Emotional Allen Iverson Reflects on Hall of Fame Career
Allen Iverson strolled to the podium last night wearing a red Reebok t-shirt, blue ‘phila’ jacket, Philadelphia 76ers hat, an ear-to-ear grin that could only be worn by a man just voted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, the highest honor in his profession.
“Do you want to make an opening remark?” Michael Preston, Sixers’ public relations coordinator, asked Iverson.
“Do you want to go straight to questions?”
It was the only real way that press conference could have unfolded. Iverson has never been one to be confined to a script. Not on the basketball court, where putting the ball in his hands was an indescribable combination of poetry and chaos, and certainly not in the press room. Iverson’s always been at his best, and sometimes his worst, when raw emotion and passion were brought to the forefront. That doesn’t happen with canned opening remarks.
That has to be a terrifying idea for a public relations director who wants to control the message. Iverson going off script can lead to some headlines teams don’t want. The practice speech doesn’t even need to be referenced. It’s so ingrained in the public consciousness that providing a link to it is entirely unnecessary, despite the fact that it happened nearly 14 years ago to the day. That’s always a possibility when you give Iverson a microphone and ask for his free-floating thoughts. That’s the risk.
But it’s a relatively small risk, one far outweighed by Iverson’s ability to connect with a fan base at such a deep and personal level that’s almost impossible in today’s sanitized world full of prepared responses and corporate non-speak. Teams, front office members, and players have gotten so good at speaking without saying anything that Iverson is a breath of fresh air, perhaps even more-so now than when he played.
Sure, the more than 19,000 points Iverson scored for the Philadelphia 76ers helped his popularity, as did his trip to the NBA Finals, and his MVP award, and his 11 All-Star game nominations. Iverson could have taken the Chase Utley approach to talking with the media and been rightly beloved.
But that connection Iverson had with the fans, borne out of the raw emotion he so consistently displayed, was so incredibly unique, so refreshing, that it created a bond with the citizens of Philadelphia that only grows stronger with time.
“We connected. They loved me because I gave everything I had, and they honor that. I love them for what they gave me, the love and support that they gave me,” Iverson described. “There will never be anything like the relationship that I have with the fans in Philadelphia. I don’t think it’s possible. I don’t think it will ever happen.”
Allen Iverson’s favorite memory on the Wells Fargo Center court, which he playfully refers to as ‘the dance floor’, isn’t from a specific play or a great personal feat, but rather a connection he had with a fan base that had, through trials and tribulations, grown to love him.
“When I put my hand up to my ear,” Iverson said. “That sent chills all through my body, because I knew that [the fans] felt like I was feeling. They were excited like I was, if not more.”
It’s uncertain exactly which moment Iverson was referring to. Cupping his hand to his left ear to send the fans into a frenzy became one of Iverson’s signature celebrations, and it worked every time.
It could have been after the final buzzer in game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Toronto Raptors when, after unleashing 54 points, every one of which were needed, Iverson cupped his hand to his left ear and let out a scream of unbridled joy that basketball fans in the Delaware Valley can still hear to this day.
Perhaps it was while skipping across what was then referred to as the First Union Center floor, cupping his ear in jubilation as the seconds ticked down in game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, moments before jumping into the arms of his exultant coach, a relationship few thought had a chance of working just a few years earlier.
Truth is, the exact date of this specific ear-cupping incident has little bearing to the specific story. Odds are, anybody reading this has an emotional reaction to the thought of Iverson’s signature celebration, a moment in their head that can invoke a much better response than any one I can manufacture in writing, and the details of time and place are wholly unnecessary.
“I want my legacy to be the guy that came out and gave EVERYTHING he had. The whole 165 pound, 6′ frame, everything he had. I gave it. To my teammates, to my coaches, and my fans. I played every single game like it was my last,” Iverson said when asked about his legacy.
“I always thought in my mind, this may be the only time that this little guy gets to see Allen Iverson, so I’m going to give him everything I’ve got,” Iverson continued. “Because he might not be a season ticket holder, and see every single game, or be able to sit in the front row. The little man in the nosebleed seats gets to see this dude, and I always wanted to just put on a show for everybody on that particular night.”
Iverson has no idea what he’s going to do on the day he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame. “I’m up here getting emotional, with you guys, from this. So imagine what I’m going to be like when that day comes,” Iverson said, while fighting back tears after talking about support he’s gotten from his family and friends that carried him to where he is today. But that little bit of defiance, defiance almost necessary for such a small man to dominate a big man’s game, for David to overcome Goliath, is still buried inside his 165-pound frame.
“All I want is the people that love and care about Allen Iverson to feel good about that day. And the ones that don’t love him, I want my family, my friends, and my fans, to say ‘ah ha’,” Iverson said, laughing in a joking manner, but one which you knew is only partially a joke.
It’s been a long journey for the 6-foot guard from Georgetown. From poverty to fortune. From incarceration, to clemency, to freedom once again. From marriage, to divorce, to reconciliation. Iverson’s life has been much like his breathtaking forays down the paint: constantly knocked down, but always getting back up.
“I’ve hit the ground so many times and had to get back up. I’ve learned a lot,” Iverson said. “I’m a better boyfriend. I’m a better father. I’m a better friend. I’m a better son. I’m a better brother.
“It’s cool being not perfect. Because the only way you can try to get to being perfect is learning from your mistakes, I guess,” Iverson continued. “I would think that’s the way it is. Because there ain’t nobody in this <bleeping> room perfect. Ain’t none of us perfect.”
Perhaps that was some of the fascination with Iverson as well. Iverson wore his emotions on his sleeve, something which resonates in the sterile corporate-speak of today’s professional athletes. He didn’t hide from his emotions. His failures were out in the public. His attempts to come back from them seemed almost as much a part of our lives as our own.
In a game filled with 7′ giants that barely look like they’re the same species, physically, as the average fan who buys the tickets and pays for the merchandise that supports their salary, with players who are taught, and coached, on how to speak to show the least amount of personality possible out of fear of imperfection and controversy, Iverson was different. He was one of us. He stood like one of us, talked like one of us, and bled like one of us. He was the eminently relatable superstar, even to those he shared very little with culturally.
“Last one guys”, Michael Preston, the Sixers’ aforementioned public relations director said, signaling the end of the news conference.
“How you going to tell me when the last question is?” Iverson said, stopping the reporters question mid-sentence.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Preston said.
“Alright, well, I don’t play for the Sixers no more,” Iverson responded, briefly trying to act serious before busting out in laughter. “I’m just playing man. Goddamn. You’re looking at me like I’m serious.”
“You’re talking to a Hall of Famer like that?” Preston asked, referring to a line Iverson made earlier in the night that everyone in the building should feel like they’re in the Hall of Fame, since they all helped Iverson get to this point in his life.
“Yeah. Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Iverson said, taking a moment to walk over to Preston to clap hands.
“But seriously, last one guys,” Preston continued.
It was a fitting end, since the odds of there being another one like Iverson seems almost impossible. In many respects, he was the last one.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.