NOTE: You'll have to forgive this departure from my regularly scheduled mildly amusing stories about my kid and movie-related shenanigans for this brief tangent into the world of sports. We'll get back to normal tomorrow.
Yesterday, in a press conference before the Philadelphia 76ers opening game of the season, former superstar Allen Iverson announced his retirement. It wasn't an unexpected event; a 38 year old point guard who hasn't played in the NBA in over three years doesn't exactly draw a lot of interest from most teams even if the guy comes equipped with a sparkling reputation which Iverson most certainly does not. Still, it was a somber moment for me to see one of my all-time favorite athletes, a hero of weird sorts, officially walk away from the game he made better for 14 seasons.
I love sports in general but basketball was my first love and it will always be the game I gravitate to with the most passion. In my lifetime, I have had three favorite athletes, all of them basketball players. When my basketball odyssey began in 1991, Derek Harper became my hero and his tough, fundamentally sound playing style made him a fantastic sporting role model for a kid who desperately wanted to play basketball for a living but lacked, shall we say, EVERYTHING that one needs to make that happen. And in the early to mid 2000s, Dirk Nowitzki reached his prime and eventually became the all-encompassing force of awesomeness he is now, leading my beloved Mavericks to the title I had literally dreamed about for 20 years. But in the interim between Harper's retirement and Nowitzki's rise to prominence, my go-to guy, my favorite player, my hero as it were, was Iverson, a guy who was pretty much the exact opposite of what Harper and Nowitzki represented.
Iverson (who became known as "The Answer", which is probably a top ten nickname ever) was brash, flashy, and thugged out before that term had even been invented. He came from the projects and he had a troubling past but instead of ducking that or shying away from it, he owned it and wore his lifestyle for all to see, flaws and all. He made a ton of mistakes, released a relatively graphic hip-hop song, and sported the tattoos and cornrows look in an era that didn't accept such things. On the court, he played a style of basketball that we hadn't seen before. He threw up a ton of shots, didn't seem to like passing the ball, and carried himself in such a way that one might believe he would just as soon stab you rather than shoot over you. Put simply, he had an edge that no other player in the league had at that time. All of this made it nearly impossible for White America to embrace him. Iverson was the personification of what was wrong with sports to many a veteran basketball fan because he didn't "play the right way" and, whether they would say it out loud or not, he definitely didn't look the right way.
But I loved him. I loved him because he played this game that I cared so deeply about in a way that no one else did. He was a small guy, listed as six feet tall but really he was closer to 5'10 and under 170 pounds, but he threw his body around like someone with the physique of a Lebron James. He relentlessly drove to the hoop, often taking a smack and a face plant into the ground for his troubles and yet he would get up, shake it off, and do the same thing on the next play. It did not matter how many times you knocked him down, Allen Iverson was coming right back at you, over and over again, and he was coming to KILL YOU. He was intimidating in a way that smaller players never are because he always knew he was the toughest guy on the court. He also had this ability to command your attention. You'd be watching a Sixers game and then you'd realize that you have absolutely no idea what was happening in the rest of the game because your eyes were locked on Iverson the entire time. And the best part was, he knew you couldn't take your eyes off of him and he used that to his advantage. He had a flair for doing spectacular things in the biggest moments when you got the feeling that he was feeding off the spotlight.
Perhaps most importantly for me, and the thing that I don't think people have given him enough credit for, was the constant, all-out nature of his game. In a very famous press conference during which he was confronted by the media over his propensity for sitting out in practice, he responded with a classic line that allowed people to write him off as a guy who didn't care enough about the team to do the important things, like practice. (Never mind the fact that most NBA teams only actually "practice" about 20 times a season, total.) I saw the other side of this, though. I saw a guy who literally left everything he had on the floor every night. I saw a guy who competed harder than anybody else the night before and didn't have anything left to give the next morning. It has always bothered me that, in the midst of a horde of underachieving athletes who simply didn't care enough to try to be great every single night (Shaquille O'neal is a notorious example), we would focus in on the practice habits of a guy who had just spent the previous night carrying a terrible team on his back in an all-out effort to get a win. Iverson was ALWAYS playing as hard as he possibly could and that probably took two or three years off of his career.
Iverson's accomplishments were immense: 11-time All-Star, Rookie of the Year, League MVP, 7-time All-NBA team, 4-time NBA scoring champion, and a Finals berth that gave us one of the greatest moments in NBA history and saw the man take a terrible team to heights it had no business enjoying. (The other important players on that team were Eric Snow, Aaron McKie, Matt Geiger, George Lynch, Todd MacCulloch, and Dikembe Mutombo. If you're a passing sports fan and you've heard of any of those guys, it's Mutombo and it's because of this Geico commercial. They were AWFUL.)
And yet, throughout his career, he was a lightning rod for fans and his presence created a sort of line-in-the-sand for his fans. Those of us who loved him, a small club that gets smaller by the day, rallied around him and defended him to the death which, career wise, came far too soon due to his reputation (which I would deem to be unfair) as a ball hog and a gunner. His detractors, always the larger group I would say, have grown as his distance from the game has lengthened and while there was never any convincing this group of Iverson's true greatness, he has now become almost a punchline to the smug majority that never appreciated him in the first place. He was always overrated, they say, a guy who only cared about himself and the stats he put up, and whose greatness was marginal at best. His off-court issues (a battle with alcoholism and the likelihood that he will soon be broke) certainly haven't helped.
For my money, though, Allen Iverson will always be a singularly bright spot in a sky filled with stars. He was supremely imperfect and didn't conform in the way people wanted their sports heroes to conform, but he played a style of basketball that will never be forgotten and, I think, will never be replicated. He left it all on the court every single time out and that total competitiveness and constant will be, for me, his lasting legacy: Allen Iverson, my flawed hero.