The enigma of Allen Iverson is one that remains somewhat under examined on a deeper level. He was such a cultural icon in US sports and general pop culture. Iverson was the folk hero of the basketball world: Born into poverty in a single-parent family in Virginia, Iverson was always incredibly gifted at sports, receiving multiple college scholarship offers. He was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison at age 17 following a brawl at a bowling alley before being given clemency after four months.
His prison stint cost him all his scholarships, yet Iverson thrived in Georgetown and became the 1st overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers in a stacked 1996 NBA draft. Other players taken in that draft included Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Steve Nash, Derek Fisher, and Stephon Marbury.
At just over six foot and under 170lbs, his slight frame relative to his NBA counterparts established and magnified Iverson’s underdog status. He was the relatable and loved not just in the city of brotherly love, but across the basketball spectrum. In people’s eyes, he was the anti-Michael Jordan. Not because of his play but because he was the player the public believed was one of them. As Russ Bengtson wrote, “Jordan represented an unattainable ideal, Iverson was the people’s champ”.
2001 was peak Iverson. An MVP regular season campaign culminated in a 56-26 record for Philadelphia and a top seed in the East. Iverson fought through multiple injuries during both the regular season and playoffs, leading to the famed infographic and follow-up commercial which displayed his incredible list of physical ailments. In game 1, commentator Kevin Harland alluded to Iverson’s bumps and bruises. In his words, Iverson was “seemingly bouncing off the floor 10, 15 times per game”.
They defeated the Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks in 18 combined games before facing the Shaquille O’Neal-led Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. The Lakers were heavily favoured, having come through three rounds without a single loss on their record. They were riding a 19-game winning streak. In the Staples Center in L.A., the expectation was a sweep. Four games, four wins. Shaq, Kobe, and Coach Phil Jackson would continue as the heir to the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty in the 1990s.
1st Quarter – Setting The Stage
Despite facing an early 16-0 run and a cold spell of shooting, Iverson begins to find his rhythm. Mixing a layup on a fast break with a beautiful pull-up, mid-range jumper as Kobe closed in, Iverson finds inventive ways to score. A gorgeous fade away from the right as the shot clock expired has even the rapturous L.A. fans’ approval, voicing their pleasure with the over-exuberance of a midday talk show audience. Another mid-range jumper from the right near the baseline, an Allen Iverson speciality. The seeds of his preferred choice of shot are firmly planted in that area of the court for later use.
Jab-stepping and faking to gain space with moving his two feet, he hits a long two-pointer. Harland’s co-commentary team points out Iverson’s fearless play: “He can miss 10 shots in a row then get hot, and want that 11th one”. On a blocked shot, Iverson breaks forward with one defender in his way, passing behind the back to provide an easy layup. Another takeaway by the 76ers leads to an easy layup for the point guard. With another long two near the end of the half, Iverson and Philadelphia take the lead with a 19-5 run at the end of the first quarter.
2nd Quarter – Adapt And Learn
A much quieter 2nd quarter, but Iverson springs into life with just over four minutes remaining, sliding past two defenders before taking a hard foul on his shot from O’Neal. He makes the free throws. Seconds later he drops another long two off an inbounds pass from the left side, further from the baseline. Off a lovely feed by Aaron McKie, Iverson finds a hole close to the hoop, opting for a short jump shot instead of facing O’Neal again under the basket. A sign of Iverson’s adaptability was how he learned what worked and what didn’t. The jump shots are falling, but more hard fouls in the lane could further injure the Philadelphia star.
Bryant is double teamed into a loose pass. Iverson steals it for an uncontested layup. After a crossover, Iverson draws a foul from Fisher on a shot. He makes two more free throws. The camera hangs on a befuddled Fisher scratching his head. On his mind were the call by the referee and the difficulty of defending Iverson. With 31 seconds left in the half, Iverson stretches the lead to eight with a three. 30 first half points for A.I., 76ers up by six at the half.
3rd and 4th Quarter – Lue Puts On The Pressure
Starting the 2nd half, Iverson throws up an alley-oop over everyone to Jumaine Jones. Confusing every defender on him with his ball handling, Iverson steps back for space and hits another long two. Another steal and Iverson outpaces O’Neal on the break for an easy layup. With Bryant marking, Iverson jabs and shoots left for a long two again, this time from the left side. He later navigates through heavy Lakers defence to find Tyrone Hill for a shot in the low post.
At this stage, Phil Jackson springs future NBA champion player and coach Tyronn Lue into action to defend Iverson. Lue is reasonably fresh and does an excellent job in the fourth quarter to stifle Iverson to only three points. It seems as though ‘The Answer’ conundrum has indeed been solved. Dikembe Mutombo misses what would have been game-winning free throws, Eric Snow clangs a buzzer beater off the rim.
18,997 fans get a break in tension for the first time tonight. Credit goes to Lue on the final play of regulation, preventing the ball from going into Iverson’s hands. It’s a learning moment for the Philadelphia guard.
Overtime – The Answer
In overtime, a missed O’Neal effort comes to Iverson, as he finally experiences open court. He is fouled on the shot, the camera lingering on his annoyed expression. At this stage, Iverson has scored only four points in his last 22 minutes on the court. He makes both free throws.
Poor shot selection by Lue leads to a break. Iverson receives possession outside the three-point line. Lue tries to recover, having fallen as he shot seconds before. The three goes in. The 76ers retake the lead by two with 80 seconds left. A poor pass by Rick Fox leads to a turnover with 65 seconds remaining. Philadelphia slow the game down, the ball is given to Allen Iverson. There is under a minute left and a two-point gap. In front of a raucous L.A. crowd, Tyronn Lue faces Iverson. Raja Bell has dragged away any double team possibility. The game is on the line…
The next few seconds are a symphony of the lessons learned throughout the game. A visual masterpiece. ‘Show don’t tell’ is a common practice in filmmaking, and Iverson has shown what he likes and what he does not. His jab steps, crossovers, fade away, mid-range shooting near the baseline towards the right-hand side of the basket. In this moment, he understands how well Lue has defended him, and that he needs to create a gap for the shot.
Iverson jab steps, sells a right-to-left crossover, and throws up a contested fade away shot with whatever space he makes. Lue loses his balance over Iverson’s leg after turning to see if the shot went in. It does.
Aftermath – An Icon Is Born
Sitting on the court as he watched Allen Iverson’s shot fall, Tyronn Lue looked up at the Philadelphia 76ers point guard leering back at him dismissively. The diminutive Iverson looked like an unscalable mountain looming over the reserve Lakers guard, having just scored his 47th and 48th points of Game 1 in the 2001 NBA finals in overtime.
Iverson added insult to injury in a moment iconic not just in NBA history, but in wider US culture. He stepped over Lue in front of the Lakers’ bench with the same exaggeration and emphasis the average person would avoid excrement on a path. He meant it that way. Lue wasn’t on his level, nobody was. Iverson wanted to show as much disrespect to Lue as everyone had shown to his team in the build-up to the Finals.
Lue knew the crossover was coming, but was as powerless to stop it as he was regaining his balance after tripping over Iverson. That balance of the game had swung against the heavy favourites from the western conference. The League MVP stuck a dagger into the heart of the Lakers. ‘The Answer’ had offered questions to the Lakers for the first time in 12 playoff games. “Now it’s a series” declared O’Neal after the game, indicating that the Lakers had believed the hype around them a little too much. They would win four straight games and seal the title.
On this day however, Allen Iverson was the king of the world. Before the era of LeBron James and after Jordan’s peak, he had a moment of immortality that he would never reach again. Philadelphia’s adopted son had outplayed Philly native Bryant. The world, like Lue, was at Iverson’s feet. For a brief time, the underdog was top dog.