The latest from Dave Fairbank takes those of us who grew up in Virginia and/or spent any time near the Peninsula on a journey back in time. Most of us were too dumb and/or lazy to realize that we could've driven 20 minutes to see one of the greatest athletes of all time do his thing.
I’m reminded of my advancing age regularly, in ways large and small. Failing hearing, inability to pull a name I know, celebrity I’ve never heard of, random ache, technology advance that leaves me flummoxed. (Editor’s Note: I don’t know whether it was me or Fairbank who wrote this opening sentence, because it’s as true for me as it is for him.) The most recent came this week in a newspaper column from longtime compadre and fellow keyboard jockey David Teel, writing about Allen Iverson and the prep all-star hoops game he hosted in Hampton Roads last night.
A paragraph midway through the piece began, “Iverson, 41, said he’s always amazed when younger people approach him in airports, restaurants and hotels.”
Allen Iverson, age 41? Can’t be right. Wasn’t it just the other day that I was chasing his spindly ass all over the Virginia Peninsula? Or watching him careen through Georgetown and the NBA? In 30 years as a newspaper hack in Newport News, Va., I was fortunate to see an absurd amount of homegrown talent. Alonzo Mourning, Pernell “Sweetpea” Whitaker, Michael Vick, LaShawn Merritt, Percy Harvin, Aaron Brooks, Ronald Curry, J.R. Reid, Joe Smith, Terry Kirby, Chris Slade, baseball’s Upton brothers. Dozens just below them in ability. But Iverson remains the damnedest athlete I’ve ever seen.
The first time I saw Iverson was in a summer league game run by local AAU hoops impresario Boo Williams. It was the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in high school. Local basketball types said I needed to check out this guard from Bethel High. One evening I ventured to Hampton and the outdoor courts where Boo used to stage league games. I settled onto the metal bleachers, one of several dozen people in attendance, and located Iverson.
Holy shit. The kid was a lightning bolt, a revelation. He was impossibly skinny – 5-10, 5-11, maybe 150 pounds. His team pressed on defense. Or maybe it was just him. He harassed the dribbler, then when the kid picked up his dribble and tried to pass cross court, Iverson darted back, rose up as if he were levitating and intercepted the pass. Scooted downcourt and laid it in. He got from Point A to Point B and covered ground more quickly than anybody I’d ever seen. A 15- , 16-year-old kid. Honestly, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. I’m sure I sat there with my mouth hanging open for the next 45 minutes.
The legend only grew from there. Bethel basketball game became events. People lined up to get inside. Folks were turned away and I’m certain that fire codes were obliterated by the crowds that did manage to get inside Bethel’s gym. They started holding games at the Hampton University gym, Holland Hall, which held a couple thousand people, because it was a bigger venue. They held games periodically at the Hampton Coliseum, an 8,000-seat barn, and thousands attended. Guaranteed draws: The Dead, Phish, and Allen Iverson.
Iverson was virtually unguardable in high school. He was quicker, faster and more fearless than anyone lined up against him. He got anywhere he wanted on the court. Even in AAU and summer ball, when teammates and opponents were better and often national-caliber, he was nearly always the best player on the floor. His running mate at Bethel was a kid named Tony Rutland, an excellent player himself who had a solid career at Wake Forest. A couple times a game, they would run a backdoor play where Rutland on the perimeter threw an alley-oop pass and Iverson dunked effortlessly. Bethel won a state championship in 1993 with Iverson, Rutland and a handful of role players.
This was months after Bethel won a state football championship, with Iverson at quarterback and defensive back. That’s the thing most folks don’t know or don’t remember. He was an amazing football player in high school. As difficult as it was to corral him on a basketball court, imagine him on a football field. He wasn’t a great passer, but he was practically impossible to tackle. He rarely absorbed a solid shot, he extended plays and he was a nightmare for opposing defenses. The late Joe Paterno, pre-Jerry Sandusky scandal, routinely attended coaches’ clinics in Virginia and had some success recruiting top-shelf prospects in the state. I asked him once, years later, about some of the best prospects he’d seen, and the first person he brought up was Iverson, who he said would have been a terrific college football player.
Iverson didn’t have a senior year in high school. He was convicted for his part in a bowling alley brawl in Hampton in 1993. He did time at a local work farm before former governor Doug Wilder commuted his sentence. It’s hard to convey how polarizing a figure he was at that time, in our little corner of the world. Some viewed him as a victim, others as a thug. Not much middle ground.
Anyway, Iverson did the alternative school thing to graduate high school (a different post all its own), and wound up at Georgetown with John Thompson. His college debut was Nov. 27, 1994, versus defending national champ Arkansas in Memphis. He made only 5 of 18 shots and committed eight turnovers against the Razorbacks’ 40 Minutes of Hell defense. But coach Nolan Richardson was sold.
“I ain’t never seen anything like that in my life,” Richardson said that day. “I’ve been to three calf shows, nine horse ropings, … I even saw Elvis once. But I ain’t never seen anyone do what Iverson does. We doubled him, trapped him and he broke it. I’ve never seen anyone that quick with the basketball.”
He scored more than 24,000 points and averaged 26.7 points per game for his career, despite barely scraping 6-feet and weighing a buck-sixty-five. He is arguably, pound-for-pound, the greatest scoring guard in NBA history. He was rightly inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame last year, first ballot.
And now he’s 41 – he’ll be 42 in June – and inspiring a new generation of players, who hear tales from their dads and uncles and dig up his videos on YouTube. That’s the thing about Iverson. Words don’t do him justice. You had to see him. The quickness, the speed, the fierceness, the passion, the will. There was no one like him. There may not be another.
Still, Allen Iverson. Forty-one? Man, we’re gettin’ old.