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Allen Iverson: The anti-Jordan

Allen Iverson is calling it quits. The Answer has not seen action in the NBA since 2010, and has not played professionally anywhere since 2011. One of the greatest individual athletes and considered perhaps the best pound for pound, the six-foot guard revolutionized the way the position was played. Night after night, he attacked defenses almost like Jonah wanting to get swallowed by the whale and emerging a winner. He took a pounding that often caused audiences to shudder, then picked himself up, dusted himself off, and did it all over again.

In many respects, Iverson was the rebel, anti-establishment antithesis to Michael Jordan. Jordan was clean-cut, sophisticated, well-groomed, corporate, designed to be a celebrity athlete endorser. Iverson was, well, a thug. Even in college, he had already gotten into trouble with the law. When Jordan shaved his head, Iverson got cornrows. For Jordan, long baggy shorts were a fashion statement. For Iverson, they were a personal statement. While Jordan’s skin stayed immaculate, Iverson piled on the tattoos.  Some of his fans were upset when he did a print ad with all of his skin art airbrushed off.

As a professional, there were a few gun-toting incidents, one forcing his ex-wife to request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the NBA superstar. You could get the player out of the streets, but you couldn’t get the streets out of the player.

When Jordan flouted NBA rules by wearing sneakers with forbidden colors, he was building his brand equity with Nike. When Iverson objected to the rules, he was doing it because he was making a statement. There was no financial gain. When the league instituted a dress code for the players, Iverson said the rule was ‘racist’ and ‘against people my age’, which didn’t really make sense.

AI was also plagued by a bad attitude. He was a coach’s nightmare. And even when teams cut him some slack and tried to project a positive front, he would disprove that they were getting along by doing something counterproductive. After he had left the Sixers, he announced that he would ‘do anything that it would take’ to help his team win. Then he promptly argued with his coaches and refused to practice. Again.

There were so many ironies and paradoxes in Iverson’s career, he stood out. At a time when Georgetown was known for producing quality centers like Patrick Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo, Iverson came out as the number one pick in the draft and became Rookie of the Year. Then he says out loud that he doesn’t need to respect anybody, prompting Karl Malone, Jordan and a bunch of other Dream Team members to get on his case until he relented. Still, Iverson earned 11 NBA All-Star slots, was a four-time scoring champion and a three-time All-NBA selection. In 14 NBA seasons, he averaged a stunning 26.7 points and 6.2 assists per game. In many wins, the ball touched his hands in practically every sequence when he was on the floor.

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 In Philadelphia, Iverson led a team of role players built around him and eventually took the Sixers to the Finals in 2001, despite his up-and-down-relationship with Larry Brown. His success on the court further endeared him to the masses. He was the underdog who made giants look bad. It was as if his game spoke for the ordinary Joe, the disenfranchised. And he carried himself that way.

Still, the measure of success was what he did on the basketball court – which cannot be denied. Iverson laid down the bridge between Jordan and LeBron James. Conversations revolving around best shooting guards of all time include him in the company of Jerry West, Jordan and Kobe Bryant. He was an MVP, and seemingly did the impossible. He embodied overcoming obstacles when the odds were against you. That is exactly what people loved about him. He was never happy in Denver or Memphis, but he says he never sold out by signing big offers to play in China.

There is no doubt in my mind that Allen Iverson will make it into the Naismith Memorial, but given his rebellious nature, he may not get voted in right away. After all, he was anti-establishment, and the establishment decides who gets in, not the fans. There will be a perceived period of ‘atonement’, as there was with Dennis Rodman. But the volume of his successes as a premiere scoring guard, and the longevity with which he did it will usher him in, probaly ahead of Tracy McGrady, who already announced his own retirement last week, as well.

Larry Brown says there will never be another Allen Iverson. In terms of his passion and raw ability, perhaps he may be. But in terms of his personality, I have my doubts.

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