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Hall of Fame guard Allen Iverson leaves behind a complicated legacy

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Iverson was a transcendent talent with a complicated personal life.

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall Of Fame 2016 On Court Class Announcement Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Who is Allen Iverson? He’s the player nobody could agree on.

Philadelphia is eternally focused on what their sports icons don’t have. Donovan McNabb is the greatest quarterback in the history of the Eagles franchise, yet discussed by many for what he couldn’t do. Jimmy Rollins is a borderline Hall of Famer with a staggering resume at shortstop, but his occasional jog to first earned the scorn of millions.

Nobody embodies the push-and-pull quite like Allen Iverson.

He was superlative in every way; he didn’t just have a nice handle, he vaporized ankles. He wasn’t just quick, he was a tornado on legs. He didn’t just get applause in South Philadelphia, he controlled the arena as if his fans were attached to marionette strings.

The ammo assembled by his critics — often couched in coded racism — was amplified all the same. He didn’t just have tattoos, they draped his body. He didn’t just miss practices, he showed an active contempt for it. His rap lyrics were so controversial, so unlike those of peers launching side-projects of their own, that then-commissioner David Stern took a public stand against them:

The lyrics that have been attributed to Allen Iverson’s soon-to-be-released rap CD are coarse, offensive, and anti-social. Whatever constitutional rights of free speech an individual may have, there is no constitutional right to participate in the NBA and I have the power… to disqualify players who engage in offensive conduct — including inappropriate speech. Allen Iverson has done a disservice to himself, the Philadelphia 76ers, his teammates, and perhaps all of the NBA.

Iverson’s legacy has grown even more complicated with time. While his stature as a counter-culture icon has grown, his on-court resume has been sniped at as basketball’s emphasis on shot selection and ball movement reigns supreme. His failure to succeed in a team context outside of one magical run and the lack of a “second wind” once he was no longer the primary attraction have overshadowed a lot of his accomplishments.

Anecdotes have come to light about his personal life, painting him as a vindictive husband and father only partially in control of his life. It seems at odds with his public persona, gregarious as it ever was, but maybe that’s because you wanted to believe a player who constantly put his body on the line for his team would show his loved ones the same level of sacrifice.

***

Who is Allen Iverson? He’s the hero whose valor has come and gone.

Iverson’s presence in my life was instructive, even if I didn’t know it when I was lacing up his sneakers and rocking new headbands.

I was 11 years old when Iverson strapped the 2001 Sixers to his back and dragged them to the NBA Finals. His Herculean performance was not lost on me:

When you’re that age, you don’t hear criticism people make about the things you love. Just as friends ignored my mockery of their beloved wrestling, I was deaf to relatives and pundits decrying Iverson at every turn, even when their points were valid.

As an adult who strives to be objective, coming to grips with Iverson as a human being has come in fits and starts. The first major event I ever covered as “media” was his jersey retirement, and while I tried to approach the evening as objectively as possible, you can’t divorce yourself entirely from what happened in your childhood. Iverson has been and will always be more than just an everyday subject.

Shrugging off the issues came naturally when I was in middle school. A story pops up about Iverson arguing with his wife? No big deal, it’s not as though I knew much about romantic pursuits. The Answer goes on a legendary rant about practice? I don’t like practice either, good for him! But as time passed and the stories mounted about Iverson the man — let alone Iverson and his spotty commitment on non-game days — his legacy grew more complicated.

Confronting the mortality of people you look up to isn’t easy. Everyone wants to believe the man or woman they idolize is a model citizen, but few are able to pass that test. Even our first role models — our mothers and fathers -- have idiosyncrasies of their own that we have to make peace with.

Growing up with Iverson was critical to who I am. Nothing about him is simple as the surface made it seem; just as his legal woes in high school weren’t enough to blindly label him a “thug”, his feats on the court were not enough to dismiss his more insidious tendencies. Separating man from myth requires more nuance than blind worship.

It’s hard to lament what could have been — the guy is going into the fucking Hall of Fame, after all — but he exists as something between unfulfilled potential and the zenith of hard work. You can spin it either way; he is either a testament to how far talent can carry you or a reminder of one’s limitations in the absence of total dedication.

In spite of his deficiencies, his natural ability and toughness carried him to heights few have ever reached. For many, that was enough.

***

Who is Allen Iverson? He is the man who was defiant until the bitter end.

On the day before his Hall of Fame induction, Iverson showed up late to his own press conference. He seemed taken aback when asked about his fashionably late entrance, wondering why people couldn’t just let the moment be great, warts aside:

There was no other way for Iverson to enter the hall. Inching in silently wouldn’t have fit his persona. Iverson should bask in his moment, but not understanding why he would be questioned is the root of the disconnect between he and his critics.

And yet for every moment like the one above, there’s a spilling of emotions to show gratitude for his teammates and coaches:

There is an Iverson for everyone. He is a reckless gunner and a grateful teammate, a renegade who wanted nothing more than to be “Like Mike”. Trying to pigeonhole him is futile, despite countless attempts to humanize or demonize him.

Iverson resonates because he’s as flawed as the people who showed up in droves to cheer for him. He is the brilliant coworker you know has more to offer, but whose work speaks for itself anyway. When his friends and family needed him the most, Iverson never hesitated to put himself on the line, but he was never the same man behind closed doors as he was in the spotlight.

It’s why I’m still drawn to Iverson, even as more transgressions emerge in books and documentaries and everywhere else. I can’t idolize him anymore, knowing what I do about his personal life and the wreckage he’s left in his wake. But I find solace in knowing that someone I once viewed as an unstoppable giant in his field bleeds and fails just like I do.