Questions and answers: A homage to Allen Iverson

By: John Mignelli

Philadelphia 76ers v Denver NuggetsIn 1996, Reebok released a pair of basketball sneakers called ‘The Questions’. Besides the fact that ‘The Questions’ is a just a badass name for a pair of sneakers, what’s integral is that these sneakers were made for a player who was always surrounded by questions, and left most of them unanswered.

Allen Iverson is someone most people who’ve paid any regard to the NBA have heard of. A fan favourite and indefatigable competitor, Iverson was more than just a basketball player. He flaunted his blackness and the hip-hop culture he grew up in and he encouraged African Americans to embrace and be proud of their social scene. He was covered in tattoos and wore his hair in dreadlocks, unbothered by the disapproving sneer of white basketball “purists”. To quote a cliché, Iverson was a fearless bad boy who played by his own rules, and his first statement of this was giving Michael Jordan himself a patented killer-crossover as a rookie in 1997.

On Mar. 1, the Philadelphia 76ers retired Iverson’s number 3, giving me as good a reason as any to write about the most perplexing basketball player of my life so far.

Questions came early for Iverson – was he better at football or basketball as a high-school athlete? What can we really expect to see of a kid from Hampton, Virginia, a place where inconspicuous racism sentenced a 17-year-old black boy to five years in prison for simply being present at a fight in a bowling alley? As his popularity sprouted in the NBA, these questions became; why couldn’t he get along with any of the multiple coaches he encountered? Why was he so reluctant to pass if he cared so much about winning? And why are so many players scared stiff of him – he’s almost a foot shorter than everyone on the court?

A passage from The Book of Basketball describes Iverson as “a legendary partier and devoted family man; a loyal teammate who shot too much; a featherweight who carried himself like a heavyweight… an ex-con with a shady entourage who also ranked among the most intuitive, self-aware, articulate superstars in any sport.”

Yes, Iverson took too many shots, but it wasn’t for a lack of enthusiasm. He wore his heart on his sleeve like almost no other player and had an intensity and intimidation factor that was really only second to Jordan’s.

His NBA career was substantial – an MVP award in 2001, an eleven time All-Star, four-time scoring champion, three-time All-NBA First Team, and an unlikely or rather unbelievable Finals appearance in 2001. But Iverson declined quickly and left us shrouded in mystery with a feeling that there should have been more.

And this is what makes Iverson’s career so interesting.

If Iverson would propose a documentary, or work on an autobiography, it would ruin much of his legend. Not knowing is exactly what makes Allen Iverson such a fascinating story.

allen iverson 2Think of it like watching The Lord of the Rings; the biggest question in LOTR is whether Frodo can destroy the Ring or not. Over the course of the story, there are plenty of instances where you’re lead to believe that his cause is in serious jeopardy – but in the end, he makes it, and it’s over. Nobody would ever say that their favourite part was the ending of the story because it’s what happened along the journey that was so amazing. The thing is though, the LOTR ended while Iverson has masterfully kept us in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

Reebok released another pair of sneakers in 1997 for Iverson called ‘The Answer’. It’s funny. Anybody could have bought ‘The Questions’ just as easily as ‘The Answer’. Naming Iverson’s shoes ‘The Questions’ and ‘The Answer’ isn’t just ironic; it’s downright existential. Fortunately for us though, the answers we really want aren’t for purchase.

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