On September 10, Allen Iverson signed a one-year contract with the Memphis Grizzlies. A perennial basement dweller of the NBA’s Southwest Division, the Grizz is likely the last stop for a player considered by some to have had a greater cultural and stylistic impact on the league than any player since Michael Jordan.
Drafted out of Georgetown with the first pick in 1996 by the Philadelphia 76ers, Iverson was a polarizing figure before he even stepped foot on professional hardwood. His diminutive stature and slight build for an NBA player (barely eclipsing the six-foot threshold and hovering around 180 pounds) made him a risky choice, but also a hero in the making for average-sized young ballers around the world. Reebok put its money on AI to prove the haters wrong, and the Sixer-savior-to-be took the floor for the first game of his rookie campaign wearing his own signature shoe model called “The Question,” in reference to the debate over his top-pick worthiness.
Seventy-six games at 23.5 points per game and one Rookie of the Year trophy later, it was clear that Iverson and Reebok were on the right side of history. The following year, Philly’s starting guard was rocking a new pair of kicks: “The Answer,” a nickname that would stick for the rest of his 13-year-and-counting pro career. (Last season, in Detroit, Iverson donned “The Answer XII.”)
But this emphatic affirmation of Iverson’s ability to hold his own in the pros proved that traditional metrics of NBA “success” needed redefining. Iverson’s résumé includes four scoring titles, 71 playoff games, an MVP award, and a whopping 10 All-Star Game appearances. Yet he has won no championships, has played on four different teams, and has never been able to entirely allay the criticisms of his game as too shot-happy, his locker room attitude as cancerously diva-ish, and his style as too gangster. After 13 seasons it’s clear that Iverson’s rookie year rejoinder raised more questions about what it means to succeed in the NBA than it answered. Iverson left Georgetown with a close crop ’do and one lonely tattoo, but the accolades and criticisms he drew during his first few seasons likely sowed the seeds for the subsequent blossoming of bodily ornamentation that would become a hallmark of his image. One tat became dozens; the bottom trim of his game shorts migrated further and further below the knee; evidence of his multi-million-dollar contract materialized around his neck and fingers in the form of precious stones and metals. The boyish crop was grown to ’fro length before being cultivated into an everchanging series of elaborately designed cornrows. And as these once unique fashion statements became ubiquitous around the league, it was increasingly clear that a changing of the guard in basketball’s culture was taking place, and that Iverson was
leading the break.
In honor of what could be his NBA swan song, we bring you an incomplete
inventory of Iverson’s most prominent ink. Each tat illustrates a different aspect of The Answer that will be indelibly infused into the No. 3 jersey destined to hang in Springfield, MA’s hallowed Hall.
Representing his roots is clearly one of Iverson’s priorities. “Virginia Slim” grew up in Hampton, VA but he spent four months in a correctional facility in the neighboring town of Newport News (“NBN” = Newport Bad News) for felony charges that were later dropped.
Growing up in extreme poverty as the son of a teenaged single mother, Iverson became part of a tight knit group of friends called Cru Thik. After his career took off, Iverson remained close to his Cru Thik brethren, whom he trusted to have his back without stroking his ego, later telling Sports Illustrated, “When I was growing up, no running water in my house, the electric lights turned off, these were the guys who were with me. I’m not going to turn my back on them now.”
This inclination towards steadfast allegiance permeated into his on-the court life as well. Though not always a model pupil or teammate, Iverson eveloped father-son relationships with both John Thompson, his coach at Georgetown, and Larry Brown, his coach for six seasons in Philadelphia. Of course, his relationship with Brown was not without its rocky moments. Iverson was benched for cursing at Brown during a game in 1998, and he unintentionally forged YouTube gold with the infamous “Practice” press conference. During the 2002 Playoffs, Iverson missed an instance of the aforementioned team function, so after Brown called him out on it, reporters asked Iverson to comment on the situation. Over a two-minute span, a bemused and only mildly repentant Iverson dropped the P-bomb 24 times as he tried to highlight the absurdity of the conversation: “We ain’t talkin’ about the game. We talkin’ bout practice. Not the game! Practice.” Iverson would later call Brown “the best coach in the world.”
Practice might not have always rated for AI, but when the lights go on he rarely holds back. Iverson’s game is predicated on his ability to create driving lanes toward the basket, through which he can then hurl his body. While the main goal of this hoop-ward reckless abandon is to get close-range shots, Iverson has never shied away from contact with de-
fenders. This style of play has earned him trips to both the
free-throw line and the trainer’s room, but despite his innu-
merable bruises and nagging injuries, Iverson has played at
least 60 games in all but three seasons.
With ever-conspicuous platinum and ice bejeweling his baggy off-court attire, Iverson became the symbol of hip-hop culture’s invasion of the NBA. (He even employed two bodyguards for the 1998-1999 season.) While the display of bling has long served to tacitly publicize the monetary windfalls of athletes, such an unabashed (and permanent) announcement of financial security calls to mind analogous moments in many hip-hop songs. If Iverson’s jewelry is like Lil’ Wayne’s claim that he can “make it rain,” then the “Money Bagz” tattoo is like T-Pain’s announcement that he’s “got money in the bank.” Every NBA player makes a lot of money, but until Iverson, none had ever been so wont to flaunt.
This somewhat horrifying image conveys what Iverson broadcast to the world in more elegant fashion on March 12, 1997. During his third career meeting with the Chicago Bulls, Iverson used his already-signature crossover dribble to devastating effect while matched up one-on-one with Michael Jordan. Faking left and going right, he calmly hit a jumper over the outstretched fingertips of the best basketball player ever, just like he bragged he would do as a kid. (Iverson outscored MJ 37 to 23 in the game, but the Bulls won by four.)
It remains to be seen how Iverson’s career will play out in Memphis. Though a 2009 record of 24-and-58 does not bode well for a possible 2010 Grizzlies playoff appearance, the team has a promising young core of players in OJ Mayo, Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and Hasheem Thabeet. The best-case scenario for the Grizz would feature Iverson as a spark of offense off the bench and a mentor to the team’s rising stars. But no matter how talented the supporting cast, it is hard to imagine a pass first version of the active NBA career leader in shot attempts. How Iverson will choose to play out his last years in the league is the final question in a career defined by them. As always, I’m eagerly awaiting The Answer.
NICK CARTER B'11 owns a pair of yellow “The Question” high-tops.