A certain fire ignited in Chris Paul’s eyes when he began talking about former 76ers superstar and likely future Hall of Famer Allen Iverson.
It was shortly after Iverson tearfully announced his official retirement from the game of basketball that Paul was asked what Iverson meant to him. Why he wore jersey number three. Why perhaps the toughest player, pound-for-pound in NBA history, left such an indelible mark on so many of his contemporaries and so many young players today, four years since he last played a meaningful game as a professional.
Allen Iverson was more than basketball. He was more than a culture, more than a city, a run to the Finals and a Gladiator-like Most Valuable Player season. He defined an entire generation.
“He meant everything to me,” Paul said. “I grew up in North Carolina and I loved Michael Jordan to death, but Allen Iverson had a bigger influence on the game of basketball than anybody. I don’t even think it is close.”
Jamal Crawford similarly idolized Iverson. His room was plastered with posters of the diminutive 2001 MVP. He saw him play in person for the first time in 1997, as a high school junior, when the 76ers visited Seattle. Crawford was 17 and Iverson was a rookie.
“I went to a game when he played the Sonics and I was with [Will] Conroy and [Iverson] signed my ticket stub and Will tried to shove a ball in his face,” Crawford said. “But I was the last person he signed [for] and Will was upset because we both loved Iverson.”
Iverson was arguably one of the most polarizing figures in the sports world for nearly two decades. He was a high school superstar, a Georgetown legend and entered the league as the unquestioned No. 1 pick in 1996. He wore braids and a headband and by the time he reached worldwide rock-star status had tattoos that covered every inch of his arms and torso. He was the anti*hesis of corporate America, a representation of self that was both unique and at times disruptive.
There was the infamous “practice” press conference, the unflattering way his boisterous career ended with a whimper and the alleged financial woes that followed. But those memories are finite. His passion for the sport, his 48-point performance in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, his toughness, his flair, his gravelly voice and sheer honesty as a person and a player live on despite his many tribulations and faults. Iverson was easy to love for young basketball fans, even young prodigies like Paul or Crawford.
“A lot of kids and even guys in the NBA will tell you the sleeves the guys wear on their arms, that’s Allen Iverson,” Paul said. “Some guys wear it as a pad, and stuff like that, but that’s Allen Iverson. When I was a kid, I wanted braids because of Allen Iverson. I wear number three, the way that I play, because of Allen Iverson.”
Asked what made Iverson so appealing, Crawford, who much like Iverson has dozens of tattoos and uses a devastating crossover to free himself for pull-up jumpers, said it was a combination of things.
“His style, the way he played, his heart, he was so little,” Crawford said. “But he was unstoppable. I was just going back watching tape and I was like, you got your crossover to a jump shot from him. He was like an artist and I got it from him. That crossover to a pull-up.
“I remember he was on the cover of Slam and he had his afro picked out like Dr. J and had the white uniform on and the diamond bracelet and I was like, ‘Wow.’”
The 76ers announced last week that they will retire Iverson’s No. 3 jersey on Mar. 1, three months after the Clippers make their only stop of 2013-14 in Philadelphia. But regardless of whether or not the 11-time All-Star’s uniform is hanging from the Wells Fargo Center’s rafters on Monday night or next season, it will always be Iverson’s town in the mind of his many admirers.
Second-year guard Maalik Wayns, a native Philadelphian who met Iverson when he was eight years old at a local basketball camp, said “If you grew up in Philadelphia, Allen Iverson was your favorite player.”
“I think he changed the game,” Wayns said. “I was just a little small, and quick, so it was like; those were the guys I thought I could be like in the NBA.
“Iverson’s just, you know, an inspiration.”
To this day, Green talks about Iverson. He said he played one-on-one against him after practice nearly every day for the first three years of his career… and never beat him.
He shares stories with Crawford and Paul and all of the Clippers who will listen. Green insists he got better every day because they were teammates.
“I wanted to beat him,” Green said. “But he’s so competi*ive. He was unstoppable.”
“There are a few guys since I’ve played in the league that I’ll never forget the first time I played against them and he was one of them,” Paul said. “It’s sad to see him retiring, but his imprint on this game will never be forgotten.”