As Allen Iverson gets set to enter the Hall of Fame, Ronan Mullen looks back at the journey which made him basketball’s pound-for-pound king.
The dust will barely have settled on one of this weekend’s blue-ribbon sporting events before the curtain raises on another.
Indeed, less than 24 hours after Friday night’s NBA honours ceremony in Massachusetts, boxing’s best and brightest will be putting on a similarly lavish show across the Atlantic.
Kazakh bruiser Gennady Golovkin sold out the O2 Arena quicker than most people can spellcheck his name, the chance to see him defend his historic knockout streak enough to make tickets for Saturday’s show the hottest in London town.
Not since Mike Tyson’s primal procession in the late 80s has a fighter truly laid claim to the moniker of ‘baddest man on the planet’, his tear through the heavyweight ranks akin to that of a ten pin bowling ball. More often than not, the skittles were skittering before Iron Mike had even hit the lane.
And while Golovkin has managed to reinvent that particular wheel of late, parallels with Tyson must be kept in perspective.
After all, any such comparison between a middleweight and a heavyweight is, by its very nature, an exercise in relativity. And although the mythical ‘pound-for-pound’ rankings have stirred bar-room chatter since the Marquess of Queensberry was still in short pants, they remain just that – mythical.
Granted, so obvious is the need for weight categories in boxing that there seems little need to devote any more 1s and 0s to the subject. David vs Goliath storylines are likely to remain firmly in the wheelhouse of Vince McMahon for some time yet.
More interesting, however, is the absence of any such categorisation elsewhere on the athletic spectrum. The fact that little Leo Messi can steal Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s lunch money is but one instance of that.
Similar examples abound in almost every discipline, yet basketball remains among the exceptions that prove the rule.
So difficult is it for a sub-six footer to succeed at the top level that there may as well be a rollercoaster-style height test at the combine. One need look no further than this week’s Hall of Fame class for proof of that.
Indeed, while the gargantuan frame of Shaquille O’Neal might be very much by the book, Allen Iverson’s is probably buried somewhere in the appendices. Such is the disparity between the pair that they could easily find themselves cast in an upcoming ‘Twins’ remake.
Whatever about Arnie, you suspect Danny DeVito would appreciate that particular decision. After all, he too made a career punching above his weight.
Mind over matter
Ann Iverson could be forgiven if her son’s life-plan hadn’t been meticulously planned out upon his arrival in June of 1975; at 15-years-old, she was barely sure of her own.
The pair’s unsteady foundations were shaken further when Allen’s father fled the nest shortly thereafter, Iverson Jr charged with being the man of the house before he’d even blown out a birthday candle.
If his baptism was one of fire, his life proved very much a trial in the same vein.
Iverson was a ‘celebrity’ before most children his age knew what the word meant, his prodigious talent long since predating his illustrious spell at Bethel High School.
It was there that the teenager vaulted himself into the stratosphere, entrenching his status as the most must-see ball player anywhere on America’s school scene. So seemingly boundless was his ability that the question was not whether he was destined for the top, but rather which sport would be lucky enough to coronate him.
As well as leading Bethel’s basketball team to the Virginia State Championships during his junior year, Iverson did likewise with the school’s footballers. His performances at point-guard and quarterback respectively saw the Associated Press crown him their ‘Player of the Year’ in both codes.
His partiality to the oval ball would ultimately give way to his passion for the round one, however, and while many college recruiters were keen to afford him the platform to fulfil his hoop dreams, events off the court meant his crown was already threatening to slip.
On Valentine’s Day of 1993, he and several friends were involved in a racial altercation with patrons at a bowling alley. Iverson was one of four arrested as a result of that melee, the group eventually charged with and convicted of ‘maiming by mob’ offences. A 15-year-prison sentence followed.
As it turned out, Iverson would spend just four months at Newport Correctional Facility before Governor Douglas Wilder saw fit to waive the remaining 56, granting the teenager clemency in lieu of what he deemed insufficient evidence.
While Newport robbed him of his senior year at Bethel, Iverson had tallied more than enough in the credit column to peak interest from all of America’s premier recruiters.
Georgetown University managed to win the Iverson sweepstakes in that respect, head coach John Thompson enticing basketball’s next big thing to join the Hoyas’ heralded production line.
To a large extent, his show-reel stint at the Washington institute would prove totemic of what was to follow. Stellar contributions to the almanac weren’t reflected in end-of-season hardware, Iverson’s stellar stats not enough to drive Georgetown to any national honours during his two year spell on campus.
A foray to the last 8 of the NCAA Tournament was the height of the side’s success to that end, but Iverson’s personal ledger was overflowing by the close of his sophomore year.
Having claimed 1996’s ‘Big East Rookie of the Season’ award during his maiden campaign, Iverson would close the curtain on his college career by becoming a first team All-American 12 months later.
Such was his stock that he opted to plump for the NBA a year early, entering the 1997 draft with the highest scoring average in Hoyas history.
Me, myself and A.I.
The 76ers decision to select him with the first overall pick spoke for his blue-chip credentials, Philadelphia keen to add Iverson’s face to the Mount Rushmore of their sports-mad city.
The trek north from Washington to Pennsylvania may have only been a few miles, but the move from the college ranks to the pros was a lot closer to a million.
Indeed, where off-court concerns had once been the only hindrance to his prospects, the environs of the NBA presented some altogether more practical ones on it.
Flourishing in the league’s land of giants was always going to be a tall order for the pint-sized point guard; at 1.8m, he was the smallest number one draft pick in history.
The mere fact that the 76ers were able to include themselves in that little wrinkle spoke for the gravity of their predicament, the NBA’s chutes-and-ladders meritocracy affording them a chance to work their way back from the bottom rung.
Iverson’s not-so-broad shoulders harboured the responsibility, Philly’s NKOTB flourishing as those around him floundered. He broke Wilt Chamberlain’s debut record of three straight forty-point games, the Virginian’s 50-point effort in Cleveland going some way to seeing him named Rookie of the Year.
Iverson would continue to produce lights-out performances in the years which followed, and yet his franchise largely remained out in the dark.
It wasn’t until 1999 that he got to pop his play-off cherry, propelling himself to the post-season while leading the league in scoring.
AI’s ascent in Philadelphia was not without its hiccups, though. In fact, such was the tumult surrounding his working relationship with head coach Jim Brown that those in the franchise’s front office were almost of a mind to pawn their crown jewel.
Common sense duly prevailed, with cooler heads off the court ultimately parlaying into red-hot performances on it.
The re-energised Sixers started their 2000-01 season with a club-record ten wins on the spin, Brown’s men managing to ride that wave all the way to a finals meeting with the star-studded Lakers.
Not since 1983 had Philly featured in a season decider, so it likely came as little surprise when their Hollywood opponents were tipped in all quarters to sweep the series.
And yet, Game 1 suggested that the Sixers hadn’t read the script; Iverson doled out 48 points to hand the Lakers their first play-off loss of the calendar year.
Despite ultimately fighting a losing battle in those Finals, the Sixers’ scintillating showing throughout 2001 suggested they were finally a force to be reckoned with in the wider war.
Central to that optimism was the reality that they now boasted the league’s Most Valuable Player, with Iverson having received the accolade courtesy of a career-high scoring average.
What seemed like a new dawn for the franchise ultimately proved to be a false one, however.
The five years which followed saw the franchise regress to their customary mean of mediocrity, Larry Brown’s departure in 2003 sparking the club’s head-coaching carousel into high gear. Randy Ayers, Chris Ford and Jim O’Brien all tried and failed to restore the genie to the bottle. Maurice Cheeks opted to see it off the premises entirely.
Iverson was bombed out of the city of brotherly love following a slew of unsavoury run-ins with Sixers top brass, his all too regular downing of tools enough to wear out Ed Snider’s long fuse. “We’re going to trade him,” confirmed the chairman in early 2006. “At a certain point, you have to come to grips with the fact that it’s not working. He wants out and we’re ready to accommodate him.”
Despite the unceremonious nature of his departure Iverson’s renown among the Philly fanbase remained Teflon; the fact that he left with the highest scoring average (28) in franchise history ensured as much. Such was his standing within the organsiation that the doors of the Wachovia Center would always remain open for Iverson.
Just as well. By 2009, it seemed most others had been shut in his face.
The long goodbye
Iverson returned home after a nomadic three year trek through the league, inauspicious stints in Denver, Detroit and Memphis proof where any was needed that faraway hills aren’t all that green.
Given how worn and torn his 35-year-old appeared during those final stanze, it came as little surprise that the one-year deal he signed in November 2009 was mooted more as a farewell tour than a tour de force.
The deteriorating health of his youngest daughter, Messiah, would cut that proposed 12-month stint by four, however, a February outing against the Bulls in 2010 proving to be Iverson’s last ever in the NBA.
Three more years would pass before he dotted the AI’s on his retirement, however, a brief flirtation with Turkish outfit Besiktas delaying the inevitable in that respect. As was his wont, Iverson sign-off as a Sixer in 2014.
The franchise marked the occasion by retiring his famed #3. They knew, after all, that despite what the ‘S’ on the label suggested, Iverson’s jersey would always be too big to fill.
His standing in the game had always trumped his standing on the scales, after all, his dynamism long since transcending his dimensions.
That his career scoring average of 26.7 points sets him sixth all-time speaks for that life-long propensity to punch above his weight. But where those above him on that list turned their records into rings, Iverson’s dearth of team success will always remain an asterisk in the debit column.
Not that it was for a want of trying on his part of course: the fact that his 29.7 scoring average in the post-season sits second only to Michael Jordan’s speaks for his contribution.
Jordan’s is a worthy measuring stick, after all. In the gamut of sporting discourse, his position as basketball’s GOAT is one which is rarely disputed.
But whereas MJ broke the mould during his career, AI seemed cut from a different cloth entirely, his performances offering the answer to a question that no one had ever even thought to ask.
It was Mark Twain who once asserted that “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.” Allen Iverson made him an honest man.