Had the stars been aligned differently, Allen Iverson could have been just another young black man who had a run-in with the law. Instead, the story of his rise to prominence represents the point of intersection between the Civil Rights era and the hip-hop generation. For this reason, combined with his ability and willingness to always be true to himself without care for how his image is portrayed in the media, Iverson is the most interesting—and quite possibly the most important—athlete we’ve seen since Muhammad Ali.
Allen Ezail Iverson was first introduced to the American public in 1993 when, as a 17-year-old star athlete in the Hampton, Virginia area, he was involved in a brawl at a local bowling alley. During the brawl several people were hurt and Iverson, along with fellow teenagers Michael Simmons, Melvin Stephens, and Samuel Wynn were accused and convicted of a felony known as “maiming by mob” (this law was introduced to help prevent the lynching of blacks by whites, over a century ago).
Once the conviction was announced and the young men were sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, the black community of Hampton began to protest. They wore FREE IVERSON T-shirts and wrote graffiti on buildings that read JUSTICE FOR BUBBACHUCK (Iverson’s nickname). Members of Iverson’s Bethel High football team refused to talk to reporters, and some black leaders contemplated an economic boycott against local merchants and the media.
From one vantage point this was all new territory for this historically complacent community in southern Virginia, where the closest thing to a big city is Norfolk, 20 minutes away. At the time, the city’s major claim to fame was predominantly black Hampton University.
From another perspective, however, this emerging appetite for protest was to be expected. After all, just a few years earlier Virginia elected Douglas Wilder as the first black governor in the United States in the post Reconstruction era. The margin of victory was razor thin and was attributed to record black voter turnouts throughout Virginia, particularly in places like Hampton. To galvanize the new found energy Iverson’s case caused, a makeshift organization called SWIS (Simmons, Wynn, Iverson, and Stephens) was formed. To a large degree it was SWIS that turned the case into a cause célèbre.
At its peak there were more than 3,000 SWIS supporters throughout the country and they used this national presence to describe the case as a “judicial lynching” of “uppity” blacks by the white establishment. With such rhetoric going full tilt it wasn’t long before the national media, including Tom Brokaw, USA Today, The Washington Post, along with civil rights organizations the SCLC and the NAACP, went down to Hampton. In fact the NAACP set up a local office to monitor the case. Spike Lee even wrote a letter to Iverson voicing his support.
For all the publicity the civil rights-style protests garnered, it still looked like Iverson’s career would be derailed by the criminal justice system. The protests helped, but what rescued Iverson was the aforementioned election of a black governor in Virginia. Ultimately it was Governor Douglas Wilder who granted Iverson conditional clemency. In his official statement Wilder asserted that Iverson had been tried under an “antiquated law” that had “only been invoked once in Virginia’s history”. It’s safe to say that Iverson owed his freedom to the struggle for equality that made it possible for a black man to become Governor in Virginia.
Though Iverson was technically a free man after the Wilder pardon, he was now tainted goods in whom very few college programs expressed interest. One of the programs that did have interest was Georgetown University, led by Coach John Thompson. Once again, history was at work. Nearly a decade earlier Thompson had established the Georgetown program as one of the premier programs in the country, and he did it largely by creating a bunker mentality amongst young black men from America’s inner cities. Thompson was so successful that in 1984, he became the first African-American head coach to win a Division 1 NCCA basketball title.
Yet there was a dichotomy to Thompson. On the one hand the image of a massive black man presiding over a group of large often unsmiling young black men appealed to many of us in the inner cities. And for most hip-hop cats in the ‘80s, owning a Georgetown starter jacket was a must. On the other hand because of the bunker mentality and Thompson’s outspokenness on the impact of Proposition 42’s impact on black athletes, some sportswriters were rubbed the wrong way. The addition of Iverson to his program only helped to fuel some of those fires.
Despite the relationship to hip-hop and Thompson’s devotion to young black athletes, the pairing of Iverson with Georgetown was no match made in heaven. Firstly, Thompson was a disciplinarian. Even Iverson’s staunchest supporters would concede that Iverson, while a gifted and serious athlete, wasn’t the most disciplined. Secondly, Iverson was an offensive player. Georgetown’s fierce image on the court was based on Thompson’s emphasis on aggressive defensive basketball. Until Iverson joined Georgetown, Thompson was unmovable on his defensive stance.
Thompson, however, immediately recognized Iverson’s capabilities and a deal was made. Provided Iverson adhered to Thompson’s rules, he would alter his team approach to accommodate Iverson’s talents. Both men kept up their ends of the bargain and Georgetown once again became a nationally ranked team.
During Iverson’s two years at Georgetown, he didn’t just play well, he dominated the tough Big East conference and established himself as one of college basketball’s premier players, earning consensus first team all-America honors in his sophomore year. In 1996, with Thompson’s blessing, Iverson became the first Georgetown player to leave school early for the NBA draft.
Once in the NBA draft, fate once again was on Allen Iverson’s side. At the same time that Iverson declared eligibility, the Philadelphia 76ers hired a new President in Pat Croce. Croce was a young freewheeling, motorcycle riding counterculture individual with a flair for the dramatic and a gift for marketing. When the 76ers won the NBA draft lottery, Croce let it be known that the 76ers would take Iverson with the first pick in the NBA draft. Ever the shrewd businessman, Croce knew that drafting Iverson gave them the best shot at reviving their moribund ticket sales. Croce’s counterculture instincts sensed the potential marketing power of hip-hop, and understood that given his background, his attitude, and his skills, Iverson was on a trajectory to become the nation’s first “hip-hop” athlete. He wasn’t wrong.
Though the Sixers record barely improved, Iverson’s rookie season confirmed that his play and crowd appeal was as electric as advertised—and so was his attitude. Iverson had always been a fearless and confident player, but because of his brush with the law and Thompson’s desire for some degree of conformity from all of his players, his full personality was never on full display at Georgetown. It didn’t take long for Iverson to show his combative hip-hop bred personality to the league and its fans, and ironically it was two incidents with Michael Jordan that brought the total Allen Iverson into full focus.
The first incident was when after a game with the Chicago Bulls, Allen Iverson made the comment that he didn’t have to respect anybody on the court including Michael Jordan and the defending world champion Chicago Bulls. Rookies were not supposed to speak that way, but Iverson wasn’t boasting. In the parlance of hip-hop, he was just keeping it real, like a true hip-hop head would. Of course, Michael Jordan could have cared less if Iverson was a hip-hop head. He was not pleased with Iverson’s attitude and had this to say about it: “If you don’t respect anybody else in this league, you have to respect us.”
But Jordan missed the point. Iverson’s attitude was part of hip-hop’s “show and prove” mentality. The best players were not to be deferred to; they were to be taken head-on. When Iverson stepped on the court it didn’t matter whether superstars or scrubs were playing. He was going to “give it to them”. Unfortunately, other older NBA players didn’t appreciate Iverson’s brashness and they roundly criticized him in the national press.
Like the great Muhammad Ali, however, Iverson backed up his attitude with his ability, and the next time his 76ers played Michael Jordan and the Bulls, not only did Iverson not back down from Jordan, but in the hip-hop vernacular he “stepped to him”—albeit figuratively. Though the 76ers lost that game, Iverson made a move on Jordan that basketball fans still talk about. Using his patented crossover dribble, he “broke Jordan’s ankles”, meaning that he put a move on Jordan that rendered his legs useless in trying to guard Iverson.
It may have only been one game and one move, but it symbolized Iverson’s arrival as a star in the league and represented the dawning of the hip-hop era in the NBA. Even his fiercest critics had to acknowledge his on the court brilliance, and Iverson went on to win the NBA Rookie of the Year award.