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The Dream, The Answer and their Common Ground

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Six

PHILADELPHIA, PA – MAY 23: Former Philadelphia 76ers player Allen Iverson walks onto the court to deliver the game ball before the game against the Boston Celtics in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on May 23, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

A friend of mine recently recommended that I listen to Asher Ruth. I downloaded some of his tracks, and before long, I was cursing myself for taking the chance. As I was about to press the (Alt+F4) key to relieve myself of the misery, a line of his composition caught my attention.

The song was called “I love College”. The soul and the emotion of the song still remain an unfortunate accident to me, but somehow between all of the unnecessary and feckless analogies and allegories, the singer had made one of the most intriguing combined referrals to two legends of the game. The lines in question are:

“I’m next on the table, who want what 

I am champion at beer pong 

Allen Iverson, Hakeem Olajuwon

Don’t even bounce, not in my house”

Now, I guess the lyricist meant nothing more than to grab the listener’s attention with a much inappropriate referral to the two transcendent superstars. But his serendipitous referral meant a far greater implication, something that got my mind racing.

Hakeem Olajuwon and Allen Iverson: “The Dream” and “The Answer”. Two players, who in many ways defied the contemporaries and scripted their own distinctive legacies that would forever reside in the heart and minds of anyone who was fortunate enough to witness them, showcasing their skill on the court. Now before one starts scorning at my audacious attempt to compare the great Hakeem to Iverson, I would definitely like to state that I am not unaware of their legacies.

Hakeem definitely has a far greater resume, winning two NBA Championships en route to providing the city of Houston their much coveted coronation. A two-time NBA Finals MVP and a former League MVP, Hakeem was the greatest big-man in the 90’s and rightfully is considered to be in the same league as the Russell’s and the Jabbar’s.

25 Nov 2000: Hakeem Olajuwon #34 of the Houston Rockets moves between Brian Brant #44 and Anthony Carter #25 of the Miami Heat during the game at the American Airlines Area in Miami, Florida. The Rockets defeated the Heat 91-80.

Allen Iverson, on the other hand, though providing the NBA with many gravity-defying highlights, is always going to be known as a player who promised much but never delivered. The skill was there for everybody to see, but to sustain and to make the most out of his talent he needed to live a life of far greater discipline than he was ever willing to. Driven by his allegiance and interest in becoming a rock-star, he led a life much similar to the defiant fraternity. And when the curtain does fall, he is going to be considered as the player who had the ability to do it all, but alas, the promise was never fulfilled.

So, what is it that can be seen as a common-ground between these two very contrasting legacies? A 6’0 guard, who thought he was too good to turn up for practice; who believes that his greatest achievement was executing his much famed cross-over on Michael Jordan. And on the other hand, you have a 7’0 Center, who lived and played like a model professional, and most importantly ended his career as a NBA Champion; not just as a player who schooled the likes of Patrick Ewing and David Robinson.

But, if you look through their careers carefully one can see a definite common standing point; a play-off series that saw them escalate from a rostrum of ordinary players to a pantheon of the greats.

The years in question are 2001 for Iverson and 1995 for Olajuwon. For Iverson, the series was the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Raptors. The series saw him pitted against the formidable Raptors led by their all-star forward in Vince Carter. Carter was the clear-cut NBA superstar that Iverson could never be, and not so surprisingly, he was cast as the villain. Iverson’s history and legend did him no favours, famous as an autocratic and egotistic ball-hogger, someone who played a game bigger than the team itself.

However, the Philadelphia faithful had slowly started to see over his shenanigans and histrionics, embracing him for his ability and passion. In Iverson they saw hope, and an opportunity to win back some vindication. Not since the great Julius Erving had the Sixers had a franchise player who could be considered among the best in the league. Philadelphia loved its sports franchise and inspired by its tradition of street-ball and rap-stars, wished to see the same level of flair and crude ruthlessness from the Sixers. And Iverson was a sign for all of that, a player who embodied their fads, played to match their fantasies and promised to win some spangle and glitter. The streets of Philadelphia had seen many youngsters like Iverson, fall into the traps of ills like drugs, crime, etc. Iverson for them meant a hope, a chance to wish for a better future.

CLEVELAND – FEBRUARY 22: Allen Iverson #1 of the Detroit Pistons looks on while playing the Cleveland Cavaliers on February 22, 2009 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland won the game 99-78.

Hakeem in the Western Conference semi-finals against David Robinson and the Spurs had a much similar story. He was a humble kid from Lagos, Nigeria who grew up unaware of the glitz and the glamor of the NBA. Hakeem didn’t come into the University of Houston with dreams of winning a Championship, but rather saw it as an opportunity to improve and get a chance to play the game he loved so much. His time at the University, the unique legacy of Phi Slama Jama, the sessions with Moses and his love for the city saw him become the signature image of the much disgruntled franchise. Hakeem had learnt the finer nuances of the sport in Houston, and the city embraced him as their first true legitimate star. To the whole city, he was their biggest hope, maybe the only ace in their pack of cards. He had won them their first Championship last year, and had given them a chance to dream of a legacy in the NBA. The next whim of the city was to see their prince repeat the histrionics of the last campaign. He was their hero, a hero they needed and they deserved. It was no Gotham, but for them, he was Batman.

The performances of the two superstars in the respective series can be cited among the greatest play-off performances of all time. Allen Iverson came into the Toronto series as the league and all-star MVP, and he validated his crown by torturing the Raptors en route to a memorable play-off win. He was brilliant in the whole series, averaging over 33 points in the series. The Raptors tried to double-team him, hassle him, trying to pull their own version of Jordan Rules. But the little guy was just too quick for them. And in this series, the league and the basketball fraternity got its first true measure of the insuperable basketball talents of Iverson.

When Larry Brown had chosen to play Iverson at the Shooting Guard position, he had received a lot of flak for the same. Iverson, as they said, was too small for the Shooting Guard role, and would be murdered when he would come up against the bigger guards. However, Iverson was anything but conventional, as he showcased in the series against the Raptors and against Ray Allen in the Conference Finals. He wasn’t big enough to take on the league’s Shooting Guards for strength or height, but he beat them for pace. He rose higher than them, sprinted faster than them, and somehow defied all physical odds in comfortably beating them day in and day out. He hit them with cross-overs, behind the back moves, the change of hands, the head-fakes, the step-back jumper, the baseline drives and wrap-around lay-ups. His eloquent and sumptuous offensive repertoire didn’t see any match in the league, and the NBA in reality had their own version of AND-1.

3 May 1998: Karl Malone #32 of the Utah Jazz in action against Hakeem Olajuwon #34 of the Houston Rockets during a game at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Jazz defeated the Rockets 84-70.

To the fundamentalists, he was all glitter and flash, but behind all the moves, there was a definite purpose, a reason which many pundits never understood. Make no doubts about it, Iverson may not be the hero in people’s living rooms, but on the streets there was nothing more popular and respected than AI. Unconventional, but he in many ways showed the world that the position of a Shooting Guard had more to it than what Jordan showcased, and in the true sense, was the modern-day answer to other street ball legends like Julius Erving. The pundits hated him for his attitude, called him too coarse and unrefined to be a NBA icon. But Iverson didn’t play for the laurels; he played for respect and all his game was about earning it, street-ball style.

Hakeem didn’t have a much different story in his Conference Finals against the Spurs. The resurgent Spurs were banking on the talents of their MVP Center in David Robinson, and many in the league believed that he would be the one carrying the mantle from Olajuwon. But Hakeem wasn’t ready to give up the throne yet, as he demonstrated why he wasn’t just the best in the game then, but among the best of all-time. Robinson was a good defender, but he had never come up against anyone like Hakeem, ever. Hakeem hit him with all his moves, the dream shake, the touch-down roll, the spin move, the jump-hook, the 10-feet jumper, the finger-roll behind the back, everything that he had. Hakeem took the wind out of the Admiral’s sails, left him bamboozled and confused like a baby in an open-tub. David Robinson was never sure what was going to hit him, as he fell for his ball-fakes, body feigns and was embarrassed by Hakeem on all ends. While Robinson was still trying to come to terms with Olajuwon’s immaculate talents, Hakeem was running clinics on post-play. In these encounters, he re-laid the foundations for the big-men in the league to watch and follow suit.

The two players did indeed revolutionize their respective positions and added a new dimension to the game all-together. Iverson with his ability to execute the cross-over, and step-back jump-shots; Hakeem with his dream shake and spin moves. New chapters were written; there were new drills introduced in the regimen of players.  But letting aside their skill and ability with the basketball, the two players also had something much more important in common.

The two players had heart, miles and miles of it. Something that you can’t learn in any coaching manual, or learn through any practice session. It is inherent in every human being, just that some are fortunate enough to realize its full vale and use it to the maximum. And it is these players who script the greatest sporting achievements of all time. An emotion deeply felt when the USA Ice hockey team defeated the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympics; or when the Texas Western Miners came up supreme in the 1966 NCAA Championship game, or for the movie buff’s, it is the focal point of every Rocky movie.

Both players were the only legitimate superstars in their teams, and carried the offensive load of the team for major parts of the campaign. They got beaten up and hacked every single night, had to fight their way through double-teams, and amidst all this intense struggle find a way to get their team involved and win. If you look carefully at the rosters of the Rockets and the Sixers, you can hardly dispute the fact that even Michael Jordan would have been hard-pressed to win with such a roster. Yes, supreme basketball ability is a rare gift, but having the heart to win against adversaries is a much rarer quality. The two players believed that they could win, and in their belief they inspired heroes of ordinary basketball players. In their determination, they aroused the spirits of the likes of Horry, McKie and Snow.

As Rudy Tomjanovich aptly summed it up, “We met a lot of non-believers in the way. To all those non-believers I would say don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”

The two players broke many conventions, defined and re-defined many fundamentals. They demolished many beliefs and gave their fans a dream that they needed and deserved; an answer that they may be needed and deserved too.

And here ends maybe the only thing that will ever be common to these two stars. Iverson faded away as a player whose talent remain unmatched, but his attitude was incorrigible. In contrast, Olajuwon retired as a model professional and a hero for many in Houston. He has had his jersey retired, and spends his time helping established stars like Bryant and James with their post-game. But, even if you may love to hail Olajuwon, and swoon down on Iverson, the truth is that for a brief moment in time, they were players who gave us the greatest basketball memories of all time.

The dream, the answer and their common ground!!

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