The Night Allen Iverson Fell to the Ceiling

There are Super Bowls, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals and World Series, but sometimes, just sometimes a night befitting of a Prince trumps them all. Allen Iverson’s jersey was retired by the Philadelphia 76’ers Saturday before a sold out crowd. March 1st, 2014 was Allen Iverson’s and his is a love of basketball and of fans understanding what it is to be human in the definitive. Every bit of his soul was on display in front of the sports world and those present witnessed unique sports history; history as compelling as it was simple and plain. He was an All-Star for 11 consecutive seasons during his 14 year NBA career and the 2001 NBA MVP gave sports everything he had in every second he was on the floor. This was a night to honor that courage in the storm of his life and now his legend is truly legendary.

His #3 now flies along the greatness of Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley, Mo Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Hal Greer and legendary announcer Dave Zinkoff. One day Moses Malone will join the aforementioned Sixers legends and hopefully Andrew Toney as well, but Saturday night was all about the man they call The Answer. It was something to see Philly explode for AI even as the most accomplished icon of Sixers basketball lore, Dr. J., sat before him. It was a passing of the torch of sorts, but on one of the most elite honoring levels any athlete could ever achieve. We are aware of Doc’s outstanding hoops legacy, but what do we say of Allen Iverson? Is he a superhero in the guise of David or a diminutive Goliath amongst sports giants?

One can only assume he is the latter, the former and so much more because even as his number was retired, do we really know his legacy? Do we really know of his impact on sports – let alone the gift he shot of basketball? Players speak of him with the same eyes as if they were speaking of Jordan despite AI not being that much older. He still looks like a kid. Hypothetically, he’ll be that old man still carded and as he leaves with his choice of beverage, the kid asking for his identification will only realize who he just saw after the register closes and Iverson is fast long gone in the ride he surely gangsta leans in as Unbelievable knocks.

Ninteenth on the NBA all-time scoring list with 24,368 points, Iverson's talent was a comet scattered evenly across a soul rock soul universe and think of the day he lifted the 2001 NBA All-Star Game MVP; that energized and hungry look in his eyes is very different than the night his jersey was dedicated. It’s more evolved, hell yeah worn and distinctly mature. It’s not a look of arrogance, but more a look of personal accomplishment honoring those loving him and once the lights went out Saturday, there was sadness because we now know for sure we’ll never see his blood of experience entertain everyone having eyes for the game of basketball on the floor again. Think about that and also the moments when Allen Iverson is deeply within the solitude of his own thoughts. What do you think he thinks?

There was awkwardness true to Philly when Sixers managing owner Josh Harris and co-managing owner David Blitzer spoke in token measure.  It exacerbated a disconnect between ownership, Sixers fans and the proud strength many of us grew up loving and living following this team. Even AI felt it and watching the ceremony again and hearing the boos raining down on Sixers brass, I cringed for every Sixers fan watching as well, because the future is so uncertain regarding  a Sixers readmission into NBA relevance. This was a team (lost 14 straight) once elite as any other and it seems ownership is scrambling to capitalize more on fan appreciation of Iverson (and also Julius) thinking maybe another Allen Iverson (or Julius) will suddenly appear. Overall, last night was a win for a Sixers front office mired in an organizational dystopia they alone aren’t responsible for, but are certainly continuing. Ownership presenting Iverson with a bass fishing boat was a nice touch given his love of the serenity being out on the water provides. Personal demons fall silent as true as the sound of waves after the crash during the thoughtful seclusion of solitude, so surely Iverson will make use of such a unique and unexpected gift.

As Iverson was announced by long time Sixers PA announcer Marc Zumoff, there was no deceit in the crowd’s response and certainly no spattering of boos or confusing apprehension to cheer. This was Philly’s hero. His fallacies are often theirs and the city identifies with his flaws and that’s why he is mainly loved. Curious was the deifying MVP cries and those in attendance thought the fan ovation would last forever – or maybe so they hoped. There were no truer words spoken than those simplifying how he feels for the fans when he said “I’m just here talking to my family.” The first subsequent words of appreciation were reserved for a ex-wife loyal to every professional triumph or personal failure during his heyday and also for his children affording him solace from the daily pressures of a game stamped with his soul whether the adulation was exploitive or genuine.

Commissioner Adam Silver spoke as well and it was interesting to see Silver have such fan eyes for Iverson speaking at his first NBA jersey retirement as the new commissioner.

I’ve seen criticisms of Iverson’s choice of clothing at the ceremony and those critical of Iverson in such a petty regard are the same who’ve never understood what his individuality in a professionally confined world represents. He was the basketball version of Tupac Shakur and did everything to secure everything representative of where he was from and how that shaped him as a basketball player and as a man. As slight as he is, Saturday he was basically a fedora and frames dressed in all black, chains adorned and loyal to his Hip Hop truth. Why would an expectation of anything different exist on a day that is his? He was nothing disrespectful when speaking to those loyal to him as well. In fact, he was downright humble and grateful in every breath he spoke. In short, he squeezed every ounce of remembrance from a moment an elite few ever experience in any realm. That is the same definition of his game.

You see, what makes Allen Iverson great is also great in his weakness. He is unapologetic for his missteps so those mistakes teach the future to be kind of what they are supremely afforded. Think about the impact felt by both kids seeing him play and too young to see his career that were present. One begets another and the sound bites from this ceremony will ring forever to those young in attendance no matter what they choose to do as their life develops. They will be the ones telling Iverson’s story to their kids as the next icon is championed and the good dots of history are firmly connected. They will talk about Bubba Chuck’s game and what is known of his mistakes will be an afterthought in those discussions as it should. This is why I call athletes of this sort soul models. It’s not simply about their lives and transgressions superficially becoming their legacies. Especially to those cynical looking to be critical by all means (finances, personal life and a misguided label of “wasted talent”), but more of what these of supreme talent and charisma inspire in all of us as success personally beckons. If you simply see Allen Iverson as an athlete that is your error because you’ll absolutely miss a chance to learn something of your own search for relevance in a world quite honestly dismissive of anything succinctly unique. Why do we fear those getting straight to the point within a life wanting to tell it just as it is?

He is iconic Philly soul.

I asked Allen for his reaction to an unconditional love fans see for him and he spoke coolly and casually: “Honestly, it hasn’t really sunk in yet. When you’re a child growing up, you think about these things. My greatest moment, as far as my career, was just getting drafted. When you have stuff like this happen, it’s just extra. It’s a blessing from God. I feel proud of myself, not because I got my jersey raised, I’m proud because I didn’t lose it (crying) the way I thought like I was. I’m just happy. It’s a great day. I’m going to remember it for the rest of my life and I’m just glad that everybody that was a part of it could be here to see it happen.”

His former coach, Larry Brown was not in attendance because he was coaching his #23 SMU squad to victory over UCF. As long and distinguished as Larry Brown’s career has been, it will be said for many years that he and Iverson are synonymous because they definitely needed each other at that time in their lives.

Gary Payton was in the house and because his Seattle Supersonics no longer exist in the NBA, I wanted to get how he felt about not receiving such an honor and if he could ever have it: “No, I can’t. I don’t have a team in Seattle but it’s OK. I will never disappoint my Seattle fans. I like the way he did it in front of Philly. Oklahoma (City) has asked me a lot, but I just don’t feel I should do that in Oklahoma. Oklahoma didn’t see me play basketball. Seattle saw me play basketball. That would be disrespectful to Seattle for me to go there. No disrespect to Oklahoma, but I think my team will be back. I hope I won’t die before we get a Seattle team (we laugh).”

Since I’m talking to The Glove I also wanted to know how he defended Iverson on the floor and basically he said there was no answer – pun unintended. “It was always a nightmare playing against him because I knew he was so quick. It wasn’t nothing really you could do to stop him; you just had to contain him. I tried to keep the ball away from him, but that was hard too. I just tried to get him on the other end of the floor and get him in foul trouble. They were so crafty when I was playing that they started switching up and making the big man guard me and I couldn’t guard him. It was always a nightmare because you knew he was gonna score and shoot jump shots. You just had to hope you could contain him and he had an off night.”

A big guard of current NBA note is John Wall. He had 17 points and 16 assists – many were dishes to Trevor Ariza on his way to a career high 40 point effort of his own – as his Wizards blew out the Sixers 122-103 on AI Night. How would he too defend Allen Iverson with his length and speed?

“Well…I don’t know (mimicking someone shook to media throng laughter). Try to use my length I guess, but that didn’t work with the many who’ve tried. He had a fearless effort and he didn’t care who was in front of him. Nobody could stop him. He found ways to attack the basket at 160 pounds. That’s where I get my edge and I don’t care who is guarding me I’m looking to dominate.”

I asked him as well about how a visiting team comes into this type of atmosphere and if it brings a level of excitement:

“Yeah it is a great excitement. Anyone in our era – age 22 or 23 – that was the guy we looked up to. I just didn’t want to do too much for him. I know we enjoyed the game and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to play on a night his jersey was retired.

Finally with Wall I wondered if he sees himself in such a moment after his career is over:

“That’s my goal man. I want to be the best point guard to ever play the game and I definitely want to bring a championship to DC. I think we’re taking the right steps. I just have to keep it cool as a player.”

Backup point guard Andre Miller is new to DC and it was good to catch up with a player I covered during his years in Philly. He was traded along with Joe Smith and two first round picks for Iverson in 2006.

“I’m glad he was recognized for what he brought to the game. I’m familiar with these fans here as you know Mike and they celebrated him right tonight. It was good to see him get his just due because he influenced so many kids with his style and game.”

In the pressroom at halftime, I had a discussion about the state of Black journalism with writers Anthony Gilbert and Chris Murray as well as radio producer Devon Givens. It’s not often we are together in a Sixers pressroom as often as in the past. We wondered what the narrative of Allen Iverson would resemble if more Black writers covered his playing days here in Philly – objectively speaking of course. It’s something to ponder moving forward and not exclusive of mainstream intentions, but what the additions of fearless and absolutely necessary voices provide in a total scope relevant to the NBA and the game itself.  

It was a pleasure to see a player so many globally appreciated get another night to shine. Many of us in press row asked how many jersey retirements we've collectively covered and the number was not many. That makes his night special and trust, Allen Iverson will be alright. The seven-time All-NBA selection, four-time NBA scoring champion, three-time steals leader, two-time All-Star Game MVP and the 1997 Rookie of the Year knows what he has to do more than anything anyone is advising him. He’s too strong to fall by the wayside and allow negativity to destroy him. I wonder how many more times we will see such an honest athlete become so iconic athletically as well as culturally. His kids smiled as the crowd roared just as he was entered the floor that incredible night. That struck me because this is a man that is also a father.  What he does and how he is spoken of affects their view of the world, so hearing positive things of their Dad Saturday night is important. There is a noticeable struggle in him currently, but having his kids and his loved ones by his side as the world watched could be the very thing that pushes him to finally know The Answer.


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