It’s a good thing there’s no practice required for the Basketball Hall of Fame because the pound-for-pound best scorer in NBA history is now in its ranks and I hear he isn’t a fan. In his first year of eligibility following 14 NBA seasons, it was announced Monday that like any Oscar winner, Allen Iverson’s name will forever be prefaced with a new moniker, Hall-of-Famer Allen Iverson.
The induction comes as no surprise, as Iverson’s accomplishments stack up with nearly anyone else in NBA history. 23rd on the all-time scoring list, Iverson was a 4-time scoring champion, an 11-time All-Star, and former Rookie of the Year. AI’s incredible career reached its apex during his 2000-01 MVP season, which culminated with a Finals run only ended by the dynastic duo of Shaq and Kobe.
Yet, Iverson’s position as an iconic figure in NBA history went well beyond his statistical accomplishments. Like Steph Curry today, Iverson resonated with so many people, in part, because he was an avatar for what people thought they could accomplish if given the opportunity.
Iverson, generously listed at just 6’0″ and 165 pounds, still relentlessly attacked the lane, again and again, scoring through, around, and over the bigger, stronger defenders that stood in his way. Every possession was a David vs. Goliath battle. Instead of a slingshot, though, Iverson as David had a prodigiously quick first step and a mind-warping crossover.
The fact that he led the league in minutes seven times while continuing his one-man assault on the paint only made Iverson’s accomplishments that much more remarkable. That underdog mentality fit perfectly in a city like Philadelphia, whose sports fans have always had a bit of an inferiority complex in relation to their higher-profile New York neighbors.
Another aspect of Iverson’s game that always endeared himself to both Sixers and basketball fans alike was his propensity to give 100% every time he took the court. It’s a cliche to say an athlete wears his heart on his sleeve, but AI’s “Only the Strong Survive” tattoo while living and dying with every result in as close as we’re likely to get to a literal representation of that saying.
Echoing the famous Joe DiMaggio quote, Iverson discussed that responsibility he felt while speaking to the media following his Hall of Fame announcement:
“It was hard for me, man, just to come in every night to perform and put on a show for that person that might not ever come to another game. It was on me every night to show up. And my teammates, my coaching staff and my fans expected it. That was hard but I was cool with the challenge.”
Unlike Curry, though, Iverson was also a controversial figure in the NBA. Even after he experienced success at the highest level, there was no shortage of people trying to tear Iverson down at every opportunity. Some of those reasons were entirely superficial, like the fact that he wore du-rugs and sported tattoos (unlike today where tattoos are ubiquitous throughout society, and it’s strange to see a player without any).
Others were perhaps more justified, such as his abhorrent behavior in casinos, frequent strip club forays, and difficulties with alcohol that allegedly affected his practice and preparation time. Whatever a person’s opinion of Iverson though, there was no denying the fact that he was unabashedly himself, with all his strengths and weaknesses on display for everyone to see.
That “realness” was a big part of fans feeling a personal connection with Iverson as not only a player but as a man.
Later on, in his post-induction announcement media interview, Iverson joked:
“I’m a Hall of Famer and I can go outside today and go to a restaurant or wherever and somebody will come up to me and say, ‘PRACTICE? We talkin’ bout practice?!’ Man, I am a Hall of Famer and that’s all you can think about?”
Sure, that soundbite will always endure (I alluded to it in the open), but that’s far from all people will be able to think about regarding Iverson’s Hall-of-Fame career. They’ll recall the shoes, the arm sleeves, and the braids, the crossover of Jordan and the step-over of Lue.
Most importantly, though, they’ll remember a man who never compromised, who stood up and said, “I’m doing this my way.” So, although he never won a championship in Philadelphia, Allen Iverson won something equally as rare; he won over our hearts.