Allen Iverson: Pound for Pound

Posted on October 19, 2021

by Michael Eric Dyson

For more than thirty years, Michael Eric Dyson has played a prominent role in the nation as a public intellectual, university professor, cultural critic, social activist, and ordained Baptist minister. In the following essay from his upcoming book Entertaining Race, Dyson discusses Allen Iverson and his role in one of the most iconic moments in NBA history.

Philadelphia 76ers Allen Iverson 2001.
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Although I had been an avid basketball fan since my youth, one player finally drove me to get season tickets to watch his on-court wizardry: Allen Iverson. By the time I arrived in Philadelphia to teach at Penn in 2002, Iverson, also known as “The Answer,” and by his initials, AI, had just won the regular season and All-Star game MVPs in his fifth year as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. For three years, I saw him soar, weave, and get knocked down only to bounce back up and make his way to the basket again, all while performing his version of a move he didn’t invent but that he perfected: the crossover, which involves artfully, and in Iverson’s case with a mesmerizing feint, rapidly switching the ball from one hand to the other while simultaneously changing direction of travel and speed of motion. It was indeed a metaphor for how he had switched directions in life and faked out would-be opponents to his thriving while putting a storied franchise on his back. I got to know the man behind the legend a bit, including when we served Thanksgiving dinner to the vulnerable in Philadelphia. He remains one of the most beloved professional athletes of all time. He was only six feet tall. Kobe Bryant, who admitted that Iverson’s exceptional play drove him to higher heights, said, “We all should be fortunate that Allen Iverson wasn’t 6’5.” A version of this essay appeared in September 2016 as one of two collectible cover stories for Slam magazine’s 200th issue. The other cover featured Michael Jordan.

It was one of the most iconic plays in NBA history, although it only lasted a few seconds. Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player in the world, many say of all time, applied his suffocating defensive skills to Allen Iverson, a truculent prodigy whose approach to the game couldn’t have been more different. That night Iverson came off a screen with the ball at the top of the key as Jordan guarded his man. Bulls Coach Phil Jackson hollered “Michael, Michael,” signaling for his superstar guard to switch off of his man onto Iverson. AI spied Michael through his peripheral vision as he came near, and everyone in the crowd stood up in eager anticipation of Jordan clamping down on Iverson with his swarming defense. It was a moment thick with drama and dripping with excitement. Iverson hit Jordan with a little feint of a crossover first just to set him up. He didn’t intend to rehearse his move in front of MJ. He simply didn’t get it right. Despite his initial failure, Jordan bit the bait and fell for Iverson’s faux crossover. Iverson said to himself, “Oh shit, I didn’t even do it for real, and he went for it.” That boosted his confidence and fueled his drive to topple the master with his signature move. So Iverson cocked it back and hit him with it. Boom! It was lightning quick and left Jordan’s legs twisted as he thought Iverson was heading one way, but he actually went in the opposite direction toward the basket and made his mid-range jump shot. The crowd erupted in applause. 

That Iverson bested Jordan and “broke his ankles” underscores an athletic truism: basketball is a game where youngsters grow up to battle their heroes. “I remember the first time I played against him—he didn’t even look human,” Iverson tells me. “He looked to me on that court the same way he looked when I was a ten-year-old kid looking at him on television. This is the man I wanted to be like.” Almost fifteen years later, the move inspired hip hop superstar Drake to drop a couplet that summarized the ruthless manner in which the transition between styles and generations is often made: “And that’s around the time that your idols become your rivals / you make friends with Mike but gotta AI him for your survival.”

On that night, Iverson lived up to his nickname “The Answer” as he solved the riddle of Jordan’s hardwood omniscience, at least for a play, badgering the basketball deity with a devilish move that left him flummoxed in his sneakers. Iverson had practiced the move at Georgetown as a collegiate star before refining it in the league. But at this game, the Chosen One, and through the miracle of the media, the nation at large, too, got a taste of Iverson’s wicked crossover—a term that conjures Iverson’s complicated, even tortured, odyssey to mainstream success as he held fast to the tenets of his hardscrabble youth. The crossover, a move that Iverson didn’t patent but brilliantly reinvented, is far more difficult than it looks. One must master the physics of momentum, the calculus of velocity, the geometry of space and the esthetics of illusion. The crossover is equal parts magic and science.

© KK Ottesen

Michael Eric Dyson—Distinguished University Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies, College of Arts & Science, and of Ethics and Society, Divinity School, and NEH Centennial Chair at Vanderbilt University—is one of America’s premier public intellectuals and the author of numerous New York Times bestsellers including Tears We Cannot StopWhat Truth Sounds LikeJAY-Z, and Long Time Coming. A winner of the 2018 nonfiction Southern Book Prize, Dr. Dyson is also a recipient of two NAACP Image awards and the 2020 Langston Hughes Festival Medallion. Former president Barack Obama has noted: “Everybody who speaks after Michael Eric Dyson pales in comparison.”

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