If you had predicted 10 years ago that Allen Iverson would someday be considered a role player in the NBA, or that he wouldn’t even be a part of the league, more than likely you would have received the same reaction from NBA enthusiasts as pop music fans did when Britney Spears shaved her head.
At the turn of the 21st century, not only was Iverson the face of the Philadelphia 76ers, but he was also becoming the face of the NBA and arguably its best player.
“He was at the top of the league at the time,” explained Los Angeles Lakers backup center Theo Ratliff, who played with Iverson in Philadelphia from 1997-2001. “He was the number one star, the face of the league,” as he told nba.com after Iverson's decision to retire last season.
As the single most influential player of the last decade, Iverson was reigning Most Valuable Player and scoring champion (averaging 31.4 ppg), while single-handedly leading his team to the NBA finals in 2001, the team’s first finals appearance since 1983.
In the early 2000s, the NBA was in need of reinvention. The Michael Jordan era had come to an end and the association was in search of new identity. Enter Allen Iverson, the 1996 rookie of the year and a prolific scorer who would soon change the face of the league. From his abilities on the court to his hip-hop inspired fashion, bad-boy attitude and countless tattoos, Allen Iverson would soon become the NBA’s icon for the new era.
In the 1990s, the NBA was dominated by its “big men”. While Michael Jordan was undeniably the NBA’s best overall player of the time, tall and powerful forwards and centers such as Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson and Karl Malone were the dominant forces on the court. Challenging all big men, Iverson changed the way the game was played by bringing the entertainment element of basketball back to the NBA court.
Iverson reshaped the game into a “guards’ game”, making the guard position the most valuable – a title that still holds true today. In addition, he infused a streetball element back to the game that included flashy passing skills, exciting finishing skills around the basket, and let’s not forget an infamous ankle-breaking crossover that (even if for a split second) caught the greatest of all time off guard (No. 23).
“I’m number three,” said Miami Heat star, Dwyane Wade to nba.com, as he shared his thoughts on Iverson’s contribution to the league. “He made number three cool. He made crossovers cool. He did so much for the game as a pioneer…”
Iverson’s influence on the league reached far beyond the basketball court. Iverson not only brought a new approach to how basketball was played, but he also introduced a new element of urban style off the court, which would later be adapted by many other NBA players throughout the 2000s.
“He’s been one of the faces of the NBA,” said Milwaukee Bucks guard Corey Maggette to nba.com last season while sharing his thoughts on Iverson’s contributions to the league. “Everybody respects A.I. A lot of people in the league started getting braids because of him.”
Although Dennis Rodman may have been the first NBA player to openly flaunt his obsession with tattoos in the 1990s, it was Iverson who made “urban” ink stylish. Ignoring critics, Iverson boasted a strong “me against the world” attitude, which only strengthened his popularity and influence amongst fans.
“He showed me that I can be myself in this league regardless of what people say, as long as I go out there and respect the game,” said Charlotte Bobcats guard Stephen Jackson to nba.com last season, while speaking on Iverson’s contributions to the league. “That’s the type of person he was. He laid the foundation for a lot of guys like me.”
Iverson soon became the pioneer of hip-hop style and culture in the NBA, which did not sit well with the association, leading to a mandatory dress code for all players in 2005. The code banned all jerseys, baggy jeans, sneakers, hats, large jewellery, and any other clothing or accessories associated with urban culture. Defiant of the newly-implement dress code, Iverson rebelled, claiming that a person’s clothes were not indicative of their character.
"Just because you put a guy in a tuxedo, it doesn't mean he's a good guy,” said Iverson in 2005. “The dress code is not who I am and doesn’t allow me to express myself.”
Since then, Iverson’s strong desire to “express himself” over the course of his career has been met by a number of challenges. Despite continued fan support, his feuds with coaches, criticism of referees and his absence from mandatory practices began to damage his position with the league that he once helped transform into a global phenomenon. As the NBA began to pull further and further away from him, Iverson’s irrelevance to the league soon forced him into retirement last season, a move that was made to salvage what may have been left of dignity.
“I always thought that when I left the game, it would be because I couldn’t help my team the way that I was accustomed to. However, that is not the case,” said Iverson.
“To see him go out the way he’s going out right now is not how he’d want to go out. It’s a bad situation,” said friend and former teammate Carmelo Anthony.
A lot has changed in the NBA over the years, but Allen Iverson still appears to remain the same. Whether or not Iverson will ever get another chance to suit up for a NBA team still remains unclear. Despite the uncertainty of Iverson’s future in the NBA, his contributions to the league are forever lasting. Unfortunately for his legacy, those contributions may always be overshadowed by what appears to be a tumultuous end to a legendary career.