The news that Allen Iverson has agreed to play for Pablo Nuevo in the Dominican Republic for a month didn’t come as a shock because Iverson has always been the kind of player whose heart pumped molten, pebbly orange rubber, a player who would keep playing until his body could no longer sustain him, and then play some more. He’s a competitor in the mold of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or Kevin Garnett: guys whose only satisfaction comes from competition. A former NBA superstar signing on as a one-month mercenary in a small foreign league will no doubt be seen by some as sad or desperate, a reminder of the long, slow fade of players like Dominique Wilkins.
But I can’t think of it like that because Iverson was in many ways the player who set me on the path to loving basketball. He’s my radioactive spider, my government-replacing-my-skeleton-with-adamantium, my parents-getting-killed-in-an-alley-robbery. He’s my origin story.
In the summer of 1999 I was living in New York City, but spending most of my weekends in the Berkshires in Massachusetts playing shows with my band. While up there, I would stay with the other guitarist/singer and he introduced me to the joy of NHL Faceoff ’99 for the PlayStation. I knew absolutely nothing about hockey, but became infatuated with it over a summer spent pulling off one-timers and slapshots with the Dallas Stars. But ever since high school, when I’d adopted the Atlanta Hawks and Dominique Wilkins because they showed their games on TNT all the time, I’d considered basketball sort of my sport, even though I barely followed it.
That fall, along with a move back to Massachusetts came a Sega Dreamcast and NBA2K. It’s borderline hilarious to look at the game now and consider how cutting edge it seemed then. Just look at the ridiculously buff Kobe Bryant in this clip at about 4:22:
But Iverson was the cover athlete and the game was unmistakably his, what with his ability to shake defenders and slither to the hoop. I played as his Sixers most of the time and had no idea who any of the other players even were, outside of the fact that Larry Hughes looked like Iverson and Matt Geiger looked like a nightmare. And so as I learned the game via the Dreamcast, I started following the Sixers in real life. In the same way that Dominique Wilkins had captured my attention with his larger than life dunks years before, Iverson captured it with his array of crossovers and hesitation dribbles. It was a way of playing basketball I was completely unfamiliar with and everything about Iverson, from his cornrows to his tattoos, said he was a new kind of player. He also might have been the last with a truly great nickname.
When “The Answer” took the Sixers to the NBA Finals the next year against the Lakers, he did it with people saying he was killing his team by taking too many shots, that he was a selfish player, that he couldn’t make other players better. But with hindsight, it’s possible to see that Iverson may have been the first player to make his teammates better by not getting them involved. How else can you explain a Finals run with this team? When your second leading scorer is Theo Ratliff, when Dikembe Mutombo at a conservative 34 years of age is anchoring the middle, when your team relies heavily on contributions from Eric Snow and Aaron McKie, is it any wonder that Iverson’s usage rate was 36%? In the playoffs, Iverson averaged a shocking 32.9 ppg and just looking down his points during those playoffs is amazing: 45 against Indiana, 54 and 52 against Toronto, a string of 46, 44, and 48 against Milwaukee and the Lakers. Yes, they eventually lost to Kobe and Shaq (who earned my hatred in the process), but Iverson’s 2000-01 season and playoffs surely stand as one of the greatest examples of grit and determination in the NBA.
But there’s a flipside to that. Weirdly, Iverson played on better teams than that 2000-01 Sixers team with less success, and a lot of that is because of him. He demanded the team work around him and everywhere he’s landed, from Denver to Detroit to Memphis back to Philly and on to Europe and now Latin America, he’s encountered obstacles apparently greater than playing with Eric Snow. As it is with so many, his greatest strength is also his greatest undoing. When the team was all about him, he led them to the Finals. When he’s been given more, he’s done less. When he’s done more—more passing, more deferring—he’s gotten less. He’s earned every criticism leveled at him, but he’s also shrugged them off. So as unlikely as it might seem that he’ll be arriving in the Dominican Republic on Sunday to play in his first game there, it’s entirely understandable that he just can’t stop playing.
To me, though, he’ll always be the guy who did this to Anthony Daniels:
And if you want a longer look at Iverson, check this video hosted by Stephon Marbury (!):