Four months after closing the book on an impressive playing career that spanned 14 seasons, Allen Iverson will receive perhaps the highest honor a team can give a standout player on March 1 when the Philadelphia 76ers, the team that selected him with the first overall pick in the 1996 draft and with whom he enjoyed his most prosperous and productive years in the NBA, will retire his jersey number during halftime of the team’s game against the Washington Wizards.
It’s another accolade for Iverson to tack on his extensive resume, one that should make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer in a few years.
Consider the achievements of some former greats who failed to win a championship but are nonetheless enshrined in Springfield, Massachusetts:
- Charles Barkley (NBA MVP , 11-time NBA All-Star, five-time All-NBA First Teamer, Olympic Gold Medalist)
- Reggie Miller (Five-time NBA All-Star, no All-NBA First Team selections, Olympic Gold Medalist)
- Dominique Wilkins (Nine-time NBA All-Star, one NBA scoring title, one All-NBA First Team selection)
- Bernard King (Four-time NBA All-Star, two-time All-NBA First Teamer)
- Chris Mullin (Five-time All Star, one All-NBA First Team selection, Olympic Gold Medalist)
Identifying players worthy of the Hall of Fame isn’t always an exact science. Some are obvious choices (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird). Other choices (Mullin, Ralph Sampson, Adrian Dantley) aren’t as obvious. Winning a championship or two helps, but not having a ring isn’t an automatic disqualifier. An athlete’s popularity, influence, records and total number of years played are also taken into account. Iverson’s case for the Hall of Fame, however, is pretty much clear-cut.
What makes Iverson’s Hall of Fame eligibility disputable in some circles? He was as provocative and mercurial as he is iconic.
Iverson announced his retirement in his own time and in his own way, but he hardly left the game on his own terms. After seemingly being shunned from the league because of his past transgressions and divulging his reluctance to continue playing overseas or work off some rust in the D-League, the former Georgetown Hoya was left with no choice but to end a futile endeavor to revive his NBA career.
His playing days are done, but his legacy will likely be scrutinized for years to come.
Despite the incredible talent he displayed for most of his career, Iverson’s greatness has been sullied by the negative headlines he’s generated outside of basketball, his perceived disdain for practice (the result of his infamous rant from a news conference following the 76ers’ exit from the 2002 playoffs), and his championship ring-less fingers.
Consequently, some pundits refer to Iverson as merely one of the best “little men” to ever play basketball. The Answer’s legacy, however, is much bigger than that. This isn’t Muggsy Bogues, Spud Webb or Earl Boykins we’re talking about. When you measure the totality of Iverson’s career and compare it to what notable Hall of Famers accomplished, how can you not reach the conclusion that he’s one of the all-time greats? It baffles me how some are still hesitant to recognize him as such.
For instance, over a year ago I read an article on ESPN.com in which five panelists debated whether Iverson and four other renowned NBA stars (Vince Carter, Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady and Rasheed Wallace) were Hall-of-Fame worthy, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why is Iverson’s eligibility even being questioned?” The most confounding facet of that article is where the sole panelist (Ethan Sherwood Strauss) who said he doesn’t consider Iverson to be a Hall of Famer endorses Carter, who has no MVP awards, All-NBA First Team selections, championship rings or Finals appearances, as Hall-of-Fame material.
Even if his career stats and achievements are debatable, Iverson’s influence on the game alone is reason enough to reserve his spot in Springfield, Mass.
LeBron James recently hailed Iverson as “Pound-for-pound, probably the greatest player who ever played.” James also said that A.I. was his “second-favorite player growing up” behind Michael Jordan, whom many consider to be the greatest baller of all time.
James Harden recently expressed similar sentiments about Iverson.
“[He’s] one of the best players, one of the best scorers, I’ve watched in a period,” Harden told CSN Houston. “He’s so small, but he got it done. He’s a warrior. I took some of the things from him as far as how much heart he had, and he was willing to compete with anybody. He’s just a great player.”
“[Iverson] changed the game. He inspired a lot of young guys to want to play basketball and be who they are,” added Harden’s Houston Rockets teammate, Dwight Howard.
Larry Brown, whose love-hate relationship with Iverson while coaching him in Philadelphia from 1997-2003 was one of the NBA’s most intriguing storylines, recently told the Philadelphia Daily News that being the guy who used to coach A.I. gives him more credibility with the kids he now coaches at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas than all his other impressive credentials.
“Aside from Michael [Jordan], I don’t think anybody had the impact on young people that Allen did who played this game,” Brown said. “Every day, I find that out. Everywhere I go you see a kid wearing No. 3. And wherever I go kids ask me questions about him: What it was like to coach him. It’s remarkable.”
Yes, many of today’s amateur and professional basketball players, particularly those who play at either guard position, were influenced by The Answer-tattoos, cornrows and all-in some way. He captivated spectators with his blistering speed, relentless scoring ability, lethal signature crossovers and uncanny fearlessness, often going right at players twice his size in the paint with no hesitation. His unique style rubbed people the wrong way at times, but it would later make things easier on players who followed him.
“I took an ass-kicking for me being me in my career, for me looking the way I looked and dressing the way I dressed. My whole thing was just being me,” Iverson said at his retirement news conference on Oct. 30. “And now, when you look around, you see all the guys in the NBA, now all of them got tattoos, guys wearing cornrows. You used to think that the suspect was the guy with the cornrows. Now, you see the police officers with the cornrows. I took a beating for those type of things, and I’m proud to be able to say that I changed a lot in this culture and in this game.”
Iverson was box office. Few players had as big a cult following as his. In his prime, he easily sold out Philadelphia’s First Union Center (now the Wells Fargo Center) and every other NBA venue. Everybody wanted an up-close view of The Allen Iverson Show. He also was immensely popular overseas. His competitiveness and determination to play through a host of injuries endeared him to fans around the globe and made him an admirable player.
But back to Iverson’s lustrous resume. His career achievements include 11 All-Star selections, an NBA Most Valuable Player award, three All-NBA First Team Selections, four scoring titles, two All-Star game MVP awards, and an NBA Finals appearance. I guess you can say the little guy achieved a lot in his day.
Of course, it’s easy to ascertain why Iverson has his share of detractors. He never captured that elusive championship, in college or the pros. He ruffled more than a few feathers with his rebellious and somewhat arrogant demeanor. He (presumably) wasn’t too crazy about practice, and he viewed coming off the bench as cruel and inhumane punishment. Some think he was just self-serving ball hog who often made it impossible to play alongside him.
Nobody’s saying Iverson was the quintessential ballplayer. He made his share of mistakes, on and off the court. He’d be the first to tell you that. Still, you can’t overlook the impact he had on the game. Iverson haters can harp on the fact that he has no championships all they want. But remember this: Winning a championship is a complicated process that requires a potent blend of astute coaching, chemistry, depth and good fortune. You can’t pin all the blame on one man when it’s a team sport.
Was Iverson selfish? In some ways, yes. But so is any other great player worth his salt. You think players like Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Howard aren’t selfish to some degree? You need at least a little selfishness to truly be great. I don’t believe Iverson intentionally tried to omit his teammates. But if you truly consider the lack of talent he was often surrounded by while he was in Philadelphia, would you have blamed him if he did?
Maybe Iverson could have been more enthusiastic about practice. But when game time rolled around, Iverson often was as ready as anyone on the court.
His ability to make players better or lack thereof? Depends on how you look at it. In my estimation, elevating the respective games of the players around you is a unique trait that’s usually honed by natural point guards, and despite his coaches’ best efforts to transform him into a Magic Johnson-type player, Iverson wasn’t that. He was who he was: an aggressive, undersized shooting guard with a penchant for hoisting shots and scoring a lot of points. What’s your definition of a two-guard? But that’s not to say he neglected to get his teammates involved. He still averaged 6.2 assists for his career and currently ranks third all-time in Sixers history with 4,385 assists.
Don’t let rumors of Iverson’s financial woes, family issues and drinking problems cloud your judgment with regards to his career. Don’t allow the “bad boy” image and questionable judgment he exhibited in his earlier years supplant the impact he ultimately had-and continues to have-on the game of basketball. He was a great player, but he’s also human. Personal struggles aside, he certainly did enough to cement his spot amongst basketball’s all-time greats. He should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He deserves at least that much. It’s bad enough his career ended unceremoniously. Why should the Hall of Fame voters delay the inevitable and make Iverson suffer more than what he already has?