“The face of the league” is a term that media and fans like to use when speaking of highly influential NBA players. He may or may not be the best player in the league at that time but what is certain is that he is without a doubt the most admired. Since success in the NBA comes in so many ways, this term was likely coined when speaking of the most common answer to the question “who would you pay to see play in the NBA?”
This all started with the ABA-NBA merger, an occurrence that brought basketball legend Julius Erving into the league. His high-flying moves and thunderous dunks instantly made him the fan favorite as he was not only exciting but also the best player on a winning team. The torch was then passed to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who infused the league with excitement after taking their college rivalry and carrying it over to the pros.
Said torch was then taken by a young star from the University of North Carolina named Michael Jordan, one many consider to be the greatest of all time. After that, it was a kid fresh out of high school who idolized Michael, followed by another high school kid in LeBron James who has made his mark on and off the court for the past 18 years and is considered to be the face of the league today. But in all of this, we often tend to overlook one of the game’s greatest cultural icons, Kobe’s fellow draftee Allen Iverson.
Iverson was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers 25 years ago as the first overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, arguably the deepest in history. If we look at all the other names considered to be faces of the league, at one point, there is one thing in common, multiple championships. Allen does not have a single one — the closest he ever got was an NBA Finals matchup against Kobe and Shaq’s Los Angeles Lakers in 2001. And while the Iverson-led Sixers lost the series in five games, he has something that no one on that list other than Michael Jordan can claim.
Known as “The Answer,” Allen shaped the culture of the game in a time when Jordan had left, and Kobe was still earning his stripes. His team was not great, but he brought that tenacity, pride, and dazzling skill that fans of the league sorely missed once MJ had retired for the second time. He had the unparalleled swag and was instrumental in bringing hip-hop and street culture to fuse with the game, making baggy shorts and ankle socks a fad at the same time. People wanted to be Like Mike, but Mike was no longer there, so they found Iverson to be the answer to filling that void.
In many ways, Allen came before his time. Imagine if Iverson were a player in today’s league versus the hard-hitting 90s? Oh, what fun would that be to watch! Unfortunately, we look back at Iverson’s career and, due to our peculiar definition of career success, put his accomplishments to the wayside because he failed to win a ring when we should be thanking him for giving us the game we enjoy watching today. Iverson may not have been on good enough teams to rack up wins and rings, but I can only imagine what seeing what he did on the court meant to small guys like Damian Lillard and Steph Curry in terms of helping them believe they could be a force in the league.
He may not have any rings, but twenty-five years after the night he was drafted, his legacy still stands, and his spirit is in the game through the stars of today; I call that a win. What a ride it was for Allen, and it’s amazing how we are somewhat still on that ride with him today.
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