves, and relentless effort attacking the hoop established him as possibly the most dominant scorer since Jordan. His two scoring titles and four seasons of 30+ ppg prove that.
"Just know that Iverson passed the Season Ticket Test every year this decade (starting with his '01 MVP season): when season tickets arrive in the mail, the recipient invariably checks the schedule, marks certain can't-miss games and writes those dates down on a calendar. The importance of those games is measured by rivalries and the "I need to see that guy" factor. That's it. From 1997 to 2007, Iverson always made my list. Always. So I don't give a crap about Iverson's win shares, his ranking among top-fifty scorers with the lowest shooting percentage or whatever. Every post Y2K ticket to an Iverson game guaranteed a professional, first-class performance, and for whatever reason, he was always more breathtaking in person."- Bill Simmons, The Book of Basketball
He played injured in the playoffs and established himself as perhaps the pound-for-pound toughest player in the game. He also was awarded NBA MVP for the 2000-2001 season.
But what perhaps spoke louder than his scoring was his swagger. That's a very overused word today, but Iverson had it. Hell, you can even say Iverson invented it.
He is largely credited with bringing the Hip-Hop culture to the NBA, a style so much associated with the game today it's weird to think about the NBA before Iverson. Iverson had cornrows. He had tattoos all over his body. He got off the bus and walked around in "gangster" clothes. He was friends with rappers. For better or worse, Iverson changed the whole cultural significance of the NBA. You can pretty much credit him for David Stern's dress code.
His off-court behavior fueled the fire as well. He recorded a Hip-Hop song that was never released (supposedly because it was extremely homophobic). He was arrested for possession of marijuana and guns. He was always getting into trouble at casino's and was actually banned from Atlantic City.
It was at this time, around 2000, that Iverson became the most loved and hated basketball player on the planet. The "new school" of NBA fans loved his energy. They loved his highlight reel plays. They loved how his swagger appealed to young people.
The "old school" NBA fans (and announcer/writers/etc.) hated everything about him. From his ridiculously high number of field goal attempts, to his tattoos, to his multiple nationally-televised moments of yelling "F*** You!" at referees. If brought up in conversation, there was not one athlete who drew more extreme different opinions than Iverson.
His relationship with coach Larry Brown was always a national story as well. Despite multiple reports of issues between the two, both always said they had a ton of respect for each other and both credit each other for their success. The most notable moment was after the Sixers lost in the playoffs and Brown criticized Iverson for missing practice that week.
This led to one of the most infamous press conferences in sports history.
Larry Brown left Philly after the 2002-2003 season, and Iverson's play and attitude in the city was never the same. He and new coach Chris Ford had a whole slew of problems with each other. Ford didn't just let Iverson skip practice, he suspended him if he did so. Iverson got in trouble for not telling the coach that he was sick and would miss a game; also refusing to play at one point because Ford wanted him to come off the bench while he was coming back from an injury.
Despite beefs with two more coaches, Iverson stayed with Philly until 2006 when he was traded to the Denver Nuggets. Iverson joined Carmelo Anthony and they were the No. 2 and No. 1 leading scorers in the NBA respectively.
Yet, Iverson had more problems with refs. They hated him and he hated them back. Later, when Tom Donaghy wrote a book and went on TV after his scandal, he admitted that refs ganged up and said they would not make calls in Iverson's favor.
The people who ran the NBA may have hated Iverson but the young fans loved him. When Denver traveled to Philly for the first time with Iverson as a Nugget, he received a standing ovation that lasted for over three minutes.
Iverson's play declined as he had brief stints with the Pistons, Grizzlies and Sixers (again). It seemed like the end of the road for Iverson. He left the NBA to take care of his sick daughter and has not returned since.
Iverson played in Turkey and while currently not playing has not ruled out a return to the NBA.
So that's the story of Allen Iverson all the way to the present day. So where does that leave you on him?
I have a little bias because being short myself, Iverson inspired me growing up and was my favorite player. At a young age, I wasn't really aware of Iverson's issues, though, and only knew about his life on the court.
Whether Iverson ever throws on an NBA uniform again remains to be seen. I hope he does as I'd love to see him sign with a contender as a role player.
How you view Iverson is up to you. But he is a for sure first ballot Hall of Famer and NBA legend. His impact stretches far beyond an NBA arena and his story is just as much about personal struggle as it is about basketball.
I don't know Iverson, so I don't know what runs through his head, but I'm sure he's a very complex guy. How can a guy be so erratic in his personal life but so dependable in his professional life?
I know one thing, though, no athlete has provided such a dark, exciting, and interesting career as the one Iverson has.
Iverson's appearance might be minuscule, but his influence is monumental.
Follow me on Twitter @ZakKondratenko
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