When the NBA airbrushed AI’s tattoos

When the NBA airbrushed AI’s tattoos

No player influenced the NBA culture we see today as much as Allen Iverson. Some wanted to have MJ‘s jump shot, Hakeem‘s footwork, or rebound like Barkley, but everyone wanted to be like Allen Iverson. 

Iverson had one of the most difficult paths to the league, being abused by the justice system over a bowling alley incident. After his mom begged John Thompson to give him a chance, Iverson got his opportunity but didn’t compromise who he was. The NBA was scared of that. 

An aging, predominantly white audience didn’t look fondly at AI’s appearance. The league was concerned the chains, tattoos, and outfits would turn a lot of people off. It may sound ridiculous to you, but in the late 90s, there was a serious narrative about NBA players being overpaid and greedy asking for more. (It was partly a PR strategy by the owners and the league during the 95, 96, and 98 lockouts). Here’s a list of the top paid players in ’98/’99 – salary (adjusted for inflation)

  1. Patrick Ewing – $18.5 million ($29 million)
  2. Shaquille O’Neal – $15 million ($23.5 million)
  3. David Robinson – $14.8 million ($23.3 million)
  4. Kevin Garnett – $14 million ($22 million)
  5. Alonzo Mourning – $13.1million ($20.6 million)

At $29 million, adjusted for inflation, Patrick Ewing wouldn’t crack the top 20 list in ’19/’20. That’s the environment Allen Iverson came into and refused to conform. He is who he is, you know AI leaves it all on the floor every night, and that’s what you pay to see – basketball at its finest. 

Quickly becoming one of the NBA’s best players, the league couldn’t stop his rise to fame. But, it did try and control it. The worst example happened when Iverson was invited to be on the cover of NBA’s Hoops Magazine’s holiday edition. Before IG and self-promotion, getting on a Christmas cover was like getting a kazillion likes on a post. But when the cover came out, it wasn’t AI. His chain, diamond earrings, and tattoos were airbrushed.

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“Hey, you can’t do that. That’s not right. Hey, I am who I am. You can’t change that. Who gives them the authority to remake me? Everybody knows who Allen Iverson is. That’s wild. That’s kind of crazy. This is the first I’ve heard of it, but I personally am offended that somebody would do something like that. They don’t have the right to try to present me in another way to the public than the way I truly am without my permission. It’s an act of freedom and a form of self-expression. That’s why I got mine.”

Allen Iverson

What gets me most is the diamond earrings. The tattoos and cross, I can get – ignorant people connected it to gangs and similar stuff. But airbrushing a guy’s diamond earring goes to show how much the powers that be expected players to look, well, white. To reiterate – this was a magazine published by the NBA! The now-canceled Kanye West has an appropriate verse for this. 

You know white people get money, don’t spend it
Or maybe they get money, buy a business
I rather buy 80 gold chains and go ig’nant
I know Spike Lee gon’ kill me but let me finish
Blame it on the pigment, we living no limits
Them gold Master P ceilings was just a figment
Of our imagination, MTV cribs Now I’m looking at a crib right next to where TC lives

It’s harder to find a player without tattoos today. Players walk into the game wearing all sorts of ridiculous outfits, and AI hilariously noted they “need the dress code today.” We take all this for granted, and it sounds self-explanatory. AI went through a lot of stupid scrutiny for players to have that freedom.