Allen Iverson  
 


What does it take for a little man to dominate in the NBA? In Allen Iverson’s case, the answer is outrageous talent, in-your-face confidence and the heart of a giant. No one in the league can guard him off the dribble, no one his size goes to the hoop with more authority, and no one pours in points like he does when he's in the highlight zone. It has been a long, strange journey for Allen, who started as a football star and ended up as hip-hop’s favorite hoopster. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Allen Iverson was born June 7, 1975, in Hampton, Virginia. Allen’s mother, Ann, was 15 years old when she had him. His biological father, also a teenager, didn’t stick around, but another man, Michael Freeman, moved in with Ann and helped support the family from the time Allen was a toddler. Michael and Ann had two daughters, Brandy and Iiesha. Michael worked at the Norfolk shipyards and Ann, lacking a high school diploma, did what she could to find part-time employment.

Ends sometimes did not meet. Allen remembers the power and phone being shut off on more than one occasion during his childhood, and a burst pipe once trickled raw sewage for a month into the apartment they occupied in a rundown complex in Hampton. Allen’s mother was a pillar of strength through these years, telling her kids again and again that things would get better, and that nothing was out of their reach if they gave everything they had.

Infused with this confidence, Allen began to think he had a future in football. He played the game faster, better and smarter than anyone in his grade school. When tacklers hit him, they bounced off; when Allen tackled guys, they went flying. Although his football hero was Walter Payton, Allen’s position was quarterback. He had a great arm, and a natural feel for the passing game. He was at his best when he dropped back and the whole field was swirling around him. He loved the strategy and the contact and the violence of the sport.


 
 

Freeman thought Allen might also be a star in basketball. Hoping to get the boy interested in the game, he would take him down to the playground after work and point out the best players. Allen was not interested. To him, basketball seemed “soft.” When his mother bought him one of the first-ever pairs of Air Jordans and enrolled him in a hoops camp at the age of nine, he cried every step of the way. Allen’s day brightened up when he discovered several of his football friends were attending the same camp. He returned with a smile and thanked his mother for sending him.

Between basketball and football, Allen had enough to keep him off the increasingly dangerous streets of Hampton, where crack was ravaging the neighborhood. When he was tempted to hang out with the wrong kids, another boy from the neighborhood, Tony Clark, would rat him out to his mom. Tony, who was seven years older, saw something special in Allen and decided to become his unofficial big brother.

Around 1990, Allen lost the two most important men in his life. Tony was killed by his girlfriend when an argument escalated out of control. And Freeman was caught dealing drugs and given a stiff sentence. Ann, who had just given birth to Iiesha, was having health problems and, without insurance, her doctor visits and medication were draining the family’s finances. Their situation grew more desperate with Freeman in lock-up.

Allen was in his freshman year at Bethel High School at the time. At age 15, he had already established himself as the Bruins' best all-around athlete, and he was holding his own in class, but the family’s woes were just too much to bear. He quit sports and stopped going to school, and started hanging out, repeating the pattern he had witnessed countless times in his neighborhood.

Then, one day, the light flickered on. Allen woke up and realized that his mother and two sisters had no one to depend on but him. It dawned on him that he was the man of the house. Allen mapped out a long-term plan that would put food on the table, money in the bank, and get the family out of poverty for good. He would work his butt off for three years, earn a football scholarship, tear it up in Division I and then leave college early with an NFL contract in his pocket. It meant five more years of living close to the bone, but now, for the first time, he saw a light at the end of the tunnel.

During Allen’s sophomore year at Bethel, the money ran out and his mother was evicted from their apartment. The only housing option left was on the other side of town, and would add another 45 minutes each way to Allen’s school commute. Ann decided her son should stay with a family friend, Gary Moore—who had coached Allen in youth football—until she could regroup and move back into the neighborhood. Moore used the opportunity to fine-tune Allen’s daily routine: Get up early, eat a good breakfast, leave for school on time, get your homework done when you get home, and go to sleep at a decent hour. Moore also talked football with Allen, emphasizing the connection between making good decisions on the field and off it.

The time with Moore made Allen more responsible, and his mother and sisters did eventually move back. The pressure of having the family’s hopes pinned on him, however, could sometimes be overwhelming. Allen became moodier and more explosive. He never did anything really bad, but he would snap at teachers and coaches, and blow off school once and a while. His reputation as a head case began to rival his reputation as a quarterback, which, by his junior season, had turned him into the most highly touted athlete in Virginia.

Allen was honored as the state’s top quarterback after his sophomore year with the Bruins, and he earned the honor again in 1992, when he led Bethel to the state title. In the championship game, he threw for over 200 yards, intercepted two passes, and returned a punt for a 60-yard touchdown. Allen was also a Division I prospect as a defensive back.

Basketball, though still Allen’s second-favorite sport, had opened up other options. At just under six feet, with a 41-inch vertical leap, he had the college hoops recruiters saying he was the best high-school guard they had seen in 15 years. And this was as a junior. He had already smashed the state record with 948 points as a sophomore, and opened the following campaign with a 37-point performance. Allen was unbelievably quick off the dribble, and had great vision and shooting range. His cross-over move was virtually unstoppable.

On Valentine’s Day in 1993, the skies suddenly darkened on Allen’s future. He met some friends at a local bowling alley, and had a confrontation with some white bowlers in another lane. They knew who Allen was, and tried to goad him into a fight. A melee ensued, the alley managers called the cops, and they broke things up before anyone was seriously hurt. Allen had already slipped out at this point—he says he left the instant the first punch was thrown—but he was the guy everyone remembered, and he was the guy who was arrested for fleeing the scene. None of the white bowlers was taken into custody.

Allen spent the night in jail, wondering what else could go wrong. When he was charged with “maiming by mob”—a law on the books to prevent the lynching of African-Americans—the case became a national sensation. With the networks now focused on Hampton, dozens of top attorneys vied to take Allen's case pro bono. He chose Herbert Kelly, a top defense attorney. During the trial, held in July of 1993, Allen listened as several witnesses placed him in the middle of the bowling alley fight. Kelly instructed his client to keep his mouth shut, chose not to put him on the stand, and managed to discredit much of the testimony.

The strategy backfired when Judge Nelson Overton delivered a guilty verdict. The following month, Overton sentenced Allen to five years in prison. He was supposed to be starting his senior year in a Bethel football jersey. Instead, he was wearing the uniform of the Newport News City Farm. Allen believed the decision would be overturned, but in the meantime he would miss his most important football season. A college scholarship was no longer possible.


Walter Payton, 1992 Pro Line

 
 

In December of 1993, Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder pardoned Allen. The teenager took a long look at the options before him.

ON THE RISE

Allen chose not to return to Bethel High, and decided to work with a tutor to earn his high-school diploma. In the meantime, his mother contacted Georgetown University coach John Thompson, who had already heard about Allen’s case but knew little about the details. Ann promised Thompson that he was the perfect coach for her son. Thompson agreed to talk with Allen, and was impressed with the young man. After checking with some local coaches and watching Allen work out, he put a scholarship offer on the table. In September of 1994, Allen arrived on campus ready for a fresh start.

Allen blew Thompson and his fellow Hoyas away when the team started practicing. He had not played organized ball in almost two years, yet rather than diminishing his skills, the time off had only amplified them. He was bigger, faster, stronger and more aggressive, and he was playing for survival. Allen would shake his man at the perimeter, slice toward the basket, elevate from 12 feet out, and then slam the ball home as he soared past players several inches taller. At the other end, Allen would snatch rebounds away from the power forwards and centers, and then beat everyone down the floor on the break.

It had been several seasons since Thompson had a go-to guard. In the interim, he had recruited talented players for his front line. In 1994-95, the Hoyas had four good big men in Jahidi White, Jerome Williams, Don Reid and Othella Harrington. Allen started the year as Georgetown’s sixth man, but his effect on games was so immediate and dramatic that Thompson could not keep him out of the starting lineup. Teaming with two-guard George Butler, Allen tried to run the offense, but most of the time he ended up shooting a long jumper or taking it to the hole. When other Hoyas got their hands on the ball, they were reluctant to give it up. Although Allen made the Sports Center highlights after almost every game, he was too impatient, and the Hoyas lacked the chemistry to win consistently.

His aggressiveness, however, was not a problem at the other end, where he shut down opposing guards. Despite his freshman status, Allen was named the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Allen was one of three exciting young players in the Big East. Kerry Kittles of Villanova and Ray Allen of UConn were more polished, but neither one could cause people to leap out of their seats like Allen. And on those nights when the offense was in sync and Allen distributed the ball, the Hoyas were hard to beat. They proved this after eking out a bid to the NCAA Tournament, and then advancing to the Sweet 16.

That summer, Allen joined Kittles and Allen (as well as Wake’s Tim Duncan) on the U.S. team at the World University Games in Japan. They won the gold medal, but Allen got into a fight with his teammates after they hatched a practical joke on him while he was sleeping. Basketball was no joke to Allen. He wanted to put in one more year at Georgetown and then go pro.


John Thompson book
 
 

To accomplish this goal, Allen knew he would have to demonstrate to NBA scouts that he had evolved as a point guard. He would have to demonstrate the patience to let situations develop, and not force the action every time down the court. This he did from the outset, leading Georgetown to the finals of the Pre-Season NIT. In the championship game, however, Allen reverted to old habits and tried to do it all. He scored 40 but the Hoyas lost by 10 to Arizona.

Allen showed the NBA a lot during his sophomore year. He took what defenses gave him. When double-teamed, he racked up double-digits in assists. When they dared him to score, he did. When opponents challenged him on defense, he stifled enemy guards. In one game Allen racked up 10 steals. In another, he grabbed 10 rebounds. The Hoyas were looking like Final Four material, and Allen was getting Big East Player of the Year consideration. His main competition came from Allen, now in his senior season at Connecticut. In the second meeting between UConn and Georgetown, Allen dominated the Huskies, and finished off a 77-65 victory with a dunk in his rival’s face.

The Hoyas went into the NCAA Tournament with high hopes, and marched toward the Final Four with victories over Mississippi Valley State, New Mexico and Texas Tech. But in the Elite Eight they ran into Marcus Camby and red-hot UMass. Thompson looked to Harrington to stop Camby, a task he couldn't handle as Georgetown exited March Madness. Still, despite falling short of their goal, the Hoyas finished the year ranked fourth nationally. Allen was the proud owner of the school’s single-season scoring record, and added his second Big East Defensive Player of the Year award. He also was honored as an All-American.

As expected, Allen announced he would be eligible for the 1996 NBA draft. Thompson normaly did not like to see his players leave Georgetown without their diplomas, but in Allen’s case he supported the move wholeheartedly. A certain lottery pick, the sophomore would now be able to provide for his family all the things they never had.

On June 26, the Philadelphia 76ers used the first overall selection in the draft on Allen, making him the smallest player ever to earn that distinction. The pick was a judgment call by owner Pat Croce, a dynamic young personality who wanted a dynamic young star. Allen joined a club that included Jerry Stackhouse, Derrick Coleman and Clarence Weatherspoon. Beyond this quartet, however, the team lacked depth. Coming off a dismal 18-win season, Philly improved by only four wins in 1996-97, to 22-60. For coach Johnny Davis—in his one and only year at the 76er helm—the lone satisfaction came in passing on some tricks of the trade to his meteoric point guard.

Though the victories were few, Allen was sensational. His cross-over dribble, which some swore was a blatant carry violation, worked even better against the pros than it had in college. He just plain embarrassed guys. Once Allen was moving toward the basket, however, things looked a little different than they had in school. There was players who were a foot taller and outweighed him by more than 100 pounds, and they were quick and smart, too. He launched more than 1,500 shots in his rookie year, many of which were ill-advised. The upside was that Allen averaged a team-high 23.5 points per game, and kept his teammates relatively happy with 500-plus assists.

Others in the NBA did not look upon Allen quite as fondly. The trash-talking that had intimidated college opponents just irritated league veterans. When Michael Jordan advised Allen to show a little respect, the rookie snapped back that he respected no one. At the All-Star Game, during which the NBA’s 50 greatest players were honored, several Hall of Famers said they thought Allen’s attitude was a joke. When he was introduced during the Rookies Game, he was booed by the fans. Allen decided to shut up and put his game into overdrive. That April, he scored 40 or more points in five straight games, including a 50-point performance against the Cavaliers.


Allen Iverson, 1995 SLAM
 
 

The big news in Philly over the summer was the arrival of Larry Brown. The legendary coach was attracted to the job because of Allen—he had never tutored a player of his caliber. In their preseason pow-wows, Brown explained to Allen that his approach to the point guard position needed some adjustment. Granted, no one in the league could handle him. But if he looked for scoring opportunities every time down the court, that meant the other team didn’t have to worry about guarding his teammates. Brown showed Allen the stat sheets from his rookie year: the more he scored, the less likely the 76ers were to win.

With Brown at the helm, Philadelphia figured to do a little more winning in 1997-98. The 76ers added Jim Jackson to the lineup, and drafted local star Tim Thomas to go along with Stackhouse, Weatherspoon and Coleman. As the campaign progressed, Brown began to tinker with the team. Out went Stackhouse, Weatherspoon and Jackson, and in came Theo Ratliff, Joe Smith, Aaron McKie and Eric Snow. The club improved to 31 wins, played better defense, and relied on Allen as their leader. Sometimes he came through and sometimes he didn’t. NBA opponents, fearful of his cross-over, gave him more open shots from the perimeter. Allen’s long-range jumper was not yet good enough to take advantage of this opportunity, and he shot under 30 percent from three-point range. Though he averaged 22 a game, he again needed a lot of shots to get his points. It also drove Brown crazy that Allen's passing numbers dropped to six assists per game.

Allen worked on his outside shot during the offseason, which was a long one. A labor dispute interrupted th start of the schedule and dragged on into the new year. When the league resumed play in February, it was a 50-game sprint to the finish. Brown had continued to juggle his roster, dumping Coleman, drafting Larry Hughes, picking up center Matt Geiger, and promoting Snow to starting point guard. Allen moved over to the two and torched the bigger, slower opponents who had to cover him. He averaged 26.8 points to lead the NBA, and the 76ers made the playoffs with a 28-22 record. Philly beat the Orlando Magic three games to one in the first round, but were next swept by the Indiana Pacers.

Brown went into the 1999-2000 season confident his team had the chemistry and talent to be a major factor in the playoffs. He also felt he had a talent surplus in young backup guard Hughes, who most observers felt would blossom given more playing time. But with Allen and Snow logging big minutes, this wasn’t going to happen. In February, the 76ers traded Hughes for forward Toni Kukoc, who brought championship experience to the club. The move was a good one. Kukoc not only gave the 76ers another scorer, he was adept at breaking down defenses and then kicking the ball out for open jumpers.

Philly won 49 games, coming together as a team as Brown had been imploring them to do all along. Allen no longer had to finish atop the scoring sheet for Philly to notch a W. Sometimes he dumped in 40 and sometimes he contributed with 15. With the 76ers near the top of standings, he didn’t care. The real test came in the spring, when Allen sprained a toe and his shooting suffered. Snow picked up the slack and Philly kept winning.

Allen entered the playoffs still limping from his toe injury, and had a sore elbow, too. He played a couple of great games against the Charlotte Hornets in the first round, but when Snow went down with a bad ankle, Allen wasn’t sure he could shoulder the extra load. In stepped reserve guard McKie, who started lighting it up. He was so hot that Allen passed up several wide-open jumpers to get him the ball. The 76ers took the series three games to one.

Once again, the road to the finals went through Indiana. And once again, the Pacers had Philadelphia’s number. Reggie Miller lit up the 76ers in Game 1, Jalen Rose burned them in Game 2, and in Game 3 Indy scored 32 of the final 48 points to steal an eight-point victory. Just like that, Allen and his teammates were down three-zip. Philly grabbed Game 4, when another reserve, Tyrone Hill, had the night of his life and Miller was ejected for fighting with Geiger. Allen poured in 37 in Game 5 to make the series 3-2, but Indiana regrouped to take Game 6. As the final seconds ticked away, Allen, hurting all over, started to cry. It wasn’t just the disappointment of a playoff exit. It was the realization of how much deeper he and his teammates needed to dig to advance in the postseason.

MAKING HIS MARK


Larry Brown, 1992 Courtside
 
 

In 2000-01, Philadelphia roared through the regular season with 56 victories, tying for the league’s second-best record with the Los Angeles Lakers. Brown put essentially the same team on the floor. The major difference was Allen. He had an incredible year, leading the league in scoring for the second time with a 31.1 average. Game after game, Allen hit amazing clutch buckets, and made the league’s best players look like schoolyard chumps when they tried to D-up on him. He was now in his prime, and it was an MVP-caliber prime. At season’s end, in fact, he did win the award. The last 76er to be named NBA MVP was Moses Malone, in 1983.

The other crucial ingredient to Philly's success was a February trade for center Dikembe Mutombo. He gave the 76ers a defensive presence in the middle, and despite doubts that he and Allen could co-exist, they found an offensive rhythm that worked. Their Georgetown connection turned out to be the key. The Mutombo deal sent Kukoc and Ratliff to the Atlanta Hawks, a steep price to pay, but Ratliff—who was leading in the league in blocks— had shattered his wrist two weeks earlier. The 76ers really had no choice but to pull trigger to set their lineup for the playoffs. Mutombo ended up being named Defensive Player of the Year.

Round One of the playoffs gave the 76ers a chance to exorcise their demons, as the Pacers visited the Wachovia Center. When Indiana stole the first game 79-78, Philly fans prepared for the worst. But Allen and company restored their faith with an easy win in Game 2. Two tough wins in Indiana finished the Pacers, and brought on Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors for Round Two. The two superstars lit it up during the hard-fought seven-game series, with Carter reaching 50 once and Allen twice. Philadelphia’s 88-87 win in the deciding game was one of the best playoff games in franchise history.

In the Eastern Conference Finals, Mutombo stepped up his game against the Milwaukee Bucks. In addition to playing great D, he created all kinds of havoc when the 76ers had the ball, allowing Allen to cut loose during another grueling seven-game series. When Allen drove, Mutombo cleared out and took his man with him. If Allen fired and missed, Mutombo put back the rebound or kept the ball alive. The teams split the first four games, with Allen sitting out Game 3 with a bruised tailbone.

Game 5 went to the 76ers 89-88, but they could not close out the series. The Bucks built a big lead in Game 6, and despite a 26-point fourth quarter from Allen, Milwaukee held on to send the series back to Philly. Game 7 turned out to be a laugher, as Allen dropped 44 on the Bucks in a 108-91 win.

To listen to Laker fans, there was barely a reason for Philadelphia to show up for the NBA Finals. They had the slick young stud, Kobe Bryant, the dominant big man, Shaquille O’Neal, and the genius coach, Phil Jackson. In the opener, however, Allen demonstrated how heart and determination could tilt the balance, if only for one game. Though every inch of his body was aching, he pounded the Lakers for 48 points in an emotional 107-101 overtime victory in Los Angeles. The Laker faithful suddenly woke up to the fact that there were special players outside L.A., and Allen became the toast of the town.

The A.I. Show continued. At the end of Game 2 (a 98-89 Laker victory), Bryant got in Allen’s face. He responded by trash-talking Kobe into submission. During Game 3, Allen dribbled the ball right over a fallen O’Neal. He also grabbed 12 rebounds. Unfortunately the 76ers could do no better than a symbolic victory, as the Lakers won again, 96-91, thanks this time to fourth-quarter scoring spree by Robert Horry. Los Angeles took the next two games, focusing all of their defensive attention on Allen. Too good everywhere else for the 76ers to take advantage of the situation, they claimed the title four games to one.

That summer, Allen tied the knot with Tawanna Turner, his longtime girlfriend. He also began negotiating a lifetime endorsement deal with Reebok, which was finalized in December. And, of course, he prepared to defend Philadelphia’s Eastern crown. The improvements Allen needed to make in his own game were more conceptual: leadership, consistency and finding a way to avoid the wear and tear that plagued him at playoff time.

The first item on the list was of particular interest to Allen. The previous season, he had begun to wrap his mind around being a leader in the NBA, a role he used to think was B.S. As he accepted more responsibility, he found that his team won more often and his sometimes-stormy relationship with Brown improved.

The 2001-02 version of the 76ers was an eclectic mix of players whose games were meant to complement Allen’s. Snow and McKie shared work at guard with young Speedy Claxton, while Mutombo lined up in the frontcourt next to newcomer Matt Harpring and Derrick Coleman, who rejoined the team in a pre-season deal. Injuries plagued Philly all year, however, and there were many nights when Allen reverted back to his old ways, trying to win games all by himself. The stats say he had a good year, topping the league in scoring and steals, but his shooting percentage plummeted and much of the chemistry that existed the year before had evaporated. Philly finished with a respectable 43 wins, but flopped in the postseason, losing to the Celtics in the first round.

In June, Allen’s reputation took a huge hit when a simmering dispute with his wife boiled over and he threw her out of their house. Two nights later, Allen and his uncle Greg went searching for Tawanna, and barged into the Philadelphia apartment of his cousin, Shaun Bowman. Another man in the room, Charles Jones, saw what he believed to be a gun tucked into Allen’s pants and called the police. Allen was arrested on a variety of charges, including carrying an unlicensed weapon. The case went to court, where it fell apart. The gun turned out to be a pager, and because Allen paid the rent on the apartment, there was no criminal trespass. Still, the episode reinforced the image many people had of Allen as a thug.

The 2002-03 campaign started poorly for the 76ers. Despite the addition of Keith Van Horn—acquired from New Jersey for Mutombo—the team played sluggishly heading into the All-Star break. The offense simply wasn’t clicking, and on most nights only the defense of Allen, Snow and McKie stood between Philadelphia and a loss. Things finally turned around in the home stretch, and the 76ers ended the year with a 23-10 run to capture second place behind the Nets in the Atlantic Division.


Allen Iverson, 2001 Topps Stars
 
 

The catalyst for the change may have been forward Kenny Thomas, picked up mid-season in a trade with the Rockets. He gave the team an inside rebounding and scoring presence that enabled Van Horn to do his thing on the wing. But it was Allen—taking a more vocal role on the bench and playing a better all-around game—who made the difference night in and night out. He wound up leading the league in steals and minutes played, and finished third in scoring at 27.6 per game.

With the Eastern Conference wide open, the 76ers set their sights on another meeting with the Lakers in the NBA Finals. They got off to an excellent start against the Hornets, as Allen set a team record with 55 points in a Game 1 win. It was one of those times where everyone in the building knew he couldn’t miss. Game 2, also a Philly victory, was one of those games when Allen couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn—but kept on shooting. The difference was that Allen knew when to give the ball up, and the 76ers squeezed out a 90-85 victory. The teams split the final four games and Philly advanced to their Round Two meeting with Detroit.

The Pistons, led by Rip Hamilton and Ben Wallace, took the first two contests at home, the second being a narrow OT win. Back in Philadelphia, the 76ers evened the series. With Philly fans licking their chops at the thought of advancing to face the Nets, Detroit squeaked by in Game 5, 78-77. The Pistons then finished off the 76ers 93-89 in overtime in Game 6. When Detroit was swept by the Nets in the next round, Philly's series loss became all the more agonizing. The coup de grace on a disappointing post-season came when Brown resigned after the playoffs—and accepted a job with the Pistons.

Randy Ayers, Brown’s longtime assistant, assumed the Philadelphia head coaching job for the 2003-04 campaign. His team no longer included Van Horn, who lacked the scoring punch to pick up Allen on nights when his shooting went awry. In his place was Glenn Robinson, who said all the right things when asked how two men so fond of putting up shots could play with the same ball. The Big Dog figured to draw double-teams in the post, which meant someone—hopefully Allen—would be free to operate outside.

In theory, this all sounded very good. In practice, it was a train wreck. Practice, in fact, was where things started to go wrong. Without Brown there to push and cajole him, Allen exerted little effort between games. The club’s veterans ran at half-speed, too, while younger players were unsure of how to act. When tipoff came, Allen could not always answer the call, missing a career-high 34 games—and the rest of the 76ers were either hurt or horrible. Ayers was fired and replaced with Chris Ford, who inherited an unfixable mess.

With a roster full of overpriced veterans, the 76ers wondered how they could possibly retool. Some said it couldn’t be done before Allen’s prime years were over. Others suggested the only way out was to trade Allen along with some dead weight, and start from scratch. Longtime Philly fans cringed at the thought of banishing an All-NBA talent. The franchise had dealt Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley, Moses Malone and Chet Walker in past rebuilding efforts, and each time they got a lot less back than they had anticipated.

Allen weathered the summer of 2004 without an address change, though he did do some traveling, accompanying Team USA to Athens for the Olympics. There he and coach Brown were reunited. The Americans struggled against their intertional competition, barely holding on for the bronze medal. Allen took his lumps from the media and fans, which criticized him for his me-first style of play. Overlooked was the fact that Allen was one of the NBA superstars who didn't duck the Summer Games.

Allen returned to a Philly team without his backcourt mate, Snow, who sought greener pastures in Cleveland. With Robinson on the shelf due to injury, the club handed to new coach Jim O’Brien featured a lot of unfamiliar faces—basically Allen plus a supporting cast that included holdovers Thomas and McKie, veteran newcomers Corliss Williamson and Kevin Ollie, and unproven youngsters like Kyle Korver, Samuel Dalembert and Andre Iguodala.

Needless to say, the team depended on Allen for the bulk of its scoring, and as the season passed into its second half, he was the leading the league at around 30 a game. Normally, this would be a formula for a losing year. But the 76ers kept a competitive club on the floor, and won as often as they lost. In the anemic Atlantic, that was good enough for first place.

The extra pressure on Allen figured to slow him down. But just when fans thought they had seen his best game, he showed them a little more. On February 12 against the Magic—in his second game in as many nights—Allen canned 17 shots from the field and added 24 free throws for a career-high 60 points in a 112-99 win. The franchise mark was 68, set by Wilt Chamberlain, but it was phenomenal output for a six-foot guard.


Allen Iverson, 2002 SI for Kids
 
 

Nights like the one against Orlando generated buzz about Allen being the league's MVP. But Philly's final record, 43-39, wasn't good enough to turn the talk into anything more than speculation. Allen continued scoring at a blistering pace, including a pair of 48-point outbursts, in wins against the Bucks and Carolina Bobcats. He finished with incredible numbers, improving on his scoring (30.7), shooting percentage (.424), 3-point percentage (.308), free-throw percentage (.835), rebounding (4.0) and passing (7.9) from the previous season. Allen also shook off his injury woes to play in 75 games.

Philly bowed out quickly in the playoffs, losing in five to the defending champs. In their sole win over the Pistons, Allen went for 37 points and added 15 assists. It was one of three double-doubles for him against Detroit, demonstrating how far he had come in his acceptance of the team concept.

Where Allen leads the 76ers from here is difficult to say. The team made a questionable move in '04-05 by dealing for the oft-injured and even more often unhappy Chris Webber. The chemistry between him and Allen never really developed, and now Philly is wondering whether it will have to start again from scratch.

As every basketball fan knows, Allen has long been the game’s best one-man show. Unfortunately, shows like that rarely earn championship reviews. If the '04-05 season is any indication, however, he may be willing to share the stage with a star who can help him bring an NBA title back to the City of Brotherly Love.

 
  ALLEN THE PLAYER

 
 

No one really guards Allen. They just try to stay between him and the basket. The league has yet to solve his explosive cross-over move, and when he gets airborne, only a handful of guys in the NBA can hang with him. Give Allen an open jumper and he’ll take it (that’s no secret). But do you give him that shot with the game on the line?

Funneling Allen to the baseline—the preferred strategy against quick guards—is defensive suicide in his case. He gets to the basket so quickly and with such force that you might as well give your big men two fouls apiece before the game starts.

No one plays the game with more heart, or with less regard for his body, than Allen. It is a miracle he can still bring his A-game every night, and a wonder that he hasn’t been to the emergency room more often. To preserve his strength, Allen will take plays off once the ball is out of his hands. This is when defenses can afford a sigh of relief, for he does not move aggressively without the ball.

On defense, Allen’s quickness and anticipation mean you probably won’t hit your average against him. He is a good defender on the ball, and plays the passing lanes very intelligently. He is almost always among the NBA leaders in steals.

Allen takes his leadership responsibilities much more seriously these days. His one appearance in the NBA Finals helped him realize how badly he wants a title to his name. Teammates will follow him. The question is whether he will have to leave Philly to get another shot at an NBA crown.

 


Allen Iverson, 2003 Topps
 
 

Allen Iverson

 
   
 

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