There’s never been so much basketball talent under one roof as there was on February 9th, 1997, in Cleveland, Ohio. The year before, the NBA was celebrating 50 years and, as a part of the celebration, selected the 50 greatest players of all time. At the halftime of the ’97 All-Star game, 47 of them walked on the court to get recognized. (Pete Maravich had passed in ’88, Shaq and Jerry West were recovering from surgery)
Some of the most fascinating conversations happened that day and weekend. That’s when Wilt told MJ, “Just remember Michael. When you played, they changed the rules to make it easier for you to dominate. When I played, they changed the rules to make it harder for me” in their famous discussion on who’s the GOAT. It was a weekend of superstars of all eras arguing over basketball. But, there was one topic a lot of them saw eye to eye.
It wasn’t just the white fanbase; it wasn’t just the white media. It was the older players who didn’t really warm to Iverson and saw him as a threat to their world. It was a real pushback to Iverson and what he represented. I remember the ’97 All-Star game in Cleveland; that’s the year the NBA was celebrating its 50 greatest players. Half of that weekend was about celebrating the past, all the great players that gathered there – Kareem, Wilt, Bill Russell. Half of it was that, but a lot of it was those guys talking about Iverson and how bad he was for the game. The older black players, the legends of the game, they were all coming down on him.J.A. Adande, The Book of Basketball 2.0
This goes to show how major Iverson‘s impact on basketball and culture in general was. Just to point it out, this was in 1997, AI’s first year in the league. It’s not like there were years of AI being controversial in the NBA. Yet, many of the greatest NBA players ever all disliked the change Iverson was bringing into the league. His level of authenticity made them uncomfortable.
All the legends on that stage had to be acceptable to a white audience, and not a lot of players stood up to that successfully. Bill Russell was winning titles for Boston when his house was vandalized, and racial slurs were written on his walls.
In the end, Iverson told LeBron, Wade, and Carmelo to “be fake,” and save themselves a lot of scrutiny he went through. We often say LeBron’s Decision started player empowerment, and it’s true when we talk about free agency and team building.
But Allen Iverson’s persistence to be who he is established the concept of player independence on a level that made The Decision possible.