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Basketball, Culture, & the Magic of Allen Iverson

Iverson has been immortalized in Philadelphia, a reminder of the impact he had on basketball and American culture at large

I remember my first pair of basketball shoes that were endorsed by an athlete. They weren’t Air Jordans, or Kobe’s, or even a pair of T-Macs. They were a pair of Reebok Answer 3’s, or more well known as Allen Iverson’s shoe. People that were teenagers in the late 1990s and early 2000s remember Allen Iverson vividly, he was a phenomenon both in basketball and culturally.

Recently, Iverson had a statue erected in his honor on the Philadelphia 76ers Legends Walk outside the team's practice facility. Iverson is now immortalized next to other 76ers legends like Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, Wilt Chamberlain, and Julius Erving. The moment has made me think back on Iverson’s career, how unique he was, and how he impacted the game and culture of basketball more than any player in recent memory.

The Player

The Georgetown Hoyas are most remembered in the history of college basketball as a team that experienced their peak in the 1980s and 1990s under the guidance of legendary coach John Thompson. From 1979-1997 the team only missed the NCAA tournament once, won an NCAA title, and won the Big East conference championship five times during that span. Throughout the school's history, there has been a common denominator in that they have had elite players at the center position.

The school has seen the likes of Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Roy Hibbert, and Greg Monroe. All these players were big men that had varying levels of success in the NBA. It was in this history and legacy that Allen Iverson entered, as a small guard, to become one of the best players in Georgetown history. In his two seasons at Georgetown, Iverson averaged 23 points per game with over 3 steals per game en route to being named an All-American and the Big East defensive player of the year. Iverson would then enter the draft and be the first overall selection to the Philadelphia 76ers, and in the process redefine how we look at the guard position.

Iverson possessed the two traits that presented a bit of a quandary at the next level. He was an elite scorer that could get to the basket at will and break a defender down off the dribble with ease. But he was also small at 6’0” and 165 pounds. His scoring ability dictated that he would be a natural shooting guard, but his size and all handling suggested that he could also be a point guard.

Thus came the creation of the combo guard with Iverson as its face. Combo guards possessed the skills of both guard positions and would often switch between roles depending on the matchup. The 76ers surrounded Iverson with larger point guards and shooting guards to help minimize the size issues. Over Iverson’s time in Philadelphia, they brought in players like Larry Hughes, Eric Snow, and Aaron McKie that offered some size to protect them against bigger backcourts in the NBA.

For many years in the NBA, the game was dominated by a center that was the nucleus of the offense. The offense was run through them, and the team's success hinged on that player's post presence. We saw it with the dominance of players like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul Jabbar in the 1960s and 1970s for instance. That all changed when Michael Jordan entered the league in 1984 and showed that a guard could be the focal point of a franchise. But Jordan was 6’6” and played on the wing. The only smaller statured player that showed they could lead a team was Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons.

But despite his scoring ability, Thomas would still be classified as a traditional point guard. Iverson was a player that would score first despite his diminutive size. He could get to the basket whenever he wanted, attacking the rim with a ferocity that we had not seen before with one of the best layup and finishing packages in NBA history. Beyond that, he was also one of the greatest ball handlers in recent memory as well. Iverson’s crossover inspired me and many of my generation to learn the moves that he would execute on the floor into local gyms and playgrounds.

Iverson was the attraction in Philly. A one man show that was well worth the price of admission. He was a player that you wanted to go see when his team visited your home team. And when you saw him, your jaw would likely remain open every time he had the ball in his hands. He was a pure scorer that led the league in scoring four times and was in the top five in MVP voting three times. Everything about Iverson was rooted in toughness. He attacked defenses with aggression and was vigilant on defense, leading the league in steals three times. He was one of the faces of the league in the post Michael Jordan NBA. But his iconic play may be secondary to his cultural legacy.

The Culture

Allen Iverson entered the league in 1996. That year was a big year for hip hop music, where the genre was entering the mainstream of the United States and becoming more and more popular. Hip hop fans will remember that year for great releases such 2Pac’s “All Eyez on Me”, Nas’s “It Was Written”, Outkast’s “ATLiens”, Ghostface Killah’s “Ironman”, and many more. Basketball has always been a game that is in touch with younger generations and the trends of the great cities of America. And in 1996, a new generation of basketball fans were listening to hip hop music. Allen Iverson, in many ways, was the bridge for many between those two worlds.

Iverson loved rap music, often mentioning his love for the Notorious BIG, 2Pac, Outkast, and others. He brought the music that he loves to one of his Reebok commercials where rapper Jadakiss of The LOX rapped a verse while Iverson was showcasing his trademark dribbling ability. Much of Iverson’s aura showed his involvement and connection with the hip hop world. He dressed in baggy streetwear, had tattoos, and braided his hair. Everything about him was relatable to younger fans that were immersed in the culture of hip hop, where they had a champion that was relatable.

Iverson’s outfits are especially notable. He often wore furs, throwback jerseys, and chains, all elements of Black America at the time. His stardom and popularity enabled this style to permeate across all of America. The result was that non-Black teenagers started wearing baggy clothes and even braiding their hair. Iverson’s embrace of popular streetwear had ripple effects throughout the NBA, with other players also dressing in a manner that more suited their personalities and upbringings. This led many who observed the NBA to become uncomfortable and suggested that NBA players dressed like “thugs”.

The NBA heard these complaints loud and clear after the infamous “Malice in the Palace” brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons. After the fallout of that event, the league implemented a dress code requiring business casual attire to games, banning many of the clothing items that Iverson popularized: jerseys, t-shirts, sneakers, and chains. Many have felt that Iverson was the poster child of this decision and consequently felt that the NBA was targeting its Black players by suggesting that their culture was not worthy of being showcased by the league.

The dress code was severely relaxed before the start of the 2020 NBA Bubble, and now players are allowed to express themselves through fashion again. Part of Allen Iverson’s impact was his marriage of hip hop music and basketball. His on court style with the arm sleeve and headband have remained iconic even to this day where players like Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander emulate many of the on-court looks that he popularized.

Lasting Impact

The impact of Allen Iverson is both lasting and somewhat fleeting. His popularization of the combo guard in the NBA has now become the norm across the league. So much so that the concept of the traditional point guard is relatively non-existent. All of the league's top guards these days are score-first players, just like Iverson. His ability to break down defenses with an array of dribble moves and crossovers has also stood the test of time. Players like James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Stephen Curry have emulated what Iverson popularized and that skillset has now become an expected trait in all young guards.

From a cultural perspective, Iverson’s embrace of Black culture has also continued to resonate with fans and this current generation of players. Players are now empowered to be themselves and express themselves because Allen Iverson showed that that was acceptable. Hip hop culture has also continued to be an integral part of basketball culture as players have expressed desires to be rappers and rappers take part in celebrity basketball games. The cultures are forever linked together, and an argument can be made that this doesn’t happen fully without the influence of Allen Iverson.

Some elements of Iverson have lost their luster over the years, however. Iverson was a one-man show in Philadelphia for many years. That meant that he had to take a lot of contested shots with a high degree of difficulty. This season, Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks led the league with 23 field goal attempts per game. Iverson surpassed that number of attempts per game in seven of his twelve seasons in Philadelphia. Iverson was not a particularly efficient scorer, rarely shooting over 45% from the field and over 35% from three only once in his career. He was a volume shooter and a volume scorer, something that today’s NBA does not have much of a tolerance for.

As a result of his play style, many basketball fans have discounted the greatness of Allen Iverson. But much of those feelings ignore the context of a player like him. He was a player that was diminutive in stature but defined everything that we love about basketball and about sports. He was a player that defied expectations of what we thought a basketball player was, he captured imaginations and made everyone want to be like him. There was an art to Allen Iverson that only great basketball players possess. He was an absolute icon of his time and in many ways the blueprint of the modern guard.

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