Thursday, March 4, 2010

Thankful for the Answer

Allen Iverson is a complicated man. A polarizing figure. A divisive and galvanizing force at the same time. He is many different things to many different people. Selfish. Spectacular. Clueless. Incredible. He is all these things rolled in to one. What he is no longer is a Philadelphia 76er. Again.

To me and fans of my generation, Allen Iverson is one thing above any other: the greatest Philadelphia 76er of our time. I'm 25, soon to be 26. Doc and Moses and Mo and Toney were before my time. Sir Charles was at the tail end of his time in Philadelphia when I was really beginning to fully understand and appreciate the game. Allen Iverson was drafted first overall in the 1996 NBA draft. I was 12 years old. Allen Iverson grew up from an immature kid to not just a man, but the man in the NBA. At the same time, I went through puberty, went from a 12-year-old pre-teen without a care in the world to a teenager who thought he knew it all to a young adult. As Allen Iverson grew up in front of the glaring, overwhelming spotlight of Philadelphia, I was growing up too. I guess you can say we grew up together.

Like so many other kids in Philadelphia — hell, all over the world — we grew up watching Iverson's every move. Crossing up Michael. Taking home Rookie of the Year. Improbably dragging a franchise that was left for dead into the playoffs. Gaining the battle scars. 40 Bars. Trade rumors. Fighting with coaches. Finally embracing a vision. Getting knocked down, but more importantly always getting back up. Practice. Guns, fights, false accusations. MVP. All-Star MVP. NBA Finals. The step-over. The fall from grace. The trade. The return. The second trade. The second return. We've been there for it all, never missing a moment.

He was cast as the villain and the savior all at the same time. He was everything that was wrong with the NBA — his cornrows, his gaudy jewelry, his pre- and post-game attire, his aggressive swagger, his tattoos, his selfishness, his embrace of the hip-hop culture — and what made the NBA so great — an indomitable will, his heart, his passion, his toughness, his awe-inspiring talent. More than anything, Allen Iverson mattered. He made following the NBA fun, made following the Sixers the most important thing in the world. Young fans loved him. Old fans loathed him. Everyone had an opinion on Allen Iverson, and everyone watched him, waiting to see just what he'd do next. I honestly don't know what my life would be like had Allen Iverson never stepped foot in Philadelphia. Not just as an NBA fan, but as a person. His effect on my childhood, my teen years was that great.

I was always a Sixer fan. As long as I can remember. Before Iverson arrived, Dana Barros was my favorite player. Clarence Weatherspoon was the team's "star." But the Sixers were terrible, and my dad wasn't the biggest NBA fan. Sure, he liked basketball and watched it often, but I only remember going to one Sixers game with him as a youngster, a beatdown suffered at the hands of the Spurs at the Spectrum. Whereas I spent countless hours at the Vet taking in literally hundreds of Phillies games and a handful of Eagles game, not to mention heading often to Flyers games, the Sixers were an afterthought. In an age of Prism in the land before Comcast, I watched as many Bulls games as I did Sixers games, because Jordan's Bulls were on national TV as much as Sixers road games were on basic cable in my home in Mayfair.

Then Allen Iverson came to town and everything changed.

And I mean everything. Comcast started airing every Sixers game —  home and away. Teamed with Jerry Stackhouse, who was drafted the year before, the Sixers were teeming with two talented young stars. But even Stackhouse couldn't approach the excitement, the electricity that Allen Iverson displayed on the court.

His sheer presence drew people in, and from the moment I laid eyes on the rookie from Georgetown, I was hooked. For life. Never again would I view basketball the same. I became obsessed. I wanted to be Allen Iverson. Suddenly, every white kid in the suburbs was flying to the hoop with reckless abandon, palming the ball like crazy trying to perfect a cross-over even Tim Hardaway was jealous of. We watched him cross up Mike, average 23.5 points per game as a rookie, play 40 minutes a night, dish 7.5 assists and swipe 2.1 steals, cruise to Rookie of the Year. And we couldn't look away. No one could.

He made the Sixers relevant again. All by himself. And the organization knew it. They had found their star. The Sixers became a bankable commodity, and Philadelphia quickly built a team around Iverson's considerable talents. Across the league, the Sixers became a must-see team, filling every arena. Everyone wanted a glimpse of Allen Iverson and the upstart Sixers. Once the organization found a coach brazen enough and smart enough and good enough and bold enough to stand up to Allen, to demand more from Allen, the Sixers returned to glory. Larry Brown rode Allen Iverson to the playoffs. Then they went to the summit, ultimately failing like so many teams in this city have before.

All the while, the city got hooked in. During the Iverson era, the Sixers took a back seat to nobody. They were the headline. And every kid in the area had the Questions. Annually, I'd head to Finish Line or Champs or Foot Locker and buy the newest Iversons. I owned a jersey, bought A.I. shorts. Hell, I even purchased this:

If it had Allen Iverson's trademark on it, I was buying it. Just like every other rabid NBA fan in this city and the thousands (millions?) of others across the nation. It wasn't always about right or wrong for us when it came to Iverson. He surely did plenty of things wrong — more than his fair share. But that's not what mattered to us. What mattered is that every single night he stepped out on that court, you knew, absolutely knew he was going to give everything he had. Every last ounce of his energy was going to be exerted on that court. He literally killed himself out on that court to try and win every single game. Maybe the way he went about it was flawed, but his intentions were always pure. Allen Iverson played every game of his life like it was his last. He always gave a damn. And we loved him for it.

Playing hurt became more than a sign of toughness for Iverson. It became his routine. Every night, here was this 6-foot-nothing, 160-lb. burst of energy throwing his body around, getting decked to the floor time and time again, but never relenting. He always got up. He always went right back inside, never backed down, never shied away from a challenge.

And from his rookie year of 1996-97 to 2005-06, his last full season in Philadelphia, Allen Iverson averaged under 40 minutes only once, his second season, when he average 39.4 minutes per game. No team in the league relied on one player more than the Sixers relied on Allen Iverson. And he went out and carried the franchise to the playoffs and ultimately the Finals on his back. From 1996-97 to 2005-06, his minutes per game look like this: 40.1, 39.4, 41.5, 40.8, 41.9, 43.7, 42.5, 42.5, 42.3 and 43.1. He led the league in scoring four times during that stretch, going for 23.5 points per game as a rookie to 22.0, 26.8, 28.4, 31.1, 31.4, 27.6, 30.7, 33.0. Despite never being known as a top-notch defender, he was better than you think, especially when it came to jumping passing lanes and getting steals. He averaged over 2 steals per game every season as a Sixer with the exception of his last full season, when he averaged 1.9 per game, leading the NBA three straight years from 2000-01 to 2002-03 in steals per game (2.5, 2.8 and 2.7).

He was a modern marvel on the basketball court. In an era when players continually are getting bigger, faster and stronger, here was a barely 6'0" guard weighing no more than 160 lbs going out there and embarrassing grown men twice his size on a nightly basis. Never has there been a player faster and quicker with the ball in his hands than Allen Iverson in his prime. Never. And never has a player of his stature suffered so much physical abuse on the court and continued to play at such a high level for so long. That's probably why his decline was so swift and sudden. All those years of hitting the floor finally caught up to him. But god knows if he had to do it all over again, he'd still never back away from a challenge, still throw his body around like a rag doll. That's just who he was, what made him so great to begin with.

Surely there will be those who remember him more for the practice press conference, the off-court indiscretions, the selfish, defiant attitude, his ball-hogging and immaturity. But many of us, especially those may age, will remember him for his greatness, which no one can deny. We'll remember him for all the amazing plays, all the incredible scoring outbursts, for resurrecting the Sixers, for reflecting the city of Philadelphia like no other athlete ever before or since. We'll remember him for that mythical 2000-01 season, where he willed the Sixers to the Finals, helped them top Goliath in game 1 and earn — and I mean truly EARN —  the MVP.

We'll remember him as the greatest little man to ever play. As the player who you had to watch every night, because you never knew when he'd go off for 40 or 50 or 60, never know when he'd do something so unbelievable that you couldn't have possibly conceived it beforehand. More than anything, we'll remember him as the Answer, the player who made the NBA matter again. The player who took the reigns from Jordan, whether the NBA, the media and old heads liked it or not.

Just like there will never be another Wilt, never be another Jordan, never be another Magic, there will never be another Allen Iverson. He truly was one of a kind. And frankly, through it all, through all the good times and the bad, I'll always be thankful, always be grateful I got to see it all. There will never be another Answer, and I'm not sure I will ever truly love another player the way I loved watching Allen Iverson.

He was The Answer. He was our Answer. And for my generation, that's something we'll never, ever forget.

BallHype: hype it up!

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