Burgos: Allen Iverson and me

By Evan Burgos

The year was 1996, and I had a lot on my mind. Fall weather began to creep in, and, with it, the fleeting feeling of summer dissipated into the cold Philadelphia air. That year, I entered third grade and, for the first time in my life, would have homework. That worried me, but I had something more important to consider: I needed a new pair of basketball shoes.

My mother obliged and drove me to Sneaker Stadium. I must have been standing in front of the shoe rack for two minutes before I knew. It was a no-brainer. Something drew me to them — the red toe cap and Reebok symbol against white leather, the translucent baby-blue sole, the honeycomb air bubbles on the side and the number “3” stitched on the back. They were his first signature shoe and now they were mine. The Reebok Question.

Before I had ever seen him play in an NBA game, we were sharing sneakers. And I was gripped. My 76ers had selected Allen Iverson with the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. He’s been my favorite athlete ever since.

For the decade-plus Iverson was in Philadelphia, he was by far the city’s most beloved athlete. Before he came along, going to a Sixers game meant Dana Barros and Shawn Bradley. You can imagine the excruciation.

So when AI became the best scorer in the NBA, won the MVP and led Philly to the NBA finals, the city went nuts. The team won game one of the 2001 finals in dramatic overtime fashion against the Lakers. Iverson poured in 48 points. Although it promptly lost the series in five games, that run of success is the most exciting thing I have ever witnessed as a die-hard Philadelphia sports fan. To me, it’s equal with the Phillies’ 2008 World Series win. Even in defeat, Iverson has always been my guy.

During his time as a Sixer, Iverson amassed countless accolades: the MVP, four league scoring titles, two All-Star game MVPs and 10 appearances in the game, Rookie of the Year, three-time first team All-NBA and still owns the third-highest scoring average in league history at 27 a game. He was unconventional, he was street, and he was brash. But above all, he was honest, fierce and cared about his fans.

One day, I was on my way home from school. I had just emerged from the subway steps and was going to catch a bus. As I went to cross the street, a glitzy white Bentley pulled up next to me. Iverson was in the passenger seat, his window down. I was starstruck. I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head. “Allen, I love you!” He tipped his head, chucked me a deuce and drove off. What a guy.

Dec. 19, 2006. Iverson is dealt to the Denver Nuggets and a glorious era of Philly sports dies. I had been bracing myself for that day for a while, so it wasn’t as painful when it happened. But in retrospect, it might be one of the more disappointing sports memories I have. After a couple middling seasons in Denver and a brief stint with the Detroit Pistons, Iverson is now on the Memphis Grizzlies.

This summer, Iverson was anything but in demand. At the last minute, he signed for the veteran minimum with Memphis. Days of making $20 million or more in a season are long gone. Most recently, Iverson was in the news for refusing to come off the Memphis bench, insisting he could be best utilized as a starter. His coach clearly thought otherwise. It was reported that last week he left the team for “personal reasons.” The writing is on the wall: Allen endures the painful passage of time and the deterioration of his skill — and I endure with him.

I imagine countless others like me feel the same way. Those who were raised on the AI crossover futilely search for the days of his fearless drives to the hoop, countless 50-point games, stepping over Tyronn Lue giving us hope that we could vanquish the Lakers in 2001 and even rants about practice. Those days are gone.

Perhaps Iverson has one more run in him. Perhaps, if given the chance to start, he’ll win with the Grizzlies. But if he doesn’t, and this really is it for the man they called “The Answer,” then I think I will rest easy knowing this: Allen Iverson is, and forever will be, my sports hero.