HANG TIME, Texas — He stood there at mid-court cradling the Most Valuable Player trophy and the transformation was complete.
Not quite a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, because Allen Iverson never would be described as something so light and delicate. But just as dramatic and, maybe, just as natural.
It was as jarring a sight that night at the 2001 NBA All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., perhaps, as seeing Mike Tyson in a set of tights with the Bolshoi Ballet or having the chiseled visage of Richard Nixon join the great ones high up on Mt. Rushmore.
Yet this was the way it had to be if his game, his league, his sport was to have continued hope to grow and flourish. For 14 seasons, people said Iverson was the changing face of the league — and that was not always meant in a good way.
But tattoos are only skin deep. Hairstyles change and grow, just like people.
The recent news that Iverson planned to announce his official retirement brought back a sudden rush of so many memories of the will-o’-the-wisp guard who broke ankles, broke protocol and broke the mold of what a little man could do.
He was Rookie of the Year (1997), MVP (2001), a four-time scoring champion, three-time steals leader, three-time All-NBA First Team member and twice was given the top prize at the All-Star Game. The first time, the award came for his performance in the nation’s capital when Iverson showed that behind the hip-hop persona of a modern player was an old-fashioned pro who simply lived and loved to compete.
The player whose reputation would a year later become eternally stamped by a rant about “Practice!?” was the ultimate gamer who brought the Eastern Conference from 21 points down in the fourth quarter of an exhibition game because, well, if you’re gonna play, you might as well try to win.
Iverson’s style was always far less an artistic display and much more a competitive exercise, as if there was something to prove. And there was. The guy who had been called “Me-Myself-and-Iverson” spent much of his career, as he’s spent most of his troubled life, listening to people doubt not only his motives, but what’s inside his heart.
He came into the league wearing tattoos and cornrows and bandanas and traveling with his posse. He put himself into the center of a storm with his caught-on-national-TV microphones slur about sexual preference to a heckling fan in Indiana.
Iverson was as far removed image-wise as one could get and still live on the same planet as two of the three players who preceded him in winning his first All-Star MVP trophy — the quietly purposeful Tim Duncan and the regal Michael Jordan.
He was the foam on the front of the new wave.
“I’m one of them,” Iverson said, “but I’m also me.”
For just over a decade that’s who the demanding, discriminating Philadelphia fans got to see: the fearless competitor, the tough nut that wouldn’t crack, the lump of coal that used the intense pressure to transform himself into a diamond.
A few months later, Iverson would willfully, sometimes it seemed singlehandedly, drag the Sixers to the NBA Finals and earn his due respect from the public at large. However, it was that game amid other All-Stars when he demonstrated to the masses what, behind the perception, was his reality.
In those flashing, brilliant final minutes when Iverson was everywhere on the floor, making steals, setting up fast breaks, scoring on twisting, jack-knifing drives, he could have been a player from any era, no different from Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Julius Erving, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and the other greats who had been introduced to the crowd at halftime.
He looked and acted different, this new kid, like new kids always have. They make us uncomfortable, force us to look at things from a different perspective. But what it was about that day was showing that many things never change on the inside, no matter how they’re packaged. Competitors compete.
Sometimes the torch is passed and sometimes it is a wild spark that burns down the forest to make room for new growth.
He was never going to be Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell. You were asking too much to replace that. They laid the foundation, established the game in the consciousness of a worldwide audience. They made it possible for the next generation to follow in their footsteps even if it meant never wearing their shoes.
The question, of course, is always: What comes next?
Allen Iverson was always The Answer, even when we didn’t know it yet.