Hall of Fame Speech Captures Iverson’s True Legacy

More than any achievement on the basketball court, Allen Iverson's bond with Philadelphia is his lasting legacy.

On Friday night Allen Iverson, a six-foot guard from Georgetown, was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Iverson was treated with near-reverence, as he should have been on this day of celebration. But it wasn’t always this way for Iverson. Not even close.

The cornrows, the baggy clothes, the tattoos, the checkered past. Iverson entered the league as anti-establishment as it gets, with an “I’m going to do it my way” defiance that was endearing to some, offputting to many, many others. Throw in an early-career fight with Jerry Stackhouse and an ill-conceived (and ultimately unreleased) rap album and Iverson only became more polarizing during the early part of his NBA career.

Sure, the winning helped softened some of Iverson’s rough edges. What the Sixers were able to accomplish during Iverson’s tenure – 5 straight playoff appearances, an NBA finals appearance, a 56-win season, iconic moment after iconic moment – may not seem too Herculean for fans of other NBA franchises, until you consider what happened during the decade before, and after, Iverson was in town. His 76ers career was an oasis for an otherwise irrelevant NBA franchise.

The scoring titles helped too, as did the MVP award, the 11 All-Star games, and the 8 All-League selections. But just looking at the on-court accomplishments misses the essence of the Allen Iverson experience.

Iverson connected with fans in a way that few athletes ever have, and perhaps ever will. The easy explanation for this is his size, a startling small “six feet” in a game filled with behemoths. Fans could look at Iverson and relate to him in a way they never would with the 7-1 Shaq or the 7-6 Yao.

In truth, Iverson’s speed and quickness, balance and coordination, his ability to change direction on a dime, to contort his body mid-air, to run a sub-5 minute mile with no training after spending a summer dining at Taco Bell, is in no way any more achievable for the average human being than Shaq’s 7-1 height. But the height is more noticeable, creating a sort of achievability-bias that certainly helped Iverson’s popularity.

While his normal-sized height may have kicked off his aura of relatability, his emotion is what sealed the deal. Iverson cared. He cared about the game. He cared about those close to him. He cared about the fans. And, perhaps most importantly, he wasn’t afraid to show it.

That was readily evident to the sporting public last night when Iverson, a six-foot ball of unrestrained raw emotion, was holding back tears before even saying a word. That was evident to fans who watched him throw his seemingly frail body into big men with reckless abandon, who watched him cup his ear to the ceiling imploring fans to get up and cheer at any big moment.

For many athletes, that show of emotion comes off woefully inauthentic. “Number 5 will always love you.” Right. For Iverson, it was second nature. People who try to “keep it real” frequently present a stylized version of themselves that they not only want the public to see, but also get the positive credibility being known as keeping it real provides. It’s, inherently, the very opposite of real, and usually more in line with bucking societal trends than actually being true to yourself.

But Iverson opened himself up in a way that few who spend so much time in the public’s eye ever do. The tears, the cracking voice, the emotion on the court. It provided more insight into the man than his clothes, tattoos, or hairstyle ever could.

In the process it helped Iverson overcome his frequent, and often times very public, mistakes. Mistakes that often seemed inexcusable at the time, actions that the public could never fathom doing themselves, but incidents he overcame by reminding us how human he really was. His imperfection was almost endearing, and the emotional connection created by his passion and sincerity a sort of Teflon for his mistakes, shielding him not from criticism but from outright condemnation, sort of like the loved family member who screwed up, who everybody knows screwed up, but who you can’t help but love anyway. A connection that allowed Iverson to persevere through his mistakes and reel us back in with his intoxicating personality and heroic exploits on the basketball court.

Iverson’s career spanned a weird intersection of time. Gone where the days when the private life of a celebrity was truly private, in an era where the always-connected nature of the internet was just starting to change the way our society operates, but before PR staffs and sports agencies had fully sanitized the message. Iverson’s persona could not be muted, for good or bad, in dress or in speech, and in many ways helped him connect with fans he otherwise may have alienated because of societal differences.

Iverson lived in an 8,000 square foot mansion, drove Bentley’s, and allegedly squashed a fortune most mere mortals could only dream of. He lived a lifestyle of the rich and famous, but reminded us that underneath the bling and the tats were very real human emotions, the kind of pain and suffering, of frailty and openness, of insecurity and vanity that transcended economic or racial boundaries.

Few have Iverson’s combination of captivating personality and ability to come off as absolutely sincere. That’s especially true in a sport that becomes more sanitized by the day, with agencies and PR firms more worried about avoiding controversy than creating a connection with the public. Answers to questions are predetermined, and carefully thought out. Prepared statements ghostwritten, void of sincerity and emotion.

For the vast majority of athletes this may be the correct course of action. Yet what Iverson showed is how strong of a bond can be formed between entertainers and fans when allowed to be authentic and true. Imagining what the world would have lost if Iverson had been bottled up, either in a suit or in a prepared statement, is terrifying.

Philadelphia fans had a connection with Allen Iverson that transcended play on the basketball court. More than anything, that’s the legacy he left behind.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.

Note:  You can watch Iverson’s acceptance speech at nba.com.