PHILADELPHIA — Greatness just arrived in a baseball cap with the bill turned southwest, an oversized flannel shirt, a large gold crucifix and jeans big enough for Charles Barkley riding precariously on his hips.
This little slip of a thing is Allen Iverson?
In the flesh, what little there is of it. The future just slouched in, looking like any kid at the mall.
Six feet tall, 165 pounds, his body already bruised and dented but his attitude intact, he is already the most exciting NBA rookie of the '90s, with an impact challenging more polished and equally hyped young players such as Detroit's Grant Hill and Orlando's Penny Hardaway.
If the entire MTV generation had hit the beach in a landing craft behind him, Iverson couldn't have made a bigger splash. He has an unheard-of $40-million shoe deal. He's the Philadelphia 76ers' franchise player, a distinction he gained the first day of camp, when his mere arrival turned Jerry Stackhouse and Derrick Coleman into second and third options.
In Iverson's first pro game, in Madison Square Garden, he put up 35 points in an upset of the New York Knicks and the tabloids called him "WHIZ KID" and "POISON IVERSON." In Chicago, the Bulls paid him the ultimate compliment: Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen taunted him for shooting so much and Michael Jordan told him not to pay any attention to them.
"I thought I could play defense," Ron Harper said. "Now I don't know. . . .
"The kid is going to be something special when he learns how to play the game. I hope I'm retired by then."
The story went around that when Jordan tried to console him, Iverson snarled back. Iverson said he'd never "disrespect Mike," the target of his ambition for all these years--but in the next meeting, when Jordan again tried taking the kid under his wing, the kid pushed the wing away.
For good measure, Iverson got into an argument with kindly old Bulls' assistant Tex Winter and cursed him too.
"After the game," said Jordan, who was brash enough in his day, "I was talking to Chief [Robert Parish] and said, 'I could never tell Larry Bird or K.C. Jones or any other coach some of the things he's done this far.' But it's a whole new breed. . . .
"At one point I mentioned to [Iverson], he was going to have to respect us. If you don't respect anyone else in this league you have to respect us. He said he doesn't have to respect anybody."
Iverson, who brings his act to the Forum tonight against the Lakers, has breathtaking quickness, a 40-inch standing vertical leap. Style? He has more of that than he or the NBA office can control.
Every week, it seems as if the league sends out another memo on his palming, his baggy uniform trunks, the black ankle braces covering his white socks. Next, they'll tell him he can't go out until he cleans up his room.
Dutifully, Iverson, who must have a 30-inch waist, stopped wearing 38-inch trunks (he now wears 36s), pulled his socks up and took his hand out from under the ball (a little bit) on his murderous crossover dribble.
NBA security is supposedly concerned that Iverson's "posse" has accompanied him from Hampton, Va. Indeed, three old friends live with him. However, the league said nothing to the 76ers, not that it had to. Pat Croce, the 76ers' brash new owner, laid down the law to a couple of Iverson's friends.
"It was a new buddy who didn't know me," Croce says. "I did knock on their car window [in a parking lot outside the arena]. We were talking, one of them got wise.
"I did say, 'You get in any trouble that reflects on Allen or me, I'll burn your houses down.'
"I can talk trash with the best of them, but I don't have any concerns about that. If I was in a different city at the age of 21, I'd surround myself with my family and my best friends too.
"They're the only ones he can trust, now that he's got a bunch of bucks. Best way to keep people out of his back pocket, surround yourself with your friends. These kids have been good. They come to games, they come to practices. Yeah, they dress like hip-hop and gangstas. They're cool guys."
ESPN interviewer: "You don't let people get close, do you?"
Iverson: "I can't."
--Dec. 20, 1996
He always knew it would be like this: going first, walking up to the podium to shake hands with David Stern, putting on that cap. . . .
He knew it even when he was sitting in the Newport News (Va.) City Farm, a minimum-security work camp where he served four months for his part in a racial melee his junior year in high school.
This is not a kid acting tough. This is a tough kid whose mother was 15 when she had him, whose father wasn't around, who saw the man of the house jailed for dealing drugs. Years later, Iverson would say he understood, that his surrogate father was doing what he had to to feed his family.