Allen Ezail Iverson turned 42 years-old on Wednesday. Let that sink in. Philadelphia’s adopted son is aging further and further from the dynamic, gritty gladiator who electrified an entire city. The crossover king from Virginia is tattooed in the hearts and minds of the Philadelphia basketball devotees for his unmatched will to win, and his stature that far surpassed his size. Unique doesn’t begin to describe Allen Iverson, in any aspect of his career. Iverson’s competitiveness allowed a 6’0 165 lbs. guard to achieve the highest individual honor in the NBA, and carry a team to the Finals. His talent was only a fraction of the equation that led to his special relationship with Philly. Scoring points and destroying ankles is one thing, but AI’s crowd-pumping and reckless abandon solidified one of the city’s greatest love affairs. He was the smallest dog in the fight, but had the biggest bite.
He was basketball Rocky. Takes an elbow to the ribs… doesn’t matter. Gets constantly thrown to the floor by players outweighing him by 100 lbs… he gets up and splashes a jumper square in your face. You could not break him. He took your best punch, and answered with his own haymaker.
My first Sixers game was in December of 2004. I was nine years old. I was lucky to see three of my top five players of all time; Allen Iverson, Kyle Korver, and Andre Iguodala (For what its worth the other two spots belong to Joel Embiid, plus a tie between Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan). Considering the game was nearly thirteen years ago, my recollection of the game is spotty at best. But I do remember struggling to comprehend how I was in the same building as Allen Iverson. The man I viewed as royalty dropped 40 in a win over Milwaukee.
It was impossible to grow up a basketball fan in the 2000s around Philly, and not see Allen Iverson as larger than life. He was oozing with the qualities that make legends in the city. He was supremely gifted, he played every game like it was his last, and he showed us his true self.
Allen Iverson was the first basketball player I was enamored by, but the 2017 NBA Playoffs made my appreciation for Iverson fully blossom.
Let’s rewind to 2001.
The Los Angeles Lakers steamrolled their way to the NBA Finals. First round versus Portland, 3-0 sweep. Second round versus Sacramento, 4-0 sweep. Conference Finals versus San Antonio, 4-0 sweep.
The San Antonio Spurs featured the talents of; Tim Duncan, Antonio Daniels, and David Robinson. The Lakers were so viciously dominant their margins of victory over San Antonio were; 14, 7, 39, and 29. The Lakers weren’t beating people, they were handing out ass-kicking’s like they were free samples at the grocery store.
Shaq, Kobe, Derek Fisher, Tyronn Lue, Rick Fox, Robert Horry, Horace Grant… c’mon how is that fair ?
But all of those champion Lakers had no clue how to stop Allen Iverson in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Let’s get one thing straight about the ’01 Sixers. Allen Iverson was the MVP. Dikembe Mutombo was Defensive Player of the Year. Aaron McKie was Sixth Man of the Year. And after that trio of award-winners, the Sixers were extremely average. Those three players helped get Matt Geiger, Kevin Ollie, and Rodney Buford to the Finals for crying out loud !
So just when it looked like the Lakers would obliterate every single team that stood in their way, the little guy took over.
48 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 5 steals, only 3 turnovers, all while shooting 43% from the floor and perfecting 9 free throws. AI singlehandedly beat one of the greatest teams in the history of the NBA.
The Sixers would go on to lose the series in five games, even though Iverson was the leading scorer in four-out-of-five games. The Lakers won in-part to strong contributions from D-Fish, Rick Fox, and Horry. But the backbreakers to the Sixers’ championship hopes was Lower Merion’s most famous export Kobe Bryant dropping 24.6 per game plus a handful of rebounds and assists per contest. Finals MVP Shaquille O’Neal averaged 33 and 15. The basketball embodiment of a caged rhinoceros brutalized one of the greatest defenders of all-time in Dikembe Mutombo. The better team won the series.
In 2017 I believe there were two players who had similar situations to ’01 Allen Iverson, Isaiah Thomas and Russell Westbrook.
The Isaiah Thomas similarity is obvious. Thomas is 5’9 and plays like the biggest dude on the floor. The undersized southpaw put on a scoring clinic this season dropping 28.9 points per game. Thomas also gave one the greatest playoff scoring performances with 53 points against the Washington Wizards. IT is the most volatile scorer the Celtics have had since Paul Pierce. His willingness to drive through the lane and get bodied by physically daunting defenders is Iverson-esque. Thomas was the offensive firecracker behind the Eastern Conference’s No.1 seeded Boston Celtics. The Celtics’ season ended after getting rolled in five games by Cleveland, no shame in that.
The key difference between the two seasons is easily the supporting cast. It doesn’t take convincing to realize the most recent Celtics team is twice as deep as the 2001 Sixers. Only three Celtics did not average double-digit playoff minutes.
Russell Westbrook’s torrid season cemented his name in the history books. Westbrook averaged a triple-double and was the NBA’s scoring leader. Super-hero athleticism plus a big-time mid-range game allowed Westbrook to score at will. Containing a locked-in Russ is about as easy as stopping a runaway train.
Westbrook’s MVP-caliber season propelled the OKC Thunder to a 47 win season and the sixth seed in the Western Conference. Russ was finally the number one option on a team sans Kevin Durant.
The Iverson similarity is more apparent when you look at their teams. Take Westbrook off the Thunder and they win…. 25 games ? The sport has changed drastically and comparing the situations of Iverson and Westbrook is extremely difficult, if not futile. Both Westbrook and Iverson put teams on their backs, as they strived for a championship. Westbrook’s season came to a close, when OKC lost to the Houston Rockets. The series proved the likely MVP had little help.
The concept of, a 6’0 guard carrying his team all the way to the NBA Finals and handing a “super-team” a loss, is mightily difficult to comprehend in an era of stars teaming up with stars. The game has changed. One dynamic scorer leading a team to the promised land is an astronomically hard task. The mountain AI nearly summited in 2001 should be cherished and revered. He didn’t ask for help or stress over adding premiere talent. All Allen Iverson did was play as hard as he could with an “F-U” scorers mentality and a polarizing bravado that has never been duplicated.
Just imagine if he played with some friends…