From impoverished beginnings as the son of a single 15 year old mother, Allen Iverson began his journey through this life as statistic and made himself the exception. His triumph was not just becoming an 11 time NBA All-Star or even winning the prestigious NBA Most Valuable Player award in 2001. No, his triumph was just making it out of his Hampton Roads, Virginia home alive and out of prison. Iverson embodied the American dream for many around him and his heart and loyalty never left anyone behind. His triumph and downfall was his passion, and it was his passion that led an entire generation to not only idolize the undersized underdog personality of his but at the end of the day show Allen Iverson the most cherished gift this world can give… Respect.
Allen Iverson’s journey has never been an easy one. In a way, it was because of his journey that people have looked up to him. If he could do it, there was hope for anyone to do it. Yes, Iverson was blessed with unnatural athletic ability, but so were many others that never made it or even had an opportunity to make it. Too many in the urban community he was a hero. In the streets, Allen Iverson was a god. In the suburban community he was a thug. Yet, for all the good and the bad not a single person on either side of the road ever once questioned his ability or heart. When Iverson was between those lines, on that court he was hands down one of the greatest to ever play the game. Arguably the greatest little man in the game’s history and his underdog persona and never say die attitude on the court made him a cult icon.
Hampton, Virginia is a town close to Norfolk in the southeastern corner of Virginia. It’s a town that averages over 5,000 crimes a year (reported) and 319 violent crimes. On average, it’s only safer than 17% of US cities. It was there that Allen Iverson began his journey. His mother, Ann Iverson gave birth to Allen at the age of 15. As a single mother, Ann would instill that never give up attitude in Allen. His father was non-existent even though he was named after him and as Iverson would go on to say about his mother,“She did whatever she had to do.”
Iverson’s house was built on top of a sewer, that when it would have issues or burst, would leave the Iverson home’s floor covered in sewage. While Iverson’s mother was working, he was responsible for taking care of his younger siblings. It was Michael Freeman who would step up and attempt to fill the father role in Iverson’s life, but he too was in and out of prison for selling drugs. Not for bling, cars or a fancy life but to try and put food on the table and pay the bills that were constantly being shut off in the Iverson home. There were many times that there wasn’t any electricity or even water.
”Coming home, no lights, no food, sometimes no water. Then when there was water, no hot water. Living in a house where the sewer was busted under the house and having to watch my sister walk around in her socks all day because the floor was wet from the sewage. The smell was making my sister sick.”
For a long time, Allen blamed Freeman for the troubles of his childhood. It wasn’t until later that he found respect for the man that first put a basketball in his hand and pushed him to push harder at the game that would later make him famous. Iverson would go to say, “He was just tryin’ to feed his family. It would kill him to come from jail and find out how his family was living. One time he came home and just sat down and cried.”
There were many reasons Allen should not even be here today. When Iverson was 8 years old he witnessed his first murder. Later, at the age of 15 his best friend, Tony Clark was stabbed to death. Clark was an inspiration in Allen’s life. He was a mentor and a big brother. They would argue and fight, but Clark would keep Iverson in check. Without Clark and Freeman around, Iverson himself would find trouble or as in many cases in his life, trouble would find him.
State Championships and a Bowling Alley
For his part, Allen Iverson never wanted to play basketball. He thought it was “soft” and his heart was really into a different sport as a child… football. It was at the age of 9 that his mother bought him his first pair of Jordan’s and forced him to attend basketball practice. His natural talent almost immediately shined through and despite his smaller size, never once did young Iverson back down from a larger player. Even at that young of an age. The few times Iverson would lose interest or heart, it was his mother that would tell him “Go till the end every time you see the chance.” Iverson’s mother Ann saw the light. She saw that the talent Iverson displayed even as a child could be the ticket to getting her family out of the poverty stricken neighborhood. Out of the ghetto.
On the court and on the field, Allen Iverson was the main attraction for Virginia’s Bethel High School. His junior year, Iverson led both the Bruins’ football team as a quarterback and defensive back and the basketball team as a point guard to the Division AAA Virginia State Championships. Iverson would earn AP High School Player of the Year awards in both sports that year.
As a football player, Allen Iverson was an inspiration for current NFL quarterback Mike Vick. He was that good. If not for his lack of size, Iverson might have had a future in the NFL. It was definitely not for a lack of talent. In the state championship game versus E.C. Glass, would throw for 201 yards, score two touchdowns and intercept two passes on the way to his team’s 27-0 victory. That season he would combine for 2,204 yards of total offense, throw for 14 touchdowns and score 21 of his own. Oh, and he would also have 8 interceptions on the defensive side of the ball. He was one of the most talented high school football players in the history of Hampton Roads. To this day, many refer to “Bubba Chuck,” a childhood nickname (it’s a combination of names from his two uncles), as an inspiration.
As far the basketball court was concerned, there simply was no touching Iverson. What would happen in Iverson’s return to the basketball court after finishing football season? Would it take long to get back in basketball shape and form? In his return to Bethel’s basketball team he would score 37 points just 3 days after winning the state football championship. Just 14 weeks after winning the state championship in football, Iverson and teammate Tony Rutland would combine for 58 points and win Bethel’s second championship of the year over John Marshall High School (Richmond). That season Iverson averaged 31.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 9.2 assists a game for the Bruins.
Then, on February 14, 1993 it all came crashing down… literally. As chairs flew, the scene would erupt as a racial war of words would set off an ugly scene at Center Lanes bowling alley in Hampton, VA. While the details of the day’s incident to this very day still remain disputed, one thing doesn’t… Iverson was arrested, charged and convicted to serve 15 years in prison with 10 of the years suspended. To this day, Iverson claims he left before the brawl.
“For me to be in a bowling alley where everybody in the whole place know who I am and be crackin’ people upside the head with chairs and think nothin’ gonna happen?” asks Iverson. “That’s crazy! And what kind of a man would I be to hit a girl in the head with a damn chair? I wish at least they’d said I hit some damn man.”
It was an ugly scene in Hampton, dividing the town’s population along racial lines. Iverson, a local high school sports hero and from the poverty stricken side of town and the white population of the more well off section of the area. To the Hampton Roads community who rallied and supported Iverson, he was a hero. He was their “Bubba Chuck.” To the local white community he was a thug. He was the epitome of what’s wrong with the changing society that challenged their way of culture and life. The judge, Nelson Overton would throw the book at him and show no mercy for what was called under Virginia statue, “maiming by mob.”
Iverson would go on to serve 4 months of his sentence until he was granted clemency from then Virginia governor Doug Wilder. It was a conditional clemency that required Iverson to finish his high school degree/diploma and he was not allowed to play sports. The clemency was just until Iverson was eligible for parole and then it would be converted.
“I am extremely grateful that Governor Wilder has given me a chance to continue my education, and I intend to make every effort to ensure that I complete my education. I also thank all of my family and friends that supported me during the last few months.”
Iverson would go on to finish his studies before moving on to the next chapter of his life.
“I’m sure some colleges will stay away, but it’ll work out. This has given me time to think about what I need to do to succeed in the world.”
After the incident and sentencing, many college coaches were considering Allen Iverson untouchable. Many, but not all. One coach in particular, John Thompson would come out at the request of Allen’s mother and meet with Iverson. It was after that meeting and combined with Allen’s unquestioned level of talent that would lead to Thompson to offer Iverson a full scholarship to Georgetown University.
It was a Georgetown that Iverson would find another father figure in Coach Thompson, a man with strong convictions and even stronger leadership. Following in the footsteps of school legends such as Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutumbo, Iverson would have big shoes to fill. Thompson would take the troubled Iverson and help mold him from a young teenage into a young adult. Forming a relationship as a mentor and father figure that would he carries on with Allen to this day.
In Iverson’s first season with Georgetown he would be named Big East Rookie of the Year and led the Hoyas to the NCAA Tournament where they would eventually fall to the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Sweet 16. Averaging 20.4 points per game and 3 steals, Iverson would fully embrace the expectations placed on his shoulders. While chants of “jailbird” would rain down from students at opposing schools, Iverson with the help and guidance of Thompson stayed focused. As a felon, sitting in a jail cell, this is what Iverson dreamed of and envisioned.
“Ninety percent of having an relationship with him is things that occur off-court. He helped me through last year. I didn’t want to come here and just do anything. Any problems that I have, I can go to him and he’ll sit down and listen. It is a lot more than player-coach between us. I don’t think I could have made it through last year without him.”
His second season at Georgetown was even better than the first. Iverson would average 25 points per game and further embrace Thompson’s defensive philosophy by averaging 3.4 steals. The team would win the Big East Championship and advance all the way to the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament before falling to Marcus Camby’s UMass team.
Facing the decision that all young basketball players of his age and ability face, Iverson was in an even more difficult position. While he felt fully embraced at Georgetown, his relationship with Coach Thompson as well as the success they were building along with fellow backcourt player Victor Page. Iverson also had to face the harsh reality of life off of the court. His family was still broke. His sister who long suffered from siezures was getting worse. The call of money and fame from the NBA was just too much to pass up. Allen Iverson would become the first player to leave Coach John Thompson’s program early and declare himself eligible for the 1996 NBA Draft.
Philadelphia, Practice and Shoes
Even as a star basketball player in high school, Allen Iverson knew one day he would be here. That he would be on the stage and ready to prove that he was the best in the world. After winning a state championship in his junior year at Bethel, Iverson while surrounded by his teammates at a BBQ restaurant in Richmond made a bold statement… “I think can take Michael one on one.” His teammates and coaches dismissed the comment at first, thinking he was referring to teammate Michael Evans. It wasn’t a question. Of course he could beat Evans. “No, no…” Iverson was not referring to Evans… “I bet I can take Michael Jordan.” Those words would echo with his teammates and Iverson’s AAU coach Boo Williams. In the 1996 NBA Draft, the Philadelphia 76ers would give Allen Iverson that chance.
The 76ers, selecting number one overall would take Allen Iverson from Georgetown University. Making the Iverson the shortest player (six feet tall) in the history of the NBA to be selected number one overall. He was an instant success. Iverson would be a hit with fans and the city fell in love with “A.I.” His rookie season, Iverson was named NBA Rookie of the Year and average 23.5 points a game in his rookie campaign.
Iverson, talented beyond compare was also hard to manage. Leading the league in scoring and making all-star teams were great, but the team continued to fail to get to the promised land. Iverson and coach Larry Brown would continue to battle in the lockerroom and in 2000, the 76ers attempted to trade Iverson to the Detroit Pistons in an attempt culminate the frayed relationship between Iverson and Brown by moving the disgruntled superstar. That trade was only voided due to Matt Geiger, who was included in the deal choosing to refuse to waive his trade-kicker fee of 5 million dollars. Iverson would go on to mend those fences with Coach Brown, forming another tight yet, tense bond. While Brown and Iverson would constantly be at odds, Iverson would grow to respect and listen to his coach and the pair would lead the 76ers to the NBA Finals, with Iverson winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2001.
In Iverson’s time with the 76ers, he would go the NBA Finals twice, win MVP and make multiple All-Star teams. However, it was a blowup with the media and then 76er’s coach Larry Brown that would make headlines for years to come…
“We’re talking about practice. I mean listen, we’re sitting here talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, but we’re talking about practice. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last but we’re talking about practice man.”
In 2002, Iverson, who was known for giving every ounce of blood, sweat and tears out on the court was frustrated. What no one at the time knew was that Iverson’s best friend at the time, Rahsaan Langeford was gunned down that morning in Newport News, VA and that Iverson who was also deceived for the reason of the press conference was grieving. Originally, the organization told Iverson the press conference was being held because of a trade. Iverson, distraught over the loss of his good friend Langeford and fresh off of the attempted trade was frustrated and exploded in his now famous “practice” rant.
To the city and the world, Iverson was about one thing… Heart. He would show it on the court, his press conferences and in the way he lived his life to the fullest. He became embraced by the fans of Philadelphia as a second son. He would team up with Reebok and become the face of the company. Even challenging the Nike Jordan Brand for dominance at one point. If you were main street, you wanted to be like Mike, but if you were from the streets you wanted to be like A.I. Iverson’s shoe line would catapult him into a different tax bracket, combined with the $70 million the 76ers gave him, he would face a whole new set of problems… Mo’ money, mo’ problems.
Marketing wise, Iverson was on top of the world while in Philly. His shoes were on the feet of every kid from the streets in America. If you wore Nike, you wore Jordans. If you wore Reebok, you wore Iversons. “The Answer” as he was now dubbed was on top of the sports world. A young kid from the projects of Hampton, Virginia was now in the spotlight and while he continued to shine on the court, off of it he was beginning to spiral out of control.
While Iverson continued his success on the court, in 2004 and 2005 legal troubles began to pile up off of the court. From being banned from a Ballys casino in Atlantic City, NJ for urinating in a trash can to arguing with a dealer at another casino over over-payment of chips. Little by little, Iverson’s life was beginning to unravel. On the personal front, Iverson and longtime girlfriend and later wife would have very public issues. Even those around Iverson were subject to trouble, as his bodyguard was charged in an incident inside a Washington, DC nightclub involving the beating of a man.
In 2006, the Philadelphia 76ers would trade away their superstar to the Denver Nuggets along with Ivan McFarlin in exchange for Joe Smith, Andre Miller and 2 first round draft picks.
Denver, Detroit and Memphis…
At the time of the trade from Philly to Denver, Iverson was the number 2 scorer in the league behind the Nugget’s Carmelo Anthony. The trade would give Denver the top two leading scorers in the league. While in Denver, Iverson and the Nuggets would achieve moderate success making the playoffs but never getting over the hump. Iverson would play second fiddle to the scoring of Anthony but still averaged 24.8 and 26.4 points a game in the first two seasons in Denver.
As usual, controversy continued to follow Iverson in Denver. In an incident with referee Steve Javie, Iverson was fined $25,000 for comments he made after being ejected from the game. An incident that former referee Tim Donaghy discussed in his book. Agreeing that Javie had a long standing feud and dislike for Iverson and that in a game against the Jazz in January of 2007, Donaghy and other refs decided to teach Iverson a lesson by not giving him favorable calls that game. Leading to several situations where Iverson was fouled and didn’t receive a call.
In November of 2008, the Denver Nuggets traded Iverson to the Detroit Pistons for players Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess and Cheikh Samb. On paper, it was a win-win. Dumars, now in charge of the Pistons’ front office, finally got the player that Detroit originally tried to acquire all the way back in 2000. The Nuggets would get hometown player Billups as well as beef up their front court with McDyess. On the court however, things quickly fell apart for the Pistons.
New coach and former NBA player Michael Curry didn’t feel that Iverson was a good fit and even though Iverson start off with a string of 20 plus point games, his average would fall to a career low of 17.4 after he began to lose playing time to Rodney Stuckey. In April of that season, Iverson would leave the team in what the Pistons would say was related to an on-going back issue that Iverson was suffering from. However, Iverson would state that he had no interest in coming off of the bench for the Pistons. He would rather retire instead of become a role player.
In the 2009 off-season, Allen Iverson would sign a one year deal with the Memphis Grizzlies. That relationship was short lived though. Once again, not willing to be a role player and disputes with management led to the Grizzlies terminating Iverson’s deal my mutual agreement that November allowing Iverson to become a free agent. While briefly considering retirement, Iverson would reconsider just a couple of short weeks later and would return home.
The Return and the Sunset
On November 30, 2009, the Philadelphia 76ers reached an agreement to bring back beloved superstar and Philadelphia sports icon Allen Iverson. While a degenerative condition that had basically removed all the cartilage in Iverson’s knee had reduced him to a fraction of the player he used to be, Iverson still had moments in his final season with the 76ers. He would only average 13.9 points a game while starting 24 out of the 25 games he played. After missing much of his time in Philly the second go around with injury, Iverson would leave the team for good in February of 2010 to tend to his daughters health issues.
While his NBA career was over, and not particularly to his choosing, Iverson would continue his career in stint overseas with Turkish team Beşiktaş. However, Iverson would only appear in 10 games with the team, and after returning home for calf surgery in the States, he would never play professional basketball again.
On October 30, 2013, Allen Iverson officially announced his retirement at a ceremony held on opening night by the Philadelphia 76ers. His number would later be retired on March 1, 2014 by the 76ers. In his career, Iverson would win an MVP, be an 11x All-Star (2x All-Star game MVP), NBA Rookie of the Year, 7x All-NBA selection, 4x NBA scoring champion and oh yeah… led the NBA in steals 3 times. And while we don’t like to talk about “that” team, he was also an Olympic Bronze medalist in 2004.
When you look back at the legacy of Allen Iverson, it leaves one of triumph, warning and redemption. In 2010, Iverson was essentially bankrupt and broke. His wife once handed him $61 in court after he claimed he had nothing and could pay nothing. But Iverson, with his many troubles is also a tale of triumph. A young kid with nothing and from nothing made something out of himself. His tragedy has come from close friends and family passing away before their time. His grief and emotions have always been worn on his sleeve. He was real. From sun up to sunset, in interviews and press conferences, on the court or in the streets… he was real.
“I see pain after going through what I went through when I was so young. But I see happiness. I see me overcome things that a lot of people would break down [from].”
His money, well thankfully he had someone looking out for him. While currently struggling financially, Iverson with over a million dollars in debt after once being one of the highest paid athletes on the planet is now broke. But someone was looking out for him while others were sucking him dry. One of Iverson’s advisers set aside $32 million of his Reebok money for a rainy day in a trust. In such events, that rainy day won’t be available until he turns 55 years of age. In the meanwhile, it pays him out at $1 million per year until then and his NBA pension also will pay him out about $8,000 per month. So, no Iverson isn’t flat broke, the debt he owes is still there but there is at least a very bright light at the end of his financial tunnel.
His redemption came with his humility. His acceptance of reality. His career is over. He might not want it to be, and he definitely didn’t want his storied career to end the way it did, but it did end. Iverson has nothing to be ashamed of, not winning a title in his two tries only puts him with names like other Hall of Famers such as fellow Hoya alum Patrick Ewing and former 76ers star Charles Barkley. Not bad company at all.
“I can’t be the Allen Iverson that you want me to be. The only Allen Iverson I can be is the Allen Iverson that I am. If you love that, then cool. If you don’t, shit, fuck it.”
So while many find ways to question the man… for many who need inspiration and look for that sign of hope, Allen Iverson is “The Answer.”
Husband, father, craft bartender, writer and content creator.