Watch any NBA related video on YouTube, read any Facebook post by a basketball enthusiast with a large following, or even a photo posted on Instagram by your favourite NBA player and the comments section always has the same ongoing argument... Who is the GOAT? If you're one of the lucky ones who hasn't been polluted by internet culture enough to even know what that means, it's an acronym for 'Greatest Of All Time' and the three names which are most likely to come up in a basketball discussion are MJ, Kobe or LeBron.
I rarely get involved in online debates (I usually end up saying something foolish), but if I did then I'd always go with MJ, and my reason is always this; As well as his six championships, six finals MVPs, five season MVPs and fourteen All Star game selections, Jordan influenced the game of basketball like no other. Of course he was influenced by his predecessors, Dr J and David Thompson to name a couple, but MJ had the luxury of being at his award winning best during the multimedia explosion of the 1990s resulting in the whole world wanting to be like Mike! He became the blueprint for dunks, circus layups, fall away jumpers and push off buzzer beaters (whoops). Any player from the last two decades who says that Jordan didn't influence any part of their game is lying, or else they don't even realise that their bread and butter was Mike's innovation.
But if Jordan influenced how today's game is played, I would like to suggest that Allen Iverson influenced how today's game looks. In 1996 AI came into the league with a story to tell, I won't make this blog any longer than it needs to be by telling it, check out his documentary on Netflix! But he also joined the struggling 76ers with a fearless attitude, a tireless work ethic and a passion for the game which the fans grew to love.
It wasn't just that Iverson was an amazing player though, it was that his influence stretched beyond the 'X's and O's' and the top ten plays of the week. His off court style and culture began to seep into the 94 feet of the NBA court, the locker room uniform change and the press conferences which followed. It bled onto his skin as a couple of tattoos became many, it also grew from his head into cornrows with patterns as complex as his dribble moves and off-court conflicts.
When an editor of Sports Illustrated saw SLAM's historic 'Soul on Ice' Cover (see here) they asked 'How did you get him to wear a wig?' That was a stupid question, and clearly showed that the straight laced sports world wasn't quite yet ready for The Answer.
In 1997 basketball players didn't have tattoos (unless they were Dennis Rodman, and he was considered fairly abstract), they didn't wear large jewelry, they didn't rock baggy clothes which exemplified the growing Hip Hop culture. Unlike the Fab 5, with their equally bold unapologetic swagger, Iverson was on the international stage crossing Jordan and dunking over 7 footers on TNT, ESPN and NBA.com. His influence not only rubbed off on the fans, but in less than five years the NBA players themselves began to look very different too.
Your favourite superstar now had long hair, tats, ludicrously priced jewelry and wore... well, they wore what other young hip hop influenced men in the USA were wearing at the time, it's as simple as that. But it seemed that the NBA didn't want professional athletes to appear so 'intimidating' and so to stop them from scaring the kids (sarcasm) the then commissioner David Stern implemented the NBA dress code in 2005. Iverson arguably was the catalyst for this rule change and he, like he so often did in his career, took a lot of flack for issues which weren't even anything to do with the success, failure or performance of any NBA player or franchise, issues like practice for example... It's over ten years later now though and as we gaze over the immeasurable reach of today's league, it seems that things have somewhat changed.
Consider two of today's biggest stars, Lebron James and Kevin Durant. Both are covered in tats (KD on his torso more than his arms) and many rookies enter the league excessively inked before even beginning their NBA career. Fashion trends have obviously moved on in terms of clothing since the 90s, but what players wear off court is now a positive talking point where it once was not. Players are free to express their personality and style both on and off the court more than ever before and that's a great thing.
Iverson's career was significant, he's a hall of famer and any young hopeful looking for success in this sport would do well to study his game. But Iverson was also an icon, a game changer, the pioneer who had the courage to be himself in an environment which would rather he didn't. He was a voice, a leader and a trend setter.