Allen Iverson’s first college game was the perfect taste of everything to come
Allen Iverson’s first college game was the perfect taste of everything to come
Did we know we were witnessing history on that afternoon so long ago? We certainly knew we were there for something special. CBS was in Memphis to televise college basketball on a November Sunday afternoon, right in the middle of football season, with its lead team of Jim Nantz and Billy Packer on the call. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was among those in the audience at The Pyramid. The New York Times and Chicago Tribune sent writers to cover the game.
Maybe all this was because Allen Iverson was considered to be an exceptional basketball prospect. Or maybe it was because Iverson, on Nov. 27, 1994, was considered to be a story. It might even have been a little because Iverson and the Georgetown Hoyas were playing against Arkansas, the defending NCAA champion.
Not long after the game ended with the Razorbacks a comfortable winner, however, Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson led us all to understand what we had witnessed as Iverson made his debut on the national basketball stage.
“Allen Iverson? I ain’t never seen anything like that in my life,” Richardson said in his postgame press conference. “I’ve been to three calf show nine horse-ropings … I even saw Elvis once. But I ain’t never seen anyone do what Iverson does. We doubled him, trapped him, and he broke it. I’ve never seen anyone that quick with the basketball.”
Even after his Hogs had forced Iverson to shoot 28 percent from floor, commit eight turnovers and lose by an 18-point margin that only approximated how lopsided the game had been, Richardson understood: We all had seen history that afternoon. We not only had seen someone who one day —that day being Friday —would be inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, we had seen someone whose route to Springfield would be entirely different from the 170 or so players who traveled there before him.
Iverson was unlike any basketball player before or since. That could be said of most of the great players. There hasn’t been anyone exactly like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Julius Erving or Magic Johnson. But Iverson might have been the most distinct of all the game’s greats.
“Allen was a very, extremely unique talent,” forward Georgetown teammate Jerome Williams told Sporting News. And though grammarians might argue there are no degrees of “unique,” Williams is exactly correct.
On the first day of his college basketball career, Iverson stood 6-0, 165 pounds. The game was ruled by giants, then. Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon had just duked it out for the NBA championship a few months earlier. Shaquille O’Neal was just a couple years out of college, already the league’s rookie of the year and a two-time All-Star. Christian Laettner recently had led Duke to four consecutive Final Fours and two NCAA championships.
Iverson had become a big deal because of an incident that occurred in a bowling alley in February 1993, near the end of his junior season with the basketball team at Bethel High in Hampton, Va. There was a fight, the cause of which remains under dispute even three decades later, the result of which remains indisputable: Iverson was charged with “maiming by mob,” none of the white men on the other side of the brawl was charged and Iverson received an astonishing 15-year prison sentence without any of the alleged victims being seriously injured.
By the time he arrived in Memphis to play in a doubleheader organized to benefit the Black Coaches Association, named the Martin Luther King Classic and contested at The Pyramid —in part because of its proximity to an abundance of Arkansas fans, in part because of its proximity to the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of King’s assassination —Iverson had seen his sentence commuted by Virginia’s governor. He’d been recruited by Georgetown and coach John Thompson and accepted a scholarship to play for the Hoyas.
So that was some of what drew such inordinate attention to an early season college basketball game.
The people involved, though, were dealing on both sides with this uncommon talent: someone built like a point guard but with a greater affinity for scoring points but who had to have the basketball in his hands to create those scoring opportunities. You could hear it in the early portion of the CBS telecast, when Packer mentioned that Iverson would have to gain an understanding of how better to involve his teammates.
“It was hard to figure out how to coach that, and to coach against that,” Williams said.
Arkansas had built a brand around its “40 Minutes of Hell” pressure defense. That was how Richardson had begun his own Hall of Fame career, with a full-court press that made him a hot coach at Tulsa and a big-name coach at Arkansas, but it was only part of the program’s identity after low-post force Corliss Williams and sweet-shooting Scotty Thurman were recruited in 1992. They were the foundation of that 1994 championship team.
But Arkansas also had a couple of elite defensive guards in Corey Beck and Clint McDaniel. Richardson liked to use their ability to defend the ball to generate turnovers that would become easy baskets and to set a tempo that could bother opponents.
“We came out and played our normal 40 Minutes of Hell style,” Thurman told SN. “But to be honest, that was the first time I really had seen a guy that was splitting our traps and able to advance the ball. Although he did get out of control once in a while, and throw it away or make a bad pass, there still was no doubt about his speed and his athleticism and his quickness. He was all over the floor. We were impressed with that.”
“He was a blur,” said current Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, then Richardson’s assistant. “He was a one-man pressbreaker against our team. It was like cutting butter. He just knifed right through our press. I think through the course of 40 minutes it kind of wore on him, but it took four or five of our guys to kind of slow him down.”
Williams, who would go on to play 11 seasons in the NBA, remembers his introduction to Iverson being just as impactful and, though he was on the same side, occasionally problematic.
They were part of the same Georgetown recruiting class, though Williams was two years older and arriving from junior college. They first played together in the summer at D.C.’s Kenner League.
“I show up to our game and it’s sold out,” Williams said. “I expected a large crowd, but it was beyond a large crowd. It was standing room only. There was a line outside. I had been doing very well, so of course I thought they were there to see me.
“When he stepped on the court and started playing, his first two shots were from right inside of halfcourt. We were figuring out, ‘Man, there’s something different about this kid here.’ He was sort of in his own world. His confidence was on another level.
“There were a lot of quick guards in D.C. It’s not like we had never seen speed. But that kind of speed with the ball, the way he was running down the court … He got my attention.”
Learning to play with Iverson took some work. His audacity as a player challenged every teammate. They played at his level, or someone wound up looking foolish. Sometimes that was Iverson. There were circumstances when Iverson’s pass would be brilliant but the reception not so much. He recorded only 35 more assists in two years of college basketball than turnovers. Not all of those TOs were entirely his fault.
“He threw some very difficult passes to catch, and I was able to catch them,” Williams said. “Now, a lot of times, I wasn’t able to finish because I was more concentrating on the catch of the pass versus what I was going to do with it. Because that was just his gift. He could throw no-look bullet passes, no-look behind-the-back passes. We collected on a lot of highlight reels where those passes wound up being highlight dunks on ESPN. But sometimes I just had to dribble it out or figure out another teammate to pass it to.
“At the time, you’re just saying: Why can’t you throw an easier pass? But an easier pass is not for a person who’s a Hall of Famer.”
In two seasons at Georgetown, Iverson played on teams that reached the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight, won a Big East regular-season championship and lost a Big East Tournament title on a spectacular last-second shot by UConn’s Ray Allen. He averaged 23 points for his career and 4.6 assists. He was a first-team All-American as a sophomore. And he only was starting to figure out how he could rearrange pretty much every basketball game he played.
At the NBA level, Iverson was the No. 1 overall selection in the 1996 draft, the 1996-97 Rookie of the Year, the 2000-01 Most Valuable Player, a three-time All-NBA first-teamer and an 11-time All-Star. His career scoring total of 24,368 points ranks 23rd all-time, and his scoring average of 26.7 points is seventh, behind Jerry West and ahead of Oscar Robertson, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant.
It is impossible to account for what I call the “Iverson assist”: one of the baskets that developed when he sliced into the lane because of his impossible quickness, drew a frontcourt defenders up from the baseline and missed the shot he attempted —only to see a teammate like Williams at Georgetown or Theo Ratliff with the 76ers rebound and slam it home. Let’s just say there were a lot of them.
At the Hall of Fame ballot announcement in April, Iverson acknowledged he had been stubborn and challenging to coach in his early seasons with the Sixers. But eventually he figured out what Larry Brown was trying to impart. “That’s when it went from just a talented player to the best player on planet Earth,” Iverson said then.
Although Iverson sometimes was criticized for not being the true point guard his body type insisted he ought to be, he ended his NBA career with 5,624 assists, only a dozen less than Chauncey Billups, more than fellow Hall of Famer Dave Bing.
On that first day in Memphis, Iverson passed for only a couple assists and took 18 shots. But he also attempted eight free throws because of Arkansas’ inability to contain him. That was twice the number of anyone else who played that day. This skill would become one of his greatest assets. He got to the line for 317 attempts in his sophomore season. Only 16 players since 1993-94 earned more foul shots.
“We played against Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves the year before in the Final Four. We had played against great guards,” Anderson said. “But obviously we hadn’t played against anyone of this nature.
“I’d seen him in high school and AAU ball. I’d never seen anything like it. No one could guard this guy. There are some guys that have ‘it.’ At a very young age you could see he had it.”