So this is the thank you Allen Iverson gets. This is what it has come to for the most influential athlete of my generation, the guy who proved you didn’t have to be named Jordan to be immensely marketable. He’ll end his career with the Memphis Grizzlies, but that’s not the story here. It’s about the complete lack of respect being given to one of the most exciting players in the history of basketball.
It’s ironic, really, that Iverson would receive this kind of treatment. He was once the face of the new NBA, the controversial, outspoken, incredibly talented and wildly popular player who bridged the gap between Michael Jordan and today’s league. Yet the same people who grew up watching basketball simply because they worshipped A.I. are the ones comparing him to Brett Favre today, ridiculing him for not wanting to give it up just yet.
They’re mostly 20-somethings (like me), just finishing college and entering the workforce, more likely to have blogs and tweet regularly, and also more likely to focus on the present with little regard for the past.
That’s what knocks Iverson from his pedestal. You could argue that he entered the league at the perfect time, an outlier of sorts, when the fans needed a new hero, David Stern needed a superstar and franchises were willing to dish out insane contracts to anyone who could put up 20 points a night. But now he’s on the downside of his career in the 24/7 media era, when more people have the ability to witness his eroding abilities than ever before. Makes you wonder how Ali would have been treated if he were fighting today. Or Willie Mays. Even Jordan got a pass.
No one has had a more difficult time stepping away than Iverson, whose fall from grace has been uglier than any off-the-court incident he’s ever been involved in. He’s probably the first superstar athlete of this generation to have the entire world watch his game deteriorate. At least Favre had a playoff team interested in him. Iverson had the Clippers and Knicks and ended up in Memphis.
This isn’t how we should remember The Answer.
If you became a sports fan in the mid-late ‘90s, you’ve watched Iverson closer than any other athlete. You’ve criticized him for acting a fool. You’ve been amazed by his ability. You’ve realized that while Shaq might get hacked, AI gets decapitated. Yet he continues to get up. You respect him for that. ESPN’s Rick Reilly once wrote that if there was one player he’d pay twice the ticket price to watch, it would be Iverson, who really makes you think twice about cheering for someone like Manny Ramirez.
But for all he’s one done in the game, his impact off the court might be what truly defines him. He’s been called a thug for always speaking his mind at a time when you can’t buy a quote from a great athlete – see LeBron, ARod and Tiger. Seemingly cut from the same cliché, those three will never reach people quite the way Iverson did. If you think about it, he and Eminem probably did more to bring two completely different cultures together than any celebrities in history. For awhile, his sneakers, jersey and crossover gave every sports fan something in common.
Iverson’s legacy stretches well-beyond basketball, which he was as good at as almost anyone at any time. It’s about his place in popular culture. It’s about his impact on fans of the NBA and even today’s players, like his new teammate, Mike Conley.
“I'm excited," Conley told the Associated Press. "He’s a guy I always watched growing up.”
We all did. Let’s not forget that.
(Full disclosure: Some of this was copied from a piece I wrote about Iverson last season)