My ode to Allen Iverson begins, as most stories go, with Mom. Now I was a pretty awkward kid. Great student, but just a weird kid. No interests in anything outside of Pokemon and Star Wars. No taste in music, watched no sports, had no video games.
Fifth grade rolls around, and all the boys get invites to try out for the school basketball team. Mom urges me to get out there and make new friends. For simply showing up and doing well in school I make the team. I play here and there but ultimately stink. Totally uncoordinated. I scored five points all season and aired a layup.
It doesn’t dissuade my interest. Next year, it’s kind of a no-brainer that I go for my middle school team. While elementary school was kind of a secluded, sweet suburban setting, Lane Middle School was straight up hood. Culture shock to say the least.
We had a ragtag group of misfits on the B team. One guy in particular, AJ, was the revolution: short, skinny black guy, cornrows, sagging his shorts, wearing low cut socks, memorized every rap lyric. The best one handed dribbler I knew. He had one hand on the ball, the other on his shorts. This guy was just cool, and he was cool with me. We bonded in class and on the court. It was from this budding friendship that he introduced me to a different style of basketball.
My first time watching real games was early 2001, back when NBC had triple headers on Sundays. Mom made me watch to learn some things and try to be better. This led into the 2001 All Star Game in DC. With the West running away, it looked like it was gonna be a ho hum second half. Luckily for me, that one little guy just wouldn’t go down quietly. Allen Iverson rallied his East squad to a 101-100 victory over the vaunted West, taking home MVP honors, and my attention.
Mom and I became enamored with him. He was just a little guy who wouldn’t quit. Hit him, drop him, knock him off balance. He’ll just get right back up and go at it again. I cheered him on all through the 2001 Playoffs, saw him make those difficult shots, pouring in buckets as he battled through two seven games series for a Finals date with the Lakers. While he’d ultimately fail, he’d already won in the hearts of nearly every ball player in my school.
Iverson was different. He was tatted up. He had cornrows. He didn’t keep it short and neat. His shorts were long. His jersey popped out. You couldn’t see his socks. He was the epitome of hip hop in the NBA. These were cues that we took on because he was the cool one in a corporate setting. I lowered my socks, got longer shorts, wore a larger sized jersey and tucked it in loosely enough that it would pop out soon. He was essentially us doing it big in the league.
A majority of the A team was dressed in Answer IVs, and jumped onto the Answer V. My boy AJ rocked Questions and Answer IV slips that first season, and the All Star Answer V that second season. Mom noticed and that All Star Answer V became my first signature shoes. During spirit week, students rocked fan gear on sports day. That Iverson jersey became my first of many. A guy I played ball against cut a tube sock and wore in on his arm. When one of the older kids showed up to morning pick up games with a black shooting sleeve, we were mesmerized and wanted to know where to get one. I once grew a giant Asian afro in hopes of getting cornrows. You rarely saw someone at my school in Jordans, and if you did, it was glossed over. We laughed at guys in the Kobes. We rolled our eyes at the $200 for the Jordan XVII. One of my teammates wore cherry Jordan XVIs and no one gave him any props. Iversons got you either mad respect or mad jealousy. It’s just how it was. He was a hero to the hip hop generation.
I never stopped being a fan of his, but my support somewhat waned when he forced his way out of Philly. He was ring chasing. While he could’ve ended up with a great legacy as a Philly hero much like Reggie and Stockton, he instead chose a path that seemed disloyal, a path that ultimately didn’t pay off. Why be a soldier in a foreign country when you can be king of your own?
I still revered him and defended him to all detractors who saw him as a clown and afterthought. You say Iverson, especially in a white suburban setting, and people immediately respond, “Practice?” He’d been reduced to a punch line. This great, little, fearless player was a joke in many eyes.
I was thrilled when the prodigal son found his way back home in 2010. I cried with him at that press conference, as if seeing a lost child coming home. It’s what Mom always referred to him as. As tough as he seemed, as cool as he may be, his face was that of a lost child. As thrilled as I was to see him back in Philly, I was equally upset to find out that he would once again leave the team amidst personal and financial issues, ultimately ending his NBA career. It was as though he’d lost his way again.
I longed for the struggling 76ers to bring back their hometown hero, because things couldn’t get worse than how it was going, but I suppose AI had already used up his second chance. It was sad to think about. This prolific, former MVP couldn’t find a job on any starting 5, much less a bench. His antics had ultimately failed the last years of his career. While I was sad that he wouldn’t be able to end it on the court, there was warmth felt when the fans and the team responded positively to him in his return during the 2012 Playoffs, and his reception at his official retirement last night.
Say what you will about him. Selfish. Outspoken. Ball hog. Shoot first, pass later. Bad influence. Thug. He was one of a kind. His influence was felt all over. He changed NBA fashion and expression. He introduced a street style of game to a modern audience. He showed little kids that if you worked and willed yourself, you can achieve great heights. There’s no doubting Allen Iverson’s influence on yours truly. From this longtime fan, I’m at peace with the fact that this lost child has found his way back to Philly, and hopefully he realizes that you can always go home again.
I never personally knew Allen but I was in Hampton when he was a high school star and got in trouble. My pastor at the time, the late Howard Booker, came to his defense to help give him another chance. So, because this man of God came to his aid I have never given up on Allen. I am still waiting for this prodigal to come home. He is a lost soul who will one day find his way. God has a plan for his life. Let’s keep praying.