How does one define greatness in the NBA?
Is it the amount of championships, scoring titles, or MVP’s that he collects? Those are great for the mantle but in Philly, it’s about heart, loyalty, and character. Many have tried to fake it (Sam Hinkie), gave their all (Julius Erving), but there was one that went above the call of duty and left his DNA in every part of the city.
We knew it, we saw it coming when he was drafted, but we never expected this. Years of struggle finally paid off for Iverson in 2001 when he led the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals, which they eventually lost to Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and the Los Angeles Lakers but still…
This is why many fans were pissed last year in regards to LeBron James leading the Cavs to the Finals like no other player ever has.
Let me get this right, maybe I’m wrong but I will do this without looking up any stats, off the top off my head (I’m 40 so the memory is not as sharp, bare with me).
The Cavs featured Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, hell I can stop right there. But the fans are arguing that they didn’t have Love for the playoffs. Who gives a hell, they still went 53-29. Let’s compare their roster to what Iverson had to deal with in 2001. Eric Snow, Aaron McKie, Tyrone Hill, and Dikembe Mutombo. Where is the All-Star in that lineup? But yet they managed to win 56 games. Three better than the loaded Cleveland Cavaliers back when the Eastern Conference had real competition.
Back to the story.
Iverson was good for 20 wins by himself even when he was playing reckless hero ball. By the start of the 2000 season, he finally had bought into the Larry Brown way. Entering the season it was shaping up for another possible first round exit or worse. The Sixers defensive ace Theo Ratliff went down and the shrugs and “oh well’s” began to creep out of mouths, but they still had #3 and unlike today that actually meant something.
As the season wore on you could see the confidence growing as Iverson told his teammates to follow him, and follow they did. That year Iverson averaged 31 points while the next closest to him was Ratliff with 12.
It wasn’t about the points scored that got them there. Iverson did what he does best and that was put the ball in the basket but Brown taught team ball. While Iverson was chugging up 26 shots per game the Sixers as a team was 5th in defense, 4th in rebounding, 4th in free throw attempts, while only taking 9 3-point attempts per game. This is how you win ladies and gentleman.
When the playoffs rolled around this would be their moment of failure many thought. The regular season was one thing but with the playoffs came tighter defense and the Sixers would be forced to have someone other than Iverson lead the way. First up was the 8th seeded Indiana Pacers with Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose and Jermaine O’Neal.
The game plan was to contain Iverson, and they did to the tune of 32 points per game. But help was there with the 35-year old Mutombo (10/15/5) and Philly native McKie (17/4/5). The Sixers defeated the Pacers (3-1) and moved to the second round.
In the Semifinals the Sixers faced the 5th seeded Toronto Raptors and Vince Carter. Same plan. Stop Iverson, but to no such luck as he averaged 34 points while playing 46 minutes per. Wow.
As the same in the first round, it wasn’t all Bubba Chuck doing the damage. McKie was there for 16/6/4 and Mutombo chipped in with 11/12/3. Not bad for a one-person show huh? The series went down to the wire with the Sixers ending the Raptors season after a game 7 victory.
In the Conference Finals, the Sixers faced the Milwaukee Bucks which featured Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson. This was the one where the Cinderella slipper was coming off. With Iverson missing a game it was sure to happen. But those Sixers were dialed in again as they defeated the Bucks in 7 games to advance to the NBA Championship. Iverson averaged 31/5/7, while McKie (16/5/7), and Mutombo (17/16/3) followed the leader.
The Finals came and the dream season kept rolling. At least for the 1st game as the Sixers pulled off the upset with a Game 1 victory but that celebration was short-lived as the Cinderella team ran out of gas and lost the series 4-1 to Bryant and Shaq.
For all the hate that Iverson may get for his off-court antics and on-court ball-hogging please remember he did this for the team. No one ever said he was selfish, not one teammate that played with him. Iverson played to win and he left it all on the court in the end. When greats are mentioned, they are often followed by a question.
Did he do it himself? Some came close.
Patrick Ewing comes to mind with the Knicks as well as James and the 2007 Finals with the Cavs (that team he put on his back).
Winning a ring solo is hard to do. Charles Barkley, Ewing, James, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, even Kobe and Michael Jordan couldn’t do it. But when remembering Iverson please don’t forget the magic he handed the NBA that year and every year he was in Philly.
He didn’t win a ring there but he made them a contender in his prime. Every player mentioned above had some type of sidekick to help them later in their careers but he never did, he was the lone wolf that told his team to get on his back and they followed suit. Players stepped up, seized the moment and almost pulled off the impossible.
The little guy. He was criticized for playing his game but his game helped make the NBA enjoyable that season.