The year was 2001. I was a freshman in high school at that time, and was probably more concerned with girls than the NBA, but it was a low point in my career as a basketball fan, nevertheless. My beloved Knicks had just traded Patrick Ewing that off-season in a clear indication that they could be rebuilding for a very long time. Though the Knicks made the playoffs that season, they were ousted in the first round by Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors. The Knicks wouldn't win another playoff series until 2013.
Naturally, when the Knicks were eliminated earlier than they had ever been in the last ten years, I became slightly oblivious to the rest of the playoffs, and started paying more attention to music than sports. I remember blasting new albums from Outkast and the Red Hot Chili Peppers from a boombox with the sound turned down on playoff games, subconsciously searching for a hero to rescue me from the mid-pubescent coma I had slipped into over the last several months.
Suddenly, during the second round series between the Raptors and the Sixers, Allen Iverson captured my imagination as a sports fan again. The diminutive guard was in the midst of an MVP season, averaging 31 points per game, despite being riddled with injuries. The rest of the Sixers team seemed completely bereft of talent, the only other star being shot-blocking and nose-breaking aficionado Dikembe Mutombo, whom they had acquired at the trade deadline via Atlanta in exchange for Theo Ratliff. Iverson, for the most part, carried the Sixers on his not-so-broad, but seemingly unbreakable, shoulders.
Aside from his game, Iverson's appearance and persona became a symbol of an era in the NBA, and in America at large. There were people that hated the fact that he showed up to every game dressed in baggy clothes, fitted hat, and a gold chain. There were plenty of people who labeled Iverson as a "thug," because of his corn-rows and tattoos, but Iverson responded to the negativity with an outpouring of hustle, emerging as the leader of a team playing in a city with some of the toughest fans on the planet. Iverson would lead the Sixers to one NBA Finals appearance, where they lost to Kobe, Shaq, and the Lakers.
Since that season, Iverson had a tough time bringing his team back to the same level of success, but he continued to be the same old controversial figure he had always been. His off-court problems ranged from dangerous drinking to compulsive gambling. Once, in 2005, Iverson went to Atlantic City after a Sixers win, and got in a heated argument with a poker dealer, who had overpaid him $10, 000 worth of chips. This was just one of his many incidents that helped paint the picture of Iverson as being a "bad boy." In the summer of 2000, Iverson had made a rap single called "40 Bars" under the stage name Jewelz, but was prevented from releasing it by NBA commissioner David Stern, because of derogatory lyrics about homosexuals.
But for every person who disliked AI, there were always twice as many who loved him for his candid personality. Over the course of his career, his disposition, along with his wardrobe, never changed. As Iverson took the podium to announce his retirement on Wednesday afternoon, the media was treated to some final quotes from the same player that had gone on his famed tirade about showing up late to practice. Iverson seemed to banter in a genuine way with members of the media that been so hard on him during his time paying in Philly. Media members would start to speak, and Iverson would smile and say, "I Know who you are, or "I recognize that voice." During his career, he had a love-hate relationship with the Philly media, but today Iverson seemed to give more love than anything acknowledging the fact that he had a bad image, but he didn't change, because he always wanted to "be himself," and allow athletes like him in the future to "be themselves." Iverson even pointed out that people used to be suspicious of the "guy with cornrows," but now "the policeman has cornrows."
In some ways, AI made it possible for an entire generation of basketball players and fans to just be who they are, and not have to worry about adhering to the standards of society. Said Iverson yesterday, "I never like wearing suits. I still don't wear suits." In an era in which athletes are expected to dress up in cashmere sweaters, or a suit and tie just to show up to games, Iverson remains engrained in his own style, appearing his retirement ceremony in a backwards fitted hat, a gold chain, and hooded jacket. In an ever-changing world, Iverson has managed to somehow stay true to his roots, never changing for even the harshest critics. Iverson didn't just give the NBA the greatest crossover dribble of all time, he taught the world to not judge someone's professionalism based on their appearance.