For Allen Iverson, it was never just about ‘practice’
The unforgettable news conference was a long time in the making
Twenty years ago, on May 7, 2002, Allen Iverson delivered one of the most memorable news conferences in sports history. It was also one of the most misunderstood.
“We talkin’ ’bout practice! Not a game!” Iverson snapped to the media that day. “Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last. Not the game. We talkin’ ’bout practice, man!”
Four days before the news conference, the Philadelphia 76ers’ season had ended with a first-round upset by the Boston Celtics — including a 33-point blowout loss in the decisive Game 5. After the series, coach Larry Brown and the organization expressed concerns over Iverson’s practice habits again, and buzz about a possible trade involving the superstar made that afternoon’s event a powder keg. Despite baring his soul, many didn’t hear what Iverson was actually saying. Instead, he was once again seen as Iverson the knucklehead. Iverson the perpetual antagonist. And, as many referred to him back then, Iverson the thug.
“I’m upset for one reason: ’Cause I’m in here. I lost. I lost my best friend. I lost him, and I lost this year,” he said during the contentious event. “Everything is going downhill for me, as far as just that … as far as my life.”
Iverson’s emotions have always been a gateway into his guarded soul — back in July 2002, just two months after the news conference, his friends told The New York Times he “can be as emotional in his private life as he is on a basketball court.”
On a mid-April morning this year, Brittnay Proctor-Habil was the emotional one as she watched his news conference again. As a professor of media at The New School who studies the effects of race and media, it hit home in a visceral way.
“Imagine having to defend your hurt amongst a room full of folks that more times than not don’t look like you,” Proctor-Habil said. “It [still] hasn’t fully framed Iverson as someone who was grieving and was articulating his hurt and trying to deal with disparaging remarks about his character. You could just see the sadness in his eyes.”
In the two decades since that day, Iverson’s tirade has taken on a life of its own. Comedians have used it in bits. Sports outlets have plastered it across TVs, phones and computer screens as an annual spring tradition. Actor Jason Sudeikis referenced Iverson’s words in the first season of the critically acclaimed series Ted Lasso. During his NBA Hall of Fame induction in 2016, Yao Ming cracked a joke, saying his speech needed more “practice.” At some point, most of us have probably recited its most popular moments, Iverson included. It’s become a punchline with no expiration date.
“As far as how I expressed ‘practice, practice, practice’ over and over again, I wouldn’t take that back,” Iverson said in 2013. “Obviously, that sound bite, it’s great for the media. The fans, they love that.”
Therein lies the issue. Twenty years ago, Iverson spoke for 35 minutes, and yet what we remember is a minute-long sound bite that completely obscures what he was going through.
The backstory behind Iverson’s frustration isn’t a mystery; he explained it that day. On Oct. 14, 2001 — just two weeks before the start of the NBA regular season — Iverson’s best friend, Rahsaan “Rah” Langford, was murdered outside a Hampton, Virginia, apartment complex. He was 29. Throughout that season, Iverson would wear black armbands with “RA” embroidered on them, tapping his friend’s initials before each free throw.
Iverson didn’t have a random outburst that day. The seeds of that news conference were planted before he even played his first NBA game. His character had long been a lightning rod for criticism — in some ways valid and necessary, but also cruel and, at times, outright racist. Questions about his practice habits dogged him for years, despite the dominance and determination he’d showcase on the court. So a disappointing season coupled with an early playoff exit proved to be an explosive combination that day.
To accurately engage in a discussion about his practice rant now, means digging into who Iverson was and who he was thought to be.
He’s the Answer and the problem
Platinum-selling rapper Jadakiss first heard of Iverson in the early 1990s, when one of his friends moved from his hometown of Yonkers, New York, to the Tidewater region of Virginia. Jadakiss (born Jason Phillips) learned the teenage phenom was a local legend, thanks to Iverson’s outstanding skills on the football field and basketball court. Colleges across the country were begging for his services and he eventually wound up at Georgetown University. Back in Yonkers, Jadakiss listened to the tales about Iverson’s greatness in awe.
“[My boy] would go to the high school games and see Joe Smith play against A.I. He’d call us like, ‘Yo, it’s this kid down here, Allen Iverson … they games are crazy!’ The whole town came out!” Jadakiss told Andscape. “Then I remember we were at parties. The whole gang just sitting on the floor watching A.I. play for Coach Thompson at Georgetown.”
Iverson was the top overall pick in a monumental 1996 NBA draft class that included Stephon Marbury, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Antoine Walker, Peja Stojakovic, Jermaine O’Neal and future Hall of Famers Ray Allen, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant. He was an instant fan favorite, thanks to his fearless, and sometimes flashy, style of play.
“We had seen Iverson maybe two or three times on TV, crossing people up, and we were like, ‘Man, what is he doing?’ ” late rapper Nipsey Hussle’s older brother, Blacc Sam, once told me. “Nipsey mastered [Iverson’s crossover] and became a legend in the schoolyard because of that.”
Iverson would go on to capture the Rookie Challenge MVP at All-Star Weekend in 1997, as well as the NBA Rookie of the Year award. But despite the accolades (and his catchy Reebok ads with Jadakiss), Iverson battled adversity ever since he came into this world. Born to a 15-year-old single mom, Iverson grew up in abject poverty. In 2002, he told Playboy, “Growing up was hard, man. We had busted plumbing, so there was sewage s— floating around our floors. Sometimes we had no lights, because it was a question of food or the light bill, and my mom wasn’t about to let us go hungry.”
In high school, a bowling alley brawl — widely assumed to be racially motivated — abruptly ended Iverson’s high school career. The incident was the subject of the documentary, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, which examined the ramifications of not only the trial but the perceptions of Iverson, even as a teenager. Sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in the melee (for which only Black teens were charged), for all Iverson knew, his life was over. Had it not been for coach John Thompson and then-Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, Iverson’s Hall of Fame career likely would have been over before it began.
By the time he entered the league 2½ years after being granted clemency, Iverson’s growing popularity couldn’t shield him from criticism. To some, he personified everything that was wrong with the NBA. He was too Black, too ’hood, too hip-hop, too good at controlling the rock. Between his cornrows and tattoos, Iverson was the rugged antithesis of the stars the NBA had deemed worthy of adoration. But for many fans, they finally saw themselves in the brash baller.
“Watching him play was like if one of us made it off the block. Like if one of us from the ‘hood made it,” said three-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford. “He played like how we played. He looked like we looked. Somebody got a family member that looks like him, a friend who talks like him. I’m not sure we connected to anybody like that since. Not in our culture.”
During his first All-Star Weekend in 1997, it often seemed like the gritty point guard was public enemy No. 1. Leading up to the week honoring the game’s 50 best players of all time, Iverson had been singled out by NBA legends who claimed his selfishness and egotistical style of play was indicative of the new era of players. After the rookie game, Iverson was showered with boos as he accepted his award. He brushed it off at the time, telling reporters, “Maybe people felt that Kobe should have won the MVP … I’ve never had people boo me for playing hard.”
Former 76ers great Charles Barkley — who, to be fair, came to love Iverson later on — said the controversial rookie was nothing special. “He’s not the greatest,” Barkley said at the time, “he’s the latest.”
Between the media narrative and older players groaning about “the mugging and the trash-talking” among younger players, Iverson struck a defiant tone. “All this negative publicity,” he told The New York Times in 1997, “it’s just another obstacle I have to overcome.”
By the late 1990s, the league had attained international popularity thanks to the dominance of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. It wasn’t just that Iverson didn’t play like them. He didn’t carry himself like them, and he didn’t look like them — nor was he interested in doing so. The conformity of the past was giving way to individuality through mediums such as hip-hop and the internet, which, similar to Iverson, was once predicted to fail.
While Iverson battled giants in the paint such as Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O’Neal, his off-the-court challenges proved far more daunting. Fairly and unfairly, it altered the way others, including his peers, saw him.
“I wasn’t quite sure what to think [before meeting Iverson for the first time]. I know what I heard about him, and it wasn’t great,” said Aaron McKie, a 13-year NBA veteran and current Temple University men’s basketball coach. He and Iverson played together in Philly from 1997 to 2005. “But I always like to get a feel for myself rather than go on what somebody else tells me. … My first day in practice, I came in there and it was like somebody plugged him up. He was singing! He was dancing! He was just super high energy and once practice started he was just going full speed! I haven’t seen many people with that type of energy.”
McKie said Iverson was extremely guarded. The world — and what he felt it had taken from him — taught Iverson he had to be careful about who he let in his circle. Nonetheless, McKie was probably closer to Iverson than anyone else in the league because he saw the man the star did not allow most to see.
“I got the opportunity to be around him behind the scenes, have in-depth conversations about life, the game and him as an individual,” McKie recalled. “I probably spent more time with him than any of his teammates, at least on the 76ers. We had so many things in common. We cracked jokes, played cards, video games. All of it brought us closer together. We were able to have conversations so far beyond basketball.”
As the 1990s gave way to a new millennium, much of the conversation about Iverson wasn’t about his game — it was about his own questionable choices.
“He helped it out a little!” Jadakiss said. “He definitely helped it.”
In 1997, Iverson was sentenced to three years probation stemming from misdemeanor gun and marijuana charges (he’s firmly entrenched in the marijuana legalization movement today). Early in his career, he was painted as a less than admirable teammate, largely due to his combative relationship with Brown. Yet Brown could not deny Iverson’s talent, however frustrating he was to coach. (Iverson, to his credit, would call himself a “certified ass” when looking back on the relationship years later.)
In 2000, his rap album Non-Fiction was littered with profanity, depictions of violence and anti-gay epithets. Though those characteristics may have been common in rap music of that era, an NBA superstar making that type of record meant controversy and bad press. Then-NBA commissioner David Stern went into a panic over the project, and movie director Spike Lee, who expressed his love for Iverson on the court, called Non-Fiction a “21st-century minstrel show.” (The album was never released, and though Iverson claimed he was speaking from the harsh realities of the world that raised him, he’d soon apologize and later express remorse for recording the project altogether.)
With all of the off-the-court drama swirling around him, Iverson’s practice habits were called into question long before it became a famous sound bite.
“It’s irreconcilable if he doesn’t show up to practice,” Brown said in the summer of 2000 while coaching Team USA in the Olympics. Iverson wasn’t on the 2000 team because of the perception of him. “I’ve never criticized his game or his heart. But he tells me he wants to be the leader, the captain and a great player. My response to him is: ‘You’ve got control over all that. Not me.’ ”
Still, Iverson wanted to be remembered, like most stars, for what he did on the hardwood. “When I’m gone, obviously it’s gon’ be a lot of negative things said about me once it’s all over,” he said in a 2006 interview. “But I want people to concentrate on the positive things that I did.”
Had it not been for journeyman center Matt Geiger’s refusal to waive a contract clause that would have allowed him to be traded alongside Iverson in 2000, the 76ers would have dealt the star to the Detroit Pistons. This is why the 2000-01 season mattered far beyond the parade of accolades that 76ers squad received. Iverson still battled the image that followed him no matter the high level of basketball he brought to arenas around the league. One night in Indiana fans peppered him with taunts such as “monkey” and “jailbird,” leading him to respond with a derogatory epithet of his own. Though he was fined $5,000, Iverson called the verbal abuse the worst of his career. Nevertheless, that season was Iverson’s undoubted apex, and his leadership off the court was as impressive as his MVP campaign on it.
“I finally looked in the mirror,” Iverson told The New York Times. ”This is my fifth year, and I haven’t won a championship. I had to stop acting like a kid and start doing some of the small things Coach Brown wanted me to do that I didn’t do and should’ve never had a problem doing. Now I’m doing them.”
“We were a connected group from the beginning. We would go on the road and go to dinner or to the movies,” McKie said of that 2000-01 Philly squad. “It was organic for us. It was natural for us because we all got along.”
The season didn’t end with a title. But they left their mark on NBA history, winning the legendary seven-game series over both Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors and Ray Allen and the Milwaukee Bucks. And though they were defeated in five games by the Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA championship, Iverson’s 48-point Game 1 performance and stepover of Tyronn Lue became instant classics. Despite all of the challenges and critiques, by the summer of 2001, Iverson felt almost untouchable.
Tough times don’t last. Good times don’t either
The loss to the Lakers may have stung, but the murder of Langford a few months later was crippling. Even as debates about the company Iverson kept swirled in the media, he made sure to keep Langford close. He believed in Langford’s budding rap career, and after his death, Iverson and his wife Tawanna would name their son Isaiah Rahsaan Iverson, after his fallen friend. The reigning MVP kept that pain close to his chest all season, choosing not to discuss it with teammates. Even McKie.
Philadelphia’s first-round exit in 2002 was a crushing end to the season. In just three seasons, Iverson had gone from NBA All-Star and league MVP to nearly being traded. He was being asked about his character and commitment to the game. Grief was just the rotten cherry on top.
“It wasn’t unusual for heavy-minute guys to sit out [practice]. But Allen didn’t take no games off!” McKie said. “So we understood. It wasn’t a big deal to us, but [the media] made it more of a deal than what it should’ve been. He played in all the games if he was healthy or even if he was banged up. That’s the difference. [Today], load management is missing games. His was maybe taking off a practice or two.”
Philadelphia reporter Phil Jasner asked the question that led to Iverson’s explosion. This was never about Iverson vs. Jasner — whom Iverson would later say he respected despite their ups and downs. It was about Iverson’s life experiences bubbling to the surface. He knew he’d take the brunt of the criticism for yet another year without a championship. What no one in the news conference knew then, aside from Iverson, is that the trial of his best friend’s alleged killer had started only days earlier.
“We sitting here and I’m supposed to be the franchise player,” Iverson pleaded, “and we talking about practice!”
While much of the world saw a disgruntled athlete trying to ditch responsibility for his team’s disappointing season, those close to Iverson saw it differently.
“I knew then it was deeper than that clip. I understood [that frustration],” said Jadakiss, who remains close with Langford’s family. “Being close to him — or closer than the average rapper is to him — I didn’t know exactly what it was right then at the moment, but I just know how this game works.”
In sports, it’s natural to be asked about what went wrong in a season that began with so much promise, especially if you’re the star. But there wasn’t nearly enough effort made to empathize with a man who was clearly in pain.
“This crystalized the tension that’s always been part of the relationship between Black athletes and their relationship with the media,” said Proctor-Habil.
From the beginning, Iverson’s news conference built on the idea that younger Black athletes were aggressive and antagonistic, not humble or gracious. He was the object of endless criticism. Reports would surface years later suggesting Iverson had been drinking that day — Iverson vehemently denied those claims. But in that unfiltered stream of consciousness was Iverson in his most authentic form.
“He’s saying, ‘I’m human just like you.’ He’s saying, ‘I’m engaging you as this hurt individual that’s trying to tell you this isn’t right and I’m being fed to the wolves,’ ” said Proctor-Habil. “I think the media was fully unprepared to have that kind of discourse and dialogue.”
The subjects of Black athletes, vulnerability and mental health were hardly discussed 20 years ago. Today, they’re talked about on every sports show. Though he didn’t benefit at the time, Iverson’s practice rant had a lot to do with making it easier for athletes to discuss their struggles.
“I think it helped tremendously,” Jadakiss said. “At the end of the day, we are all human beings, and you can never fault him for that. He was going through something.”
Crawford agreed. “It advanced [those conversations] in our communities first … for me personally seeing that, it gave me strength. I’m sure it did for people younger than me,” he said. “Like dang, here’s one of our superheroes saying he was going through something. But he was also like, ‘I’ma lean on y’all, my support system, my family and I’ma get through it.’ ”
Iverson set the modern blueprint for individuality in the NBA, but that individuality sometimes got the better of him, and it often made him a target. Even when he wasn’t mentioned specifically as the problem, rules changes such as the dress code the NBA implemented in 2005 were spurred in part to combat Iverson’s (and hip-hop’s) influence on the league. It wasn’t just about the way players pieced together outfits. It was bringing their full selves wearing what, at the time, included baggy jeans, tall T-shirts and other looks that, quite frankly, turned white people off.
During the mid-2000s, the NBA attempted to rebrand itself in ways that didn’t include Iverson. He was no longer the superstar attraction, bouncing from Philly to Denver, and Detroit to Memphis, before a brief reconciliation with the 76ers. He was a problem that had finally run its course. And since he wasn’t willing to accept a smaller role on a team, it was easier to part ways.
Iverson’s career ended in 2010 when he found himself playing in China. Unlike his fellow 1996 draft class alum Bryant, Iverson never received a farewell tour, or even a real retirement announcement. Perhaps it was sort of retroactive punishment for that May 2002 news conference or any one of his perceived indiscretions. After leaving the league (and earning more than $200 million during his career), he reportedly fell on hard times, financially and emotionally. And the NBA didn’t exactly rush to the aid of a player who had been such a rebel.
In recent years, however, perceptions of Iverson have shifted. And so, to a lesser extent, has the talk around practice. What’s changed isn’t so much about Iverson, but rather the landscape around him, the discussions about Black hair, Black bodies and Black humanity. The media is different than it was back then, and so is society’s impression of someone who looks like Iverson. Tattoos are now ubiquitous in the NBA, and cornrows, braids and locs are common, too.
Iverson made his way back into the NBA’s orbit and was welcomed with open arms. Now he is the gracious elder statesman. When Iverson sits courtside at 76ers games these days, his face appears on the Jumbotron to applause. When he steps into rooms, he’s a magnet. While older players weren’t immediately accepting of him as a player, Iverson has embraced the league’s current youth movement personified by players such as Ja Morant. And it was Iverson’s passionate embrace of Jett Howard, Juwan Howard’s son and MVP of the Iverson Classic, that recently went viral. Once seen as a pariah, Iverson has lived long enough to see himself as an “old head” who has never looked more comfortable in the role.
“Them type of people who shifted the culture of a certain business, they don’t get their flowers when they should. It’s great to acknowledge it now for A.I. to still be alive, active and healthy and enjoying the game,” Jadakiss said. “It’s a beautiful thing because it usually comes at the wrong time.”
It is remarkable to see the 180 in how we view Iverson and that infamous news conference today. His story is constantly being rewritten, but this time Iverson can dictate the course of his legacy.
“I’m glad that he knows it wasn’t in vain for being himself,” said Crawford. “There was no blueprint before A.I. He was that for us. He took that bullet for us to be ourselves.”