Allen Iverson has been on the minds of a lot of people lately, from the seemingly ignominious end to his professional career to stirring documentaries and wistful blog entries. The theme that cuts across all of these stories is the divisive nature of Iverson: You either loved AI’s keep-it-real earthiness or bristled at his tatted-up churlishness.
Regardless of which embankment one stakes on the “Iverson Divide,” one performance can be appreciated by all sides: his 48-point missive in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It is the shining example of Iverson’s athletic genius.
No basketball bloviator gave Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers much of a chance against the juggernaut Los Angeles Lakers, who came into the series as winners of 17 straight games. The finals seemed destined to be a four-game coronation for the Lakers as they bolted out to an 18-5 lead against the 76ers. Iverson started 1 of 5 from the field.
But the watchword in any Iverson story is “heart,” and the diminutive guard wasn’t about to fold up his tent this early in the game. He hit five of his last eight shots in the quarter and had 12 points as the 76ers narrowed the gap to 23-22.
After a cursory rest in the final seconds of the first quarter, Iverson started the second frame running the show as the point guard. Bringing the ball up on the 76ers’ first possession, Iverson ducked behind a screen to bury a long jumper. Iverson’s form is a metaphor for the man: The ball doesn’t have a classic rotation and he always seems to fade sideways in his approach, but he just seemed to will the ball into the basket.
The second quarter also provided a sequence of Iverson’s importance that didn’t show up in the box score. On a Lakers fast break, 76ers center Dikembe Mutombo knocked away an attempted lob for Kobe Bryant, and Iverson hustled into the picture to save the ball from going out of bounds. On offense, Iverson shook Bryant (then a 22-year-old all-NBA defender) and attempted a layup between the comparatively towering Shaquille O’Neal and Robert Horry. Iverson was knocked to the hardwood and didn’t get the call or the basket, but he got up and hustled back on D. It was indicative of the hard-nosed and fearless style of the 76ers and their star.
Iverson nailed his first three-pointer with 30 seconds left in the half to give Philadelphia a 56-48 lead. He had 30 points at halftime, on 11-for-24 shooting. The volume of shots falls right into the image of Iverson as unrepentant chucker. But consider the 76ers’ offensive-challenged rotation of Mutombo, Aaron McKie, Tyrone Hill, Jumaine Jones, Eric Snow, Raja Bell and Matt Geiger. Would you rather have one of those journeymen jacking up shots?
Iverson kept up the hot shooting in the third quarter, but O’Neal also caught fire for the Lakers. Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson also summoned the little-used Tyronn Lue to check Iverson, and the third-year guard provided a spark. Iverson was held scoreless for over 20 minutes, and Lue stepped in front of AI for two big steals in the fourth quarter.
The game was tied at 94 after four quarters, but Iverson didn’t appear to be tiring. That was always surprising given his much-discussed disdain for conditioning (Cue the obligatory “Practice?” joke.).
Iverson scored seven straight points in overtime to seal the 107-101 victory for Philadelphia. The iconic image was of Iverson stepping back on Lue, who fell to the court and watched as AI drained a jumper to give the 76ers an insurmountable 103-99 lead. After he hit the shot, Iverson made the point of stepping over Lue and letting out a primal scream — all directly in front of the Lakers’ bench.
The amazing thing is that none of the Lakers’ reserves voiced any objection to Iverson. Here is a visiting player embarrassing one of their own, and nothing gets said; that is how much respect Iverson commanded.
Iverson’s 48 points came in 52 minutes, with his only rest coming in those waning seconds of the first quarter. It was the only NBA Finals victory of his career; the Lakers would easily win the next four games. Nonetheless, it encapsulates much about Iverson that has endeared him to his fervent fan base.