By Thomas Gerbasi
December 2, 2016
The official tale of the tape on Allen Iverson reads six-feet tall, 165 pounds, but he always seemed so much smaller, at least on television, where he was David navigating a gang of Goliaths on the hardwood.
But in person, standing next to him, he appeared bigger than his listed height, especially since I was six-feet-tall but nowhere close to him size-wise. Maybe it was the aura of “The Answer,” or the reality that this was a finely-tuned machine who was built for battle.
And every 48-minute segment of his professional life was a battle.
Because as I stood courtside while on my third interview with the Philadelphia 76ers (I didn’t get the job), it was clear that the players that followed Iverson were all bigger and stronger than the guard from Georgetown, all capable of ending his night, season or even career with an inadvertent elbow, a flagrant foul on a fast break, or any number of freak accidents that can end badly for a 165-pounder engaging in a kinetic chess match with those who outweigh him by a hundred pounds or more.
Yet Iverson never let them see him sweat. He never wavered in the face of insurmountable odds, and his Hall of Fame career was built on attacking those bigger than him. For all the YouTube highlights of him crossing over Michael Jordan, taking over a game in the closing moments or dazzling crowds around the NBA, my lasting impression of Iverson is seeing him racing at fellow Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, all 7-1 and 300+ pounds of him, and daring him to block his shot or knock him down.
So when I found out that Iverson was teaming up with Roots of Fight for their Roots of Basketball collection, there was no more appropriate representative for the brand, because Iverson’s career may have been more apt for a boxing ring than a basketball court.
Simply put, Iverson was basketball’s greatest fighter. Not in a literal sense with his fists, but with his attitude, and that mindset was no surprise.
Ever since his days on the court at Georgetown, Iverson was fighting, and it wasn’t just one opponent he was squaring off against. He had to battle public perception after legal issues (he was later cleared) cut his high school career short. He had to deal with barbs from an old school media contingent not ready for his tattoos, cornrows and the clothes that made many describe him as hip-hop’s first NBA superstar. And he had to face a basketball world who didn’t appreciate a mindset that said if you want something done right, you do it yourself.
He didn’t always win, but if you battled Allen Iverson, you knew you were in a fight.
“All the things that I had to endure in my life, all the obstacles I was faced with, whatever it is, I fight through it,” Iverson said in the acclaimed Showtime documentary about his life, Iverson. “A weak person would break or give up. That’s just not me. Where I’m from, only the strong survive.”
In the process, he became an icon. And not your typical one, because icons never follow the status quo. For better or worse, he followed his muse on and off the court, and most importantly, when his sneakers were laced up, he played every game like it was his last, and only to win. If that meant he had to stare down Michael Jordan, he did it. If he had to beat Kobe Bryant off the dribble only to have Shaq waiting for him, so be it. If he had to take 30 shots a game, he was in. And if there were seconds left in the game and only one shot to go, he wanted to take it.
“Allen Iverson brought a lunchbox mentality,” former Sixers president Pat Croce said in Iverson. “Dive on the floor, sweat, cry, bleed, punch it. Philadelphia loves that.”
And he was the perfect player for the City of Brotherly Love, a tough sports town known for producing fighters, real and fictional, of a certain standard. He had Bernard Hopkins’ smarts and Rocky Balboa’s grit, Jeff Chandler’s speed and Joe Frazier’s finishing touch. AI was Philly, and Philly loved him right back.
“I don’t care about being misunderstood by the media, but my people, hopefully I’m not misunderstood by them,” Iverson said. “I just want them to say I was a fighter and a survivor and willing to get knocked down to be able to get back up.”
They do. And maybe the folks with the measuring tape did get it wrong after all, because when it comes to impact and influence, Allen Iverson has always been eight-feet tall.