They have a 7’1” giant in Shaquille O’Neal in the prime of his powers and the heir apparent to Michael Jordan – a young Kobe Bryant – who has developed into one of the finest shooting guards in the game.
Coached by the legendary “Zen Master” Phil Jackson, the Lakers stormed into the NBA Finals by winning the last eight games of the season and winning the first three rounds of the playoffs; an unprecedented and undefeated run.
But on that summer night at the Staples Center, David brought down Goliath.
Facing the Lakers in the Finals were the Philadelphia 76ers, a rag-tag bunch of below-average talents, who were carried almost-singlehandedly by a 6-foot-nothing superstar by the name of Allen Iverson.
Surviving insurmountable odds, outscoring superstar rivals, and playing through a slew of injuries, Iverson was in the midst of the most magical season of his career. And in that first game of the Finals in Los Angeles, he exploded.
A day before his 26th birthday, Iverson scored 48 points – including seven in Overtime – to lead the 76ers to a shock Game 1 victory. He fearlessly attacked the 7-footed O’Neal, cold-bloodedly outclassed his rival guard Bryant, and had an answer for every scheme set out by the invincible Lakers. He immortalised Tyrone Lue in the worst way possible.
The Lakers won the next four games and the NBA title, but Iverson’s performance became the signature moment from the 2001 Finals.
Thousands of miles away in India, I switched the TV off excitedly after Game 1, bounced the basketball out to the nearest court, and, all by myself, tried to recreate the moments that I had just watched.
I crossover-ed invisible defenders, shot over imaginary stretched hands, imagined that I was Iverson and pretended that there were 7-footed Shaqs blocking my way. And just like Iverson had just done, I led my team to an unlikely, underdog victory.
I dream of the chance of one day seeing the most exciting player of our time play live before my very eyes, unfiltered by the TV screen or continental distances.
It’s October 2012, and that dream is finally realised. Now 37, – Iverson is wearing a jersey with Chinese characters spelling out the words ‘American Celebrities’. The occasion is far away from the day of his prime, the days when he played in NBA Finals games against Shaq and Kobe and where every shot added to the building blocks of his growing legacy.
This occasion is a meaningless exhibition game in Beijing, China, between the then-reigning Chinese Basketball Association champions the Beijing Ducks and a team consisting of some former American NBA players; some of them famous, some not so much. Jason Williams is there, so is Damon Jones and JR Reid. The Ducks feature former NBA All-Star (and China’s most-popular foreign player) Stephon Marbury.
But all the eyeballs are on Iverson.
Unfortunately, Iverson is a shell of his former self. Years away from his previous NBA appearance, away from his stint in Turkey, Iverson was looking to make an impression on the life-long fans who wanted to catch a glimpse of him, and even perhaps showcase his talents to interested Chinese teams. He manages to do neither. He rarely shoots, rarely attacks the basket, rarely brushes past the inferior defenders in front of him, rarely scores, and rarely creates.
David wasn’t beating Goliath anymore; as a matter of fact, David couldn’t even beat other Davids.
In his prime, Iverson was the ultimate dual personality of the sports world. On the court, he was unstoppable. He became the shortest player to be drafted number top in the NBA Draft. Through the course of a fantastic career, mostly with the 76ers, Iverson collected an MVP award (in the memorable 2001 season), a rookie of the year award, was an All-Star 11 times, led the league in scoring four times, and came within three wins of an NBA Championship.
Iverson was always much more than the statistics and the facts on the Wikipedia sidebar. The ‘short’-comings of his height never came in his way as he was always the star with the biggest heart on the court. Iverson’s efforts to outperform opponents of all shapes and sizes perhaps ranked him as the tile of ‘Pound-for-Pound’ greatest of all-time.
Iverson was the league’s fastest player – one of the fastest basketball players ever – and was the ultimate dual scoring threat, with a deadly jump-shot if he is left open and the speed to drive past his defender to finish around the basket if he is sagged-on too closely. Iverson became a cultural phenomenon. Because of his size, he was more relatable to the average NBA fan and soon became the most popular NBA player in the world as the Jordan era ended.
And then there was the other personality of Iverson; the one that some coaches complained about and the one that complained about ‘practice’. It was the personality that wore his heart on his sleeve and won both admirers and haters because of it.
It’s the Iverson who grew around poverty and crime, the Iverson who constantly attracted controversy off the court, and the Iverson who began to struggle on the court too, once his playing time suffered in his later stints in Detroit (Pistons) and briefly, Memphis (Grizzlies).
The potent mix of unstoppable talent and unmatchable passion carried Iverson to a successful NBA career, and even if you could never cap it off with an NBA title, he might have just done enough to be a Hall of Famer one day.
Unfortunately, once the talent started to fade away, once the speed left his legs, all that he was left with was the passion. As his NBA stardom ended, Iverson struggled to keep pace with his changing role in the basketball world.
Within just two years of averaging over 26 points and seven assists a game for the Denver Nuggets, Iverson found himself an NBA outcast. In the same year that his hardcore fans named him a starter in his 11th All-Star Game, he found himself playing basketball in Turkey with no return ticket to the NBA.
And if the ‘on-court’ Iverson was facing trouble, the ‘off-court’ Iverson began to face tragedy. Reports surfaced that Iverson was suffering with alcohol issues, with gambling issues, with legal issues, and having a tough time saving his money or his marriage. The memories of Allen Iverson as the most exciting player in the NBA were still fresh in our minds when we were hit with the reality of his downfall.
Earlier this week, Iverson told SLAMOnline that he is set to officially announce his retirement, bringing an end to years of speculation of whether he’ll ever get an opportunity to wear an NBA jersey again.
It was the end to a career that ignited the basketball-loving world for most of the past decade. Five years ago, few could’ve predicted that the story would end like this: with no last NBA shot, no victory tour, no standing ovation, and no hugging teammates.
In the near future, Iverson will probably receive his accolades, mostly from the Philadelphia fans, who became an extension to his family. He will have the jersey retired and will hear words of respect from his peers. But no matter the tribute at his retirement parties, it could never truly capture the adulation that Iverson’s career once deserved.
I saw Iverson play live a year ago in Beijing, but there are older images of Iverson that will always be fresher to my memory. Memories of him playing in 2001 against the Lakers, of him crossing over Jordan in 1997, his iconic SLAM cover photo, his playoff heroics, and many 50 and 60 point games he managed over the course of his career will always mean more than the Iverson that stumbled awkwardly out the NBA, into addictions, into tragedy, and eventually, into retirement.
Could he have won more championships in a better team? Could he have figured out a way to be a better team player and involve his teammates more? Could he have changed his style to become a role player and elongate his basketball career? Could he have changed his attitude so more NBA teams would be willing to give him another chance? Could he have been the greatest basketball player ever if he was five or six inches taller?
There will of course be a lot of questions as his career ends.
But there will only ever be one ‘Answer’.