NBC had framed Allen Iverson in a marvelous shot to set up the final 51 seconds of Game 5 of the 2001 NBA Finals, a cameraman getting low and tilting his lens upward so that Iverson, as he walked back on the court out of a TV timeout, appeared taller and more majestic than his spindly 6-foot frame would suggest.
The 76ers were losing by 10 to the Lakers, the outcome of the game and the series mere formalities. The crowd at what was then called the First Union Center gave Iverson and those Sixers a standing ovation. Then it gave them another one a few moments later, when Larry Brown emptied his bench and Iverson, spent after averaging more than 43 minutes per game over 93 regular-season and playoff games and winning the league’s MVP award, trudged to the sideline and chucked one of his black wristbands into the stands.
That scene, 20 years ago Tuesday, should take on a new and fresher resonance around here as the Sixers advance through this year’s postseason, and it should inspire a re-evaluation of Iverson’s 10 seasons as the franchise’s centerpiece. The rants about practice and the oft-troubled life away from basketball will always leave people wondering whether Iverson, as great as he was, could have been even greater. If he had only taken better physical and emotional care of himself … If he had only trusted his teammates more to take and make open shots …
Those flaws will always be at the forefront of some minds, and they were real and consequential. But in the light of hindsight and the evolution of the NBA, in the era of load management and player-created superteams, there ought to be a renewed appreciation for what Iverson did for the Sixers and the league, and for how he did it.
In so many ways, he was a forerunner of this time, and in so many ways, he would be an anomaly in it. Yes, just by being his cornrowed, tattooed, unapologetic self, Iverson helped inspire a movement for increased individuality and freedom for players throughout the league, not just in how they dressed or carried themselves, but in where they decided to play. But if Iverson paved the way for LeBron James, Kevin Durant and James Harden to pick their teams and dictate the terms of their destinations — Miami, Cleveland, Golden State, Brooklyn — he never indulged in a similar power play himself.
Five years ago, in an interview not long before Iverson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, former Sixers president Billy King revealed that, for all the off-the-court controversy surrounding Iverson, he was in one way a model employee: He didn’t try to play the part of a general manager, didn’t demand that the roster be set up to suit him and threaten to leave if it wasn’t. He never inserted himself into front-office matters or discussions.
“He knew that people came to see him play, but he really didn’t get involved in that,” King said. “It was about playing basketball and trying to win than let’s say his brand. He never once said, ‘Hey, I want this guy. Can you get me this guy? Trade this guy.’ Not once in his career did he say that.”
Remember, too: Iverson did not choose to leave the Sixers, to sign somewhere else to chase a championship. They traded him, and the byproduct of Iverson’s loyalty to the franchise and the city was that the city remained loyal to him in return. Those kinds of civic and community connections matter in sports, more than a daily fantasy gambler or even a team’s GM might admit. They’re why, if the Nets’ squad of mercenaries fails to reach the Finals, so few people in Park Slope or Williamsburg will be upset about it. They’re why basketball fans in Milwaukee so prize the presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo. And they’re why a title run by this Sixers team — with homegrown stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, with Tobias Harris deciding, after a nomadic first seven seasons in the league, to settle here — would be so special.
Still, it’s hard to imagine this team forging a closer bond with its fan base than that 2000-01 team did. More than anyone, Iverson was responsible for that bond, and even Embiid, with his personality and his breathtaking array of basketball skills, can’t match the mixture of affection, admiration, and pride that people here felt for Iverson. No player today, on any team, could. No player, with the possible exception of Russell Westbrook, would be allowed to. A high-volume, low-efficiency scorer playing 40-plus minutes, playing with Iverson’s fearlessness and toughness, playing every night?
“When we traded him,” King said, “some of the guys on that team — the marquee guys, Andre Iguodala — their minutes went up, and they realized what he went through to play that amount of minutes he did and to do it every day. They realized, ‘Wow, it’s a lot harder than we envisioned.’ They had a better appreciation of what he went through in the games, the amount of minutes he played, the banging he took. They had a much better appreciation afterwards.
“He took a franchise and carried it to the Finals with a bunch of guys who really did their roles, whether it was playing defense or rebounding the basketball. We had one scorer, and it was Allen. I don’t think you’ll see that again.”
To be in the building that night 20 years ago, as Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers celebrated together, as Iverson blew kisses to the spectators as they stood and roared for him, was to recognize the truth in King’s words. The moment was unique, but it was fleeting, and it meant more because it was singular and oh-so brief. The Sixers haven’t come so close to winning a championship since, and maybe this is the year that those two decades of emptiness end. Either way, those years have elevated Allen Iverson, and they should have. He is taller for the passing time.