When you think about some of the best pure athletes in the history of the NBA, names like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, and a few others usually fall into these conversations. The first association is frequently big muscular players that could jump through the roof. Usually, you would be right, and those attributes define someone as a great athlete, but there are so many other aspects that fall into this equation that are perhaps not so visible, at least not initially.
Iverson was an incredible athlete
Allen Iverson was one of those legendary players who didn't look like a superior athlete at first sight, but in reality, he truly was, and fans could see that every game during his 14-year-long career in the NBA. His versatility and athleticism were already noticed during his high-school days when he was a top recruit by all major colleges as both a football player and a basketball player. The main attribute that was already then associated with Iverson was his incredible speed and agility, which was something unheard of, and when you watched him play, there was always a sense he was able to shift it to another gear anytime he wanted.
When Iverson started playing for Georgetown Hoyas, he had to undergo rigorous preparation, especially since he missed a significant amount of time playing because of his incarceration. John Thompson, the legendary head coach of the basketball program at Georgetown, was known to run a tight ship, and one of the main requirements was that all his players were fully physically prepared. In the book by Kent Babb "Not a Game," there is a description of one of these conditioning drills in which Iverson showcased his superiority compared to other teammates on the team.
His teammates thought he was Superman
Thompson wanted to test the conditioning of the first-year players, especially Iverson, and the goal was to run on a treadmill that was slowly inclining for around 10 minutes. If a player was in good shape, there was a chance he could do it even more than 10 minutes. Iverson, however, kept on going even longer than, more than any other of his teammates, and when he hopped off, it seemed like he wasn't even tired, which shocked everyone in the room.
"Thompson assigned all first-year players to the treadmill, testing their conditioning. It was especially important for a player like Iverson, who had not played a regulation game in more than a year, since winning the state championship, as he controversially had promised, as a junior at Bethel. So on you go, kid, and he began by jogging. Then the belt started moving faster, the incline growing, and soon he was sprinting. A well-conditioned player could usually last ten or so minutes on the treadmill, one of Thompson's many equalizers to whatever otherworldly talent the player thought he possessed. Williams lasted maybe twelve minutes. After nearly twenty minutes, Iverson still going, they geared the machine down, figuring that was good enough. Iverson hopped off, smiling at Williams and barely breathing hard. "Superhuman," Williams would say later."
Another example of Iverson's incredible conditioning and athleticism was displayed during one practice where players were instructed to run numerous laps after basketball-related practice. Coach Thompson was incredibly strict when his players didn't do things as he imagined in games or during practices, so he would punish them by ordering them to run laps and laps until their legs would go weak. That wasn't a problem for Iverson, who would run absolutely effortlessly around his teammates, laughing and enjoying himself like he was on a light jog around the park.
"Thompson liked to assign laps after a marathon practice if his team had struggled through a session, sloppy passes and stupid shots that "Big Coach" would not abide, whether here or in a game. They ran, their legs weak and their lungs screaming, and there Iverson would go, cruising past his teammates as they fell onto the floor, and laughing as he passed"
Pound for pound the best player and athlete in the NBA
Iverson continued being tireless even when he got into the NBA, where he averaged heavy minutes for years leading the Philadelphia 76ers without any real help as some other superstars had in the league at the time. During the 2001/02 season, Iverson averaged an astonishing 43.7 minutes per game and had 10 seasons in the league where he averaged more than 40 minutes per game. That is a prime example of how Iverson never got tired and was always looking to capitalize on his presence on the court.
Kobe Bryant once said that pound-for-pound Iverson was the best player in the NBA and that everyone was lucky he wasn't 6'5" because that would make him pretty much unstoppable on offense and possibly the GOAT of basketball. Bryant knew what he was talking about because he had his fair share of battles with Iverson and studied him and his tendencies to the last detail.
It's also kind of funny when you look back at the comments made towards Iverson that he never practiced when it was evident that wasn't true, and he displayed dominance over others in that department as well. However, it is true, and Iverson also admitted he never was the hardest worker and would often skip practice for a night at a club while his diet and overall lifestyle weren't according to the standards an NBA athlete should follow.
That is perhaps why the whole story about him being a superathlete is even more astonishing and valid because being able to play at such a level for so many minutes per season while getting constantly hit by bigger players when driving in the paint would hurt most guys but not Iverson. He didn't rely on outside shooting as guards in today's NBA, and he would always be in attack mode against defenses that were much different back in the day, where physical contact was harsher than it is today. Iverson took all that beating as a champ, brushing it off like it was nothing, and often seemed like the best athlete on the floor despite being the smallest guy out there. That proves that what his college teammates thought about him being an actual Superman was reasonable and made perfect sense. Athletes like Iverson really come once in a lifetime, and we'll have to wait and see if someone remotely similar comes to the spotlight the same way he did back in the day.