Allen Icon

Forget what KRS-One said, Allen Iverson is hip-hop — not to be confused with Hip-Hop, the Philadelphia 76ers’ mascot-rabbit. Since entering the NBA in 1996, the Answer has been the physical manifestation of the four elements in the league, a quality that endears him to some and vilifies him in the eyes of others. He’s recorded a gangsta-rap album, his on-the-court moves often suggest the energy of a b-boy taking the floor, and his body is covered in elaborate graf. Iverson’s tattoos, among which are the inscriptions Respect, Loyalty, Soldier, Hold My Own, Fear No One, and Only The Strong Survive, are links to his troubled past and visual representatives of his headstrong philosophy.

“In a sense, Allen Iverson is Tupac with a jumpshot,” says Michael Eric Dyson in Larry Platt’s engaging Only The Strong Survive: The Odyssey of Allen Iverson. “Like Tupac, he carries his history with him. Like Tupac, he says to America, ‘It’s not that I’ve transformed — you have changed your understanding of what is capable of coming out of a black body from the ghetto with writing all over it and cornrows, the very things that once signified the worst elements of blackness to you.”

Along his journey from the streets of Newport News, Virginia, to the NBA, Iverson has endured struggles — living in a home with an open sewer line, surviving a summer during which he lost eight of his childhood acquaintances to violence, and spending three-and-a-half months in jail for a racially charged melee he was wrongly convicted of starting. Once he reached the league, he dazzled crowds and produced timeless moments — stepping over Tyronn Lue in the NBA finals during an MVP season, crossing over (and thus disrespecting) the great Michael Jordan. USC professor Todd Boyd devotes an entire section to this changing of the guard in Young, Black, Rich and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture.

“In the eyes of his critics, Iverson was a young man from an impoverished background who had been fortunate enough to make large sums of money playing in the NBA,” writes Boyd. “They wanted him to be grateful. From AI’s point of view, he saw this as an opportunity that he had earned by virtue of his skill, and he felt no need to be humble. As he saw it, humility was not even in the equation, and Iverson was far from humble. He was not just confident in his ability, he was also fearless.”

That fearlessness eventually led to some overblown off-the-court moments for which the rabid Philadelphia sports media picked him apart — including the now-infamous “We talkin’ bout practice, man,” press conference, and the circus surrounding a 2002 arrest that charged Iverson with four felonies and ten misdemeanors, all of which were eventually dropped. While Muhammad Ali is now celebrated for his influence on rap music and hip-hop culture, Iverson is often reviled for similar associations and characteristics, including “keeping it real” — perhaps to a fault.

It’s still somewhat difficult picturing the Answer in Philadelphia without Larry Brown on the sidelines. Their partnership, the NBA’s version of The Odd Couple, provided ample drama during Brown’s tenure in Philadelphia, and their reunion in the Athens Olympics showed just how much Iverson had matured and Brown had regressed. One of the sharpest chapters in Larry Platt’s Iverson tome describes the 1999-2000 season, in which A.I.’s tattoos were airbrushed by the league for the cover of its Hoop magazine, Brown himself attempted to institute a team dress code and failed, and then-owner Pat Croce pushed both men to reconcile for the sake of his franchise.

“There’s a communication gap here,” says Croce in the book, mediating a private meeting between the two surprisingly sensitive men. “Coach, Allen has told me this. He thinks you treat him like those white guards did when he was in prison — ‘sit over there, nigger, and don’t move.’”

“Brown had no visible reaction, but inside he was stunned,” writes Platt. “Brown never imagined that anyone might interpret the way he communicated as somehow racially insensitive.”

These days, dress codes are the norm in the league and the communication gap has, in many instances, expanded, but, like hip-hop, Iverson and other NBAers of his ilk have transcended race to become preeminent league citizens (albeit citizens with their own styles). When basketball pioneer George Mikan passed away last season, it was Iverson’s fellow rapper/baller Shaquille O’Neal who stepped up and paid for the funeral expenses. Last month, A.I. handled the funeral costs for a Philadelphian who died three years after he was shot for refusing to give up his Iverson jersey to a group of thugs. But given the hoopla over headbands and the new ball, you probably didn’t hear about that. 

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