NBA Playoffs

Why Allen Iverson and Vince Carter’s epic playoff duel held a mirror to society

Twenty years ago, the two stars headlined the greatest non-Finals series in NBA history

Sometimes sports give the illusion that what we’re watching is superhuman because the exploits on the court feel separate from the realities of life. That’s what it felt like 20 years ago when Allen Iverson and Vince Carter headlined the greatest non-Finals series in NBA history. Yet, it wasn’t until years later that I came to understand how the series crystallized not only changes in the game, but how society at large discussed the value and purpose of Black male athletes.

But first, the series itself:

By the time the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors locked in for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on May 6, 2001, there was a general assumption that it would be a good series. The Sixers and Raptors were led by the two most entertaining players in the league, who were both in the midst of the best seasons of their still-young careers. Carter’s aerial acrobatics had saved the dunk contest a year earlier and as Team USA’s leading scorer in the 2000 Olympics, he leaped over France’s 7-foot-2 Frédéric Weis. Meanwhile, Iverson, the NBA’s leading scorer, was the favorite to be named league MVP, an honor he’d soon place alongside the All-Star Game MVP, which he won earlier in the season.

The first six games of Iverson vs. Carter was poetry in motion, with a back and forth that felt like Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler trading haymakers in their 1985 classic bout. Game 1 featured a scoring barrage: Iverson’s 36 points, eight rebounds and seven steals were eclipsed by Carter’s 35 points (10 in the fourth quarter), seven assists and two blocks in a Toronto win. But this was only the appetizer.

Over three of the next four games, Iverson and Carter put on one of the greatest scoring duels in NBA history. In Game 2, Iverson retaliated with 54 points. Two nights later in Game 3, Carter returned the favor with 50 points (including 9-of-13 from 3), six rebounds, seven assists and four blocks. Not to be outdone, Iverson — after being awarded MVP that night — responded with 52 points, seven assists and four steals in Game 5. It wasn’t another half C-note, but Carter’s 39-point explosion in Game 6 to stave off elimination and force Game 7 was one of the greatest games of his career.

By contrast, the shooting in Game 7 wasn’t great. Carter was 6-of-18 and Iverson 8-of-27. But the game was close and came down to the final shot. Carter missed what would’ve been the series-winning jumper as time expired, giving Philadelphia an 88-87 victory and its first conference finals berth since 1983. Iverson finished with 21 points and a career-high 16 assists. Carter had 20 points, seven rebounds, nine assists, three steals and two blocks.

What Iverson and Carter were doing with the basketball was a much-needed reversal from the critical conversation surrounding both their personas and the game of basketball itself.

Vince Carter with a slam dunk in a game against the Seattle SuperSonics at Key Arena in Seattle on March 9, 2001.

Otto Greule Jr./Allsport

The worst-kept secret in basketball in the early 2000s was that it had a Michael Jordan-sized hole. Ratings dipped, as did attendance. “We were on such an incredible roll, there was an admiration to the point of reverence,” an NBA team official told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “But it’s hard to keep topping yourself. In hindsight, we were riding Michael Jordan’s coattails while we were telling ourselves, ‘Boy, are we good.’ ”

Though there was only one Jordan, the league had no shortage of stars. But it didn’t always know how to appreciate them.

On the morning of Game 7, Carter wasn’t in Philadelphia. He was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, attending his graduation. He declared for the NBA draft in 1998 after his junior year at UNC, but he promised his mother, a former educator, via a written contract that he would finish school. Carter’s decision to attend graduation was hotly debated everywhere from barbershops to talk radio and even among his own teammates and head coach Lenny Wilkens. When he missed the game-winning shot, it put Carter in the bull’s-eye. Some praised his decision. Others saw it as another example of Carter’s selfishness, placing his own interests before the team on the day of the most important game in Raptors history. Others even called it irresponsible.

It struck me as odd then that Carter was criticized for the move, and 20 years — and a plethora of life experiences later — it’s even more so. He was back in Philadelphia by noon and, despite a poor shooting performance, like Iverson, Carter played all 48 minutes. Blaming Carter for the Raptors’ loss because he placed his education on the same level as his athletic prowess was both lazy and, in many ways, dangerous. Some observed that Carter could’ve graduated over the summer, and while that may be true, he did nothing wrong by choosing the spring commencement. At the time Carter received his degree, he was the antithesis of a wicked trend: Only 42% of Division I men’s basketball players graduated. For Black players, it was 34%.

Then, there’s this: In America, race is a factor in nearly every conversation. Carter received his degree in African American studies. Had he chosen to attend his pharmacy or dentistry school graduation hours before the game, would the same critiques still stand?

“There’s unspoken [truth] that Black people, especially Black male athletes, are not expected to have this duality of balancing those two,” said Tiffany Packer, a historian at Florida A&M University. “That’s probably why he was slammed because I’m convinced that had it been a top white athlete, that wouldn’t have even come up in conversation.”

If Carter was being held under a microscope for a decision, Iverson went through the same experience for merely existing. An October 2000 season preview for the Boston Herald implied that Iverson was a minstrel show for his permanently shelved rap album in part because of then-commissioner David Stern’s criticism and rejection of the project. He was compared to Lincoln Perry aka Stepin Fetchit, the Great Depression-era Black comedian whose roles portrayed a stereotyped and negative reflection of the Black experience. During a January 2001 game in Indiana, a fan relentlessly called him “monkey” and “jailbird,” prompting Iverson to call the fan an anti-gay slur. He quickly apologized, but the New York Times called the incident an example of Iverson’s “gutter mentality.”

Iverson invoked fear in white people who saw him embodying the ethos of rapper Tupac Shakur’s “thug life” with a basketball. Even in some Black communities, there were those who believed his refusal to assimilate was a deep embarrassment. To my generation, though, he was, and still is, a hero, in part because he never hid his many flaws.

During the series with Carter, Iverson was asked by Philadelphia reporter Phil Jasner — the same reporter who’d ask him the famous question about the value of practice a year later — what his motivation was for playing basketball. The answer?

Philadelphia 76ers’ Allen Iverson (center) shoots as the Toronto Raptors’ Alvin Williams (left) and Jerome Williams (right) defend on May 9, 2001 in Philadelphia. Iverson had 54 points in the Sixers’ 97-92 win.

AP Photo

“Life. Going through the things I’ve been through, trying to get to this point,” he said. “Poverty. Everything. I feel like God gave me an opportunity to do something positive with my life. A lot of guys from my neighborhood would love to be here.”

America loves a rebel as long as they aren’t Black. Iverson was both a rebel and very Black. No matter how great he played that season or the masterful performance he put on in the Eastern Conference semifinals, he was still seen as a troublemaker. Sure, some saw his maturation. But to others, Iverson was nothing more than the trauma he had survived. On Fanfare, a sports talk show in Northern Pennsylvania, the host gave his assessment of Iverson, just days after his legendary 48-point Game 1 domination of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals.

“Allen Iverson? A role model? You’ve got to be kidding. Iverson is a thug,” he said. “Obviously, this caller doesn’t know Iverson’s past. O.J. Simpson would be a better role model than Allen Iverson.”

Iverson had to deal with that weight of being a trailblazer. He, at all times, lived completely in his Blackness in everything he did, inspiring a generation of stars after him to be completely themselves.

“He was a license to be Black and politically free,” said author Kiese Laymon. “You can’t look at Allen Iverson and be like, ‘That’s not Black power.’ ”

Twenty years ago, during my freshman year of high school, I was aware of drama in Iverson’s life, some he brought on himself and some levied against him because he was such a break from the conservative world of professional sports. I knew his story, but I hadn’t yet understood how it would make the Hampton, Virginia, native as polarizing as he was.

It wasn’t until I attended Hampton University that I began to understand how much Iverson was entrenched in so many of society’s uncomfortable and painful conversations about race and the criminal justice system’s perversion with Black bodies. During my time in Hampton, I came to learn just how deeply rooted in race was Iverson’s 1993 conviction following a bowling alley brawl. Depending on who I talked to, Iverson was either a champion or a lingering pariah.

With Carter, that same amount of time gave clarity to understanding that who he was compared with the unfair perception of him. Carter is undoubtedly one of the most exciting athletes of my lifetime, whose exploits are emblazoned on social media as if they happened just moments ago. And yet, it never mattered when he decided to place that same entertainment value against his own self-investment. It seemed foolish that Carter would be ridiculed for obtaining his college degree at the same time as the feverish debate over banning high school ballplayers from turning pro.

The responsibilities facing players today are, in many ways, an evolution of the discussions about players such as Carter and, most certainly, Iverson. In 2001, players were expected to and, by and large, did stick to sports. Those who dared to use their platform to speak on racial or cultural flashpoints, such as Craig Hodges or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, were banished to basketball exile. These days, it’s fair to wonder how a modern-day Iverson would address criminal justice reform or Carter on educational equity.

The 2021 NBA playoffs begin May 22, and the biggest stars are well known on and off the court: LeBron James’ I Promise School and willingness to use his voice and platform to address social issues; Kyrie Irving’s conversion to Islam and his dedication to issues plaguing the Black community; Kevin Durant and Mike Conley following the late Kobe Bryant by winning an Oscar for their executive producer roles in the short film Two Distant Strangers, about police brutality; Chris Paul’s commitment to historically Black colleges. These philanthropic, entrepreneurial and religious endeavors are commonplace in today’s league.

The game itself has changed, both in style of play and social responsibility. Carter ended his 22-year career as one of the game’s great teammates and ironmen, and the “selfish” tag has long since disappeared. Iverson, nowadays, is a regal figure both in basketball and Black culture.

It’s a bittersweet moment seeing how society has changed in allowing Black male basketball players to be more multidimensional during their athletic careers. We owe Carter and Iverson for showing us the way. If only they would’ve been fully recognized as such in their prime.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.