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Without Allen Iverson, there would be no LeBron

AI forced a league full of whitewashed front offices to get comfortable with hip-hop culture

Without Allen Iverson, there would be no LeBron James.

No, Iverson didn’t influence the one-of-a-kind athletic playing style of James. Instead, the 6-foot-8-inch, 260-pound kid from Akron, Ohio, inherited Iverson’s unbreakable loyalty to his own.

The stories of their respective crews are well-documented. While Iverson’s inner circle lost Bentleys at airports, James’ closest confidants — Maverick Carter, Randy Mims and Rich Paul — managed James’ business.

“There were many occasions when it wasn’t even Allen who had done anything,” former Philadelphia 76ers president Billy King once told Stephen A. Smith. “It could’ve been someone in [Iverson’s] crew. But it didn’t matter. You might as well blame him because the last thing he was going to do was tell on anyone. No matter the reason. No matter the consequences. He’d take the heat himself for anyone he cared about, and simply say he wasn’t perfect.”

Having grown up watching Iverson, who is No. 17 in the NBA Game Changers Top 100 most influential players, James undoubtedly learned from his role model’s mistakes.

Sure, those ranking ahead of Iverson have valid arguments that attest to their on-court abilities. Other than being a scoring machine at barely 6 feet and 160 pounds and revolutionizing the crossover, Iverson’s influence on the game of basketball is minimal. Iverson never had a jumper quite like Stephen Curry’s, nor was he as physically imposing as Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell. Iverson surely lacked the social consciousness of a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

What made Iverson so special was this authenticity. Strip away the do-rag, sound bites, legendary crossovers and you have a kid from Hampton, Virginia, who spoke his mind. It was this true, unadulterated presentation of self that made Iverson one of the most debated sports figures of his time. You either loved or loathed him; there was no in-between.

In the latter half of Drake’s first verse on “Thank Me Now,” the Canadian artist not only references Iverson but also offers a valid comparison: Damn, I swear sports and music are so synonymous/Cause we want to be them, and they want to be us. On the surface, the line alludes to the unfortunately high number of ballplayers who have unsuccessfully tried their hands at hip-hop. The underlying meaning of this lyric, however, was to show the similarities between Iverson and the genre of hip-hop.

Much like a rapper, Iverson was a fighter. Both overcame tremendous odds to reach a place of prominence. And once they’d reached the top of the mountain, both were derided for simply existing. But perhaps most importantly, both transformed their respective fields of play.

Iverson’s impact can’t be measured in points and rings. Rather, he revolutionized the way NBA players expressed themselves. With every tattoo, cornrow and diamond chain, Iverson brought hip-hop culture to the league.

And everyone else followed. Soon, sweatsuits and do-rags were the norm. This soon became a problem for NBA front offices — the league was becoming too black. In response, commissioner David Stern instituted a highly controversial dress code policy before the 2005-06 season that essentially outlawed most of Iverson’s wardrobe.

“And me, it wasn’t nothing that I was trying to do different,” Iverson said of his unique style. “This was the way guys where I’m from dressed. I didn’t make it up — the guys that I grew up with, that’s how they dressed.”

That year Iverson missed the playoffs by two games but earned an All-Star appearance while averaging 33 points a game and leading the league in minutes played. His second- and third-best teammates? An aging Chris Webber and a young Andre Iguodala.

Yet, he never complained.

Perhaps Iverson’s lasting impression was in allowing the next generation of black kids to be comfortable in their own skin. He didn’t always make the right decisions. Like all humans, he was flawed. At the end of the day, though, Iverson never forgot where he came from.

Nowadays, it’s nothing for the NBA to name Migos’ “Stir Fry” the official song of All-Star Weekend. Today’s players have used the dress code to delve into high fashion. James’ Instagram is populated with workout videos blaring the latest hip-hop hits. Fifteen seasons in and James has continuously used his voice to speak for the silenced.

Most of this can be attributed to the very man whom King James referred to as “a god.” The same man who, regardless of the consequences, was never afraid to speak his mind.

Sure, maybe Iverson’s killer crossover and larger-than-life personality weren’t enough to warrant a top-10 selection. Still, he forced a league full of whitewashed front offices to be comfortable with hip-hop culture.

From in-game music to the way players present themselves, the remnants of Iverson’s influence can still be found today. That alone should’ve earned him a top-10 spot. If not, maybe his influence on one of the greatest players the game’s ever seen should have pushed him over the edge.

C. Isaiah Smalls, II is a Rhoden Fellow and a graduate of Morehouse College from Lansing, Michigan. He studied Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies. He was Editor-in-Chief of The Maroon Tiger.