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Allen Iverson’s ‘We talkin’ ‘bout practice’ rant was 20 years ago

Here's a look back at how we covered Iverson's legendary press conference at the end of the Sixers' 2002 season.

Allen Iverson at the podium on that famous day 20 years ago.
Allen Iverson at the podium on that famous day 20 years ago.Read moreRon Cortes / Staff file photo

It feels like a long time ago, yet in some ways, it feels as if it just happened.

On May 7, 2002, Allen Iverson dropped his famous rant about how little practicing with the 76ers mattered to him at that moment.

It came in response to a question from Neil Hartman, the longtime former host and reporter for Comcast SportsNet (now NBC Sports Philadelphia). In an interview with The Inquirer this week, Hartman recalled that then-Sixers coach Larry Brown offered a few choice words about Iverson’s practice habits during the season. So with the campaign over, Hartman decided to ask Iverson for his view.

“You never really knew, when did Allen show up, what did Allen do, what was Larry really referring to?” Hartman said. “And so my question to Allen was really quite innocent: it was, look, can you just clear the air about your practicing habits, because we can’t see it but coach seems to have made this an issue.”

Iverson started his answer “pretty low-key,” Hartman said, “and then all of a sudden, it kind of flipped into another gear. And I guess the rest is history.”

That day hung over Iverson for the rest of his career, and it still does. The video gets played all the time, whether the conversation is about Iverson or any other pro athlete who’s accused of not giving their all during the week.

In 2016, Hartman crossed paths with Iverson at the NCAA men’s Final Four. Not only was it the year Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit that epic title-winning shot, but it was the year Iverson went into the Naismith Hall of Fame.

Hartman asked Iverson if he remembered who asked the question that sparked Iverson’s rant. Iverson said he didn’t. Hartman said it was him.

“He looked at me and he goes, ‘And I liked you!’” Hartman said. “And he went on to talk about how every day, he has to hear the word practice. Think about that: every day of his life, he had to hear someone say ‘Practice, practice! Not a game, not a game.’ And he said how difficult it was on his kids, particularly.”

Hartman believes Iverson “paid a pretty, pretty big price for a press conference that kind of went off the rails.” But like so many other people, he has no doubt that Iverson is a NBA all-timer, and still a magnetic figure in any arena he visits.

“His dress, his swagger, all those things came into play, making Allen an extremely popular player among that culture, and that age group,” Hartman said. “So I’m not surprised that Allen is still revered by those young players. He certainly deserves it because he did an awful lot for a guy that doesn’t weigh a lot, wasn’t all that tall, but man, he had an incredible heart when he wanted to play.

What Iverson said

“If I can’t practice, I can’t practice. If I’m hurt, I’m hurt. I mean, it’s as simple as that. It ain’t about that. It isn’t. It’s not about that at all. You know what I’m saying. I mean … But it’s easy to talk about. It’s easy to sum it up when we just talk about practice.

We're sitting here … I'm supposed to be the franchise player, and we're in here talking about practice. I mean, listen, we're talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We're talking about practice. Not a game. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it's my last. Not the game. We're talking about practice, man.

I mean how silly is that. And we're talking about practice. I know I'm supposed to be there. I know I'm supposed to lead by example. I know that and I'm not shoving it aside, you know, like it don't mean anything. I know it's important. I do, I honestly do. But we're talking about practice, man. What are we talking about? Practice? We're talking about practice, man?

We're talking about practice. We're talking about practice. We ain't talking about the game. We're talking about practice, man.

Then came this exchange with Hartman:

Iverson: When you come in the arena and you see me play … you see me play, don't you?"

Hartman: "Absolutely."

Iverson: "You see me give everything I got, right?"

Hartman: "Absolutely."

Iverson: "But we're talking about practice right now."

Hartman: "But it's an issue that you're …"

Iverson: "We're talking about …"

Hartman: "It's an issue raised."

Iverson: "Man, look, I hear you. It's funny to me, too. It's strange to me, too. But we're talking about practice, man. We're not even talking about the game. The actual game. When it matters. We're talking about practice."

How The Inquirer and Daily News covered it

“Infuriated at the notion that he might be traded and hurt by his coach’s recent comments about his work ethic, Allen Iverson pledged yesterday to return to the 76ers, with Larry Brown at his side,” Ashley Fox wrote in the next day’s Inquirer. “But what was supposed to be an upbeat occasion following a successful meeting with his coach turned combative as Iverson ranted about everything from trade rumors to criticism of his practice habits to his being the Sixers’ franchise player. In a half-hour session televised live, Iverson grew emotional as he lashed out - sometimes in expletive-laced responses - over the hurt he says he and his family have endured because of the constant trade rumors.”

In the Daily News, Phil Jasner wrote that Iverson “took us to a place we never have been. ... He showed us his deepest, rawest emotions. He showed us a swirl of feelings that danced from anger to frustration to cynicism to bemusement to sheer pain.”

Daily News columnist John Smallwood called it “an outpouring of stuff, a bursting dam of emotion that instead of washing things clean might have made them murkier than ever,” put forth by “a man speaking with a lot of hurt and frustration.”

Stan Hochman, meanwhile, was less sympathetic.

"After five years with Brown, Iverson still doesn't understand the difference between coaching and criticism, hasn't the vaguest idea of what Brown is constantly preaching about playing the game the right way, can't spell team if you spot him the 't-e,' has no concept of the role of the media, and thinks he's like you and me, ignoring the platinum jewelry, the entourage, the Bentleys," Hochman wrote. "He invites us to walk a mile in his shoes. Most Philadelphians would love to do that, if they could afford the $125 for those sleek sneakers. Meanwhile, they'll keep on talking about him, the undisputed champ of controversy."

As the Daily News cover alluded to, Iverson dropped quite a few expletives in his remarks. There were 22, by the paper’s count. Comcast SportsNet’s news director at the time, Tom Stathakes, told the Daily News’ Ed Barkowitz that he was willing to let it all air live on television instead of on a delay that would have let the station bleep out the curse words.

"There was a time when Allen really started getting emotional about it that we were debating whether to go to a delay, but for us to go to a delay, we would have to stop," Stathakes said. "We would have had to get out of it first and then come back, and I really think it was too compelling. ... I regret that he said [the F-word], but I have no animosity toward him. You don't know when somebody is going to say something. If I'd have known it, obviously we'd have put it on delay. But that's the beauty of live television and the guy was pouring his heart out. And we weren't going anywhere."

Iverson’s rant was fueled not only by wanting to show he had repaired a rift with Larry Brown, but by rumors that the 76ers might trade him. Inquirer columnist Claire Smith’s view was that Iverson’s remarks gave more cause for the team to ship him out.

"The bottom line? The Sixers are, if not a mess, a team needing a new direction," Smith wrote. "Iverson is not yet ready to accept that harsh truth. Sadly, it no longer matters whether Iverson protests; whether he professes love of coach, city and country; whether he promises to do what is needed to stay a Sixer. It is time to bring this chapter to a close."

Iverson didn’t leave Philadelphia until four and a half years later, when the 76ers traded him to the Denver Nuggets. But his spirit and legacy have never left this city, and probably never will.