Mass media doesn’t really care about the best Game 1 in NBA finals history these days. Sports culture glorifies victory above all else (beautiful failures are for the art world) and the team that won that game went on to lose the next four in the series—and subsequently vanish into obscurity. But for certain aesthetes of the NBA’s intersection with culture, nothing tops the moment in LA 13 years ago, when Allen Iverson would hit a fadeaway jumper in the corner at Staples Center and then stomp purposefully over Lakers storm trooper and future NBA head coach Tyronn Lue and metaphorically drape his testicles across the face of the entire NBA establishment.
I consider myself a fan of basketball with a capital B—I get goosebumps watching LeBron in the open court and certain Spurs possessions make me feel the way some people must feel about Miles Davis solos. But while this year’s Finals will more than likely make for incredible basketball, they lack the element of pure cultural warfare of 2001.
We forget now, in an era where players show up to fashion week and have brand managers, what authenticity looks like.
To understand 2001 you have to go back to 1996, when Allen Iverson came swagging his way into the league with a game and an attitude that were unmistakably from the streets. He crossovered and gunned his way to Rookie of the Year on a crappy Sixers team—and then spent the offseason smoking blunts (in a Main Line TGI Fridays), getting tats and singlehandedly making cornrows popular again (as AI himself said when he retired: “You used to think the suspect was the guy with the cornrows, now you see the police officers with the cornrows.”)
Who’s the most polarizing player in the league now? LeBron, with his vestigial baggage from The Decision? Russell Westbrook, with his non-traditional rendering of the point guard position? Dwight Howard with his coach-sabotaging goofiness? Multiply that by like a zillion and you’ll have some idea of the way Iverson split people’s opinions when he came into the league.
And the thing about AI was, he well and truly didn’t give a fuck. He didn’t care about what people thought of him, how much money in endorsement deals his image may have cost him. He was gonna rock cornrows and Tims and big chains and take 30 shots a game because that’s where he came from and who he was. And for better or worse, he never did change.
After a few years in the league he’d cemented himself as a counterculture icon (and peerless scorer), but doubts persisted about whether his game could translate to titles. In 2000, Sixers coach Larry Brown and GM Billy King (!) reached an agreement to trade Iverson to the Pistons… a complicated deal that only fell through at the last minute. Iverson remained a 76er, but his relationship with Brown—a former point guard himself—was strained.
And somehow 2001 rolled around and the narrative changed, even if Iverson didn’t. He dropped 31 points per game, won the All-Star game MVP and league MVP and led the Sixers to the best record in the east. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Suddenly the narrative was all about his heart and his game, not about his tats and cornrows. And the best part was, to paraphrase Ginuwine—he was still the same ‘ol G.
By that game, though, the Sixers were battered. They’d barely gotten out of the East, squeaking through a seven game series with Ray Allen’s Bucks and Vince Carter’s Raptors. An already unimpressive lineup was riddled with injuries—George Lynch was out with a broken hand, Eric Snow played on a fractured ankle, Dikembe Mutombo had a broken finger.
The Lakers, meanwhile, were staking a claim to be the best NBA team of all time. Kobe and Shaq were at their apex; they’d Godzilla’d their way through the West without losing a game. Fo’, fo’, fo’.
Then the game started and the Lakers went on a 16-0 run in the first quarter, and everyone—especially in the Staples Center crowd—figured things were pretty well settled. But the Sixers fought back behind 30 first-half Iverson points and were leading by double digits until late in the game, when things started to crumble. They staggered into overtime looking spent.
The Lakers scored the first 5 points of overtime—and as Iverson said at the time, everyone got their brooms out. Then Raja Bell hit a circus layup, AI hit two free throws and a three and you started to think just maybe this game and this series were going to transcend basketball. And so when AI got free in the corner, hit Lue with a crossover and a stepback to put the Sixers up four, and then proceeded to stomp carefully and purposefully over him. It wasn’t just about that moment. That shot was about the rest of us, dudes on stoops and on corners, Philly fans in dingy bars, everyone who’s ever had to conform for a job or a court date or anything. It was, on the biggest stage imaginable, a giant middle finger in the face of the establishment.
We forget now, in an era where players show up to fashion week and have brand managers, what authenticity looks like. Win or lose, LeBron will still have his own app detailing what he’s wearing and the consistency of his shits. Dudes on the corner still love Durant for his other worldly skills. But the love for AI and the Sixers was different—he was one of them, Rocky crossed with Tupac. With Iverson you always had this immense talent and heart balanced with immense stubbornness and stupidity. He was eminently flawed, just like we are. And for just that moment it felt like it all might work.
Fittingly, after the game Iverson did the most Iverson thing ever. At the post-game press conference, draped in diamonds, wearing a football jersey and Tims, he was asked whether or not he was fatigued.
“Fatigues is army clothes man,” he said.