Allen Iverson, 40, Is Stuck at 25
Both LeBron James and Kevin Durant — two of the best basketball players in the world and products of Ronald Reagan’s second term as POTUS — have referred to Allen Iverson as “pound for pound” the best basketball player ever. His influence is evidenced by Russell Westbrook’s similar knack for covering all 94 feet of the basketball court like someone mashing down on a remote control’s turbo button, and in James Harden’s isolations that also either end in free-throws or humiliation for his defender.#
Fourteen years ago, a season in which Iverson won MVP of both one of the best All-Star Games ever and the entire league culminated in him leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a victory in the opening game of the 2001 NBA Finals. If the rag-tag Sixers’ 2000-01 season was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then Iverson was R.P. McMurphy#.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@Sixers) June 6, 2015
In retrospect, draining that corner jumper and stepping over Tyronn Lue was his career’s pinnacle, and it came the day before his 26th birthday. He’d score more points and deepen his immense impact on popular culture, but his peak came at 25. And Iverson, who turned 40 yesterday, is confined to that phase of his life. He’s imprisoned by the one thing he once represented: youth.
My first exposure to Allen Iverson came in 1993, when I watched Tom Brokaw interview the 18-year-old about his incarceration. Far too young to understand the particulars of the situation, I remember my parents discussing how he was being “railroaded” by the system. A jailed teenager represents potential extinguished by circumstance, but the specifics that placed Iverson behind bars simply intensified an iron will cultivated by growing up in conditions he wasn’t supposed to escape. That’s why he shot out of jail and onto Georgetown University’s campus like a rocket, a blur in kente cloth# tracing the court like a mercurial ball of kinetic energy. It was around this time I realized that I probably wasn’t going to sprout to 6’7” like Penny Hardaway, so Iverson naturally replaced him as my favorite player.
Imagine the irrational excitement of a child whose hometown team just drafted his favorite player. That was me during the summer of 1996, and when Iverson ascended to his greatest height five years later, I had a front row seat. I was at Game 3 of the Finals in Philly, and it was there that I had my first encounter with Allen Iverson.
Prior to the game, in the bowels of the First Union Center#, I saw a rangy figure approaching me in the distance. As the gap between us closed, I realized that the man clad in a baggy white t-shirt and grey sweat shorts was none other than AI himself. Even though he had no idea who I was, he shot a nod as he walked past, similar to when that older dude from your neighborhood that you always looked up to finally acknowledges you. I, however, was more caught up in the fact that I was taller than him — even as a teenager. Up close, the NBA’s most objected-to superstar’s lack of imposing stature made him look more like the average 20-something than some larger-than-life iconoclast.
But those who followed Iverson, fanatics and detractors alike, knew Bubba Chuck# from Bad News, VA’s star shone too bright for him to ever be considered “regular.”
Iverson’s 10 ½ seasons in Philly were marked by his contentious rise to demigod status. He took the Sixers back to the playoffs# during the lockout-shortened 1999 season and the Finals two years later, but his cultural penetration made him an antihero. Men idolized him, he made women swoon#, and he famously transformed something as basic as the Friday’s on City Avenue into a place more lit than any actual club the city had to offer#. But there were also those who he terrified — the people who used “thug” and “menace” in reference to him when they really meant “nigger.”#
That’s why although the MVP trophy and Game 1 of the ‘01 Finals are Hall of Fame moments for Iverson, the greatest accomplishment of his career remains the impact he had on the culture of basketball. Iverson not only created trends (braids, tattoos by the dozens, and shooting sleeves) by merely existing, but he also shaped the way a new generation of players approached the game. Westbrook’s bulldog tenacity and Harden’s offensive wizardry are elements of Iverson’s game that now live on through his disciples, who have also been criticized for how they play, as well their pre and post-game style.#
This defiance of the status quo made Iverson the nonconformist youth’s totem. He signaled the continuous middle finger to uniformity, his sheer presence — against the odds — an act of resistance. Everything about Allen Iverson was symbolic of youth in revolt, including the myopia of his actions. The reckless abandon he played with mirrored his lifestyle, and he seemed to genuinely believe that he could sustain it forever.
As an older man, he’s been forced to learn the hard way that the fountain of youth is a mirage.
The notion that you’ll be young forever begins to fade in your late 20s. Entering your 30s means starting life’s second quarter, which, for Iverson, was the beginning of a decline more grim than what you typically see from athletes who have crossed that threshold. His relationship with the Sixers’ front office soured, resulting in him being jettisoned to Denver midway through the 2006-07 season. True fans catch convenient amnesia upon mention of his Detroit and Memphis stints, and his brief return to the Sixers during the 2009-10 season was cut short by his daughter’s health issues, a development that forced him to leave the team permanently.
Once past his prime, the reputation he earned during it (the “practice” press conference; the hood logic # interpreted as insolence) drastically reduced his late-career value. In the subsequent years, celebrations of his glory days have been offset by his well-documented struggles. (The media, the hungry vultures that they are, couldn’t wait to pounce. Shit, they’re still hovering.) He still dresses like a 25-year-old — one from the early 2000s. His style, once pioneering, is now proof of an inability to transition out of his period of greatness: his youth.
Be honest, though: could we really see Iverson as an analyst or a smiling figurehead shoehorned into an organization’s front office? No, because AI is the street legend who accomplished what that sector typically fell short of: he made it. Still, the street legend’s chronicle, be it that of Nicky Barnes or Pee Wee Kirkland, often includes at least one misstep which precipitates their fall.
Allen Iverson officially retired from basketball during the fall of 2013, and the Sixers retired his #3 jersey last March. His eyes displayed a mixture of joy and remorse, and his appearance had been weathered by his lifestyle. He knows, like the rest of us, that his narrative should’ve ended differently. With that said, recent unflattering press (little of which breaks new ground) about Iverson almost seems to exist with the sole aim of counteracting the rush of nostalgia that accompanied the Iverson documentary’s airing last month. Yes, others have risen from comparably toxic roots and avoided the pitfalls that entrapped Iverson (look at the mountain of clean money# Jay Z’s sitting on), but the criticism should be matched with at least some consideration of his early-life adversity for the sake of balance. However, don’t mistake me for an apologist. I spent my formative years defending AI vehemently, but as an adult, I recognize that his current situation is a prison he built for himself. Yet while his legacy may be tarnished, it remains in tact.
Iverson, irrefutable icon, will always be my favorite player — the reason my mother used to scream at me for practicing my crossover# in the house and why blue Reeboks that did not match my school’s uniforms at all were my “game” sneakers during my freshman year of high school. But when you mature, you see the people you once idolized in a different light. I now realize that his quest to cheat nature and bask in perpetual youth was doomed from its onset. I wish he learned this during his 20s, but the upside of his nadirs is that they’ve forced him to face his toughest opponent: himself. That moment comes for us all, even the ghetto superstars who think they’ll be 25 for the rest of their lives.
Eventually, the ghetto superstar, like everyone else, learns that nothing — especially youth — lasts forever. At 40, Allen Iverson finally seems to grasp this.
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