There’s an old saying that goes, “Every rapper wants to be a baller and every baller wants to be a rapper.” That didn’t start with Allen Iverson, but “The Answer” may have meant more to basketball’s hip-hop generation than anyone else.
As someone who grew up in rural Virginia, I have always held a special place in my basketball pantheon for Iverson, a Hampton Roads native himself. AI wasn’t like Steph Curry, Austin Rivers or any of the other privileged National Basketball Association players who grew up with millionaire dads and always had the newest pair of Jordans. No, Iverson was a regular kid from a regular town. He played street ball with his buddies, dressed in baggy shorts and T-shirts and spent a lifetime trying to be the best damn basketball player on the planet. To me, that’s pretty special.
However, beyond having the best crossover moves in NBA history; beyond the MVP award and scoring titles; beyond famously putting the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan, on skates; and beyond being one of the absolute baddest men to ever play the game, Iverson embodied what it meant to be cool.
What too few people understand is that when Allen Iverson was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1996, he, like every other player in the NBA, was asked to conform to a certain image or propriety. That image did not include traditional Black urban fashion, rap music or cornrows. Instead, the NBA insisted that its players, many of whom were young Black men from lower income backgrounds, dress up in suits and put on faces for the cameras.
AI was special because he didn’t do that. In many ways, Allen Iverson pioneered the connection between America’s hip-hop generation and the world of basketball. When he showed up to press conferences in sagging, baggy pants sporting a durag on his head and wearing gold chains around his neck, Iverson not only embraced traditional hip-hop imagery, but he also showed our country that fashions created by and for African-Americans had just as much of a place on television as three-piece suits. While a nation of millions jeered him for dressing like a “thug” and lamented the NBA for its collection of “criminals” and “reprobates,” Iverson refused to kowtow to these racist assumptions and instead chose to represent his culture on one of America’s biggest public stages.
So you’d better believe that when the NBA introduced a new official dress code in 2005 — one that banned the sort of styles that players had begun to embrace — the Association had one man in mind: Allen Iverson.
Even more frustratingly for the backward leadership of the League, Iverson’s connection to the hip-hop world went far beyond fashion. In fact, long before Portland Trailblazer point guard Damian Lillard was spitting bars on “Sway in the Morning,” The Answer attempted an unsuccessful foray into the music industry himself.
Despite its lackluster lyricism and questionable reception, Iverson’s first and only single “40 Bars” is significant because of the style of rap that AI was willing to adopt for its production. Iverson’s lyrics and delivery are, at their most fundamental level, gangster rap, which made former NBA commissioner David Stern — and the army of public relations specialists tasked with “sanitizing” the league’s image — very nervous.
In an era where the NBA was still trying to salvage its image in the aftermath of the famous “Malice at the Palace” brawl between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers, it is almost certain that many NBA higher-ups feared that Iverson, and other players who followed his example, would alienate “White America” from professional basketball. In a country where urban, black men are still treated as thugs, AI’s public love affair with hip-hop music and fashion did not go over well with Stern or a large chunk of the NBA’s viewing audience.
In many ways, it is the resistance and criticism that Iverson faced for doing nothing more than expressing his identity as a black man that makes his legacy all the more important. Even in the face of the NBA’s draconian dress code, which still exists today, players like Dwyane Wade, James Harden and Russell Westbrook have still managed to express their own individuality and culture through fashion.
I will always be grateful to The Answer for teaching a generation of boys that being black, listening to rap music and dressing the way you felt comfortable were things to embrace rather than to be ashamed of.
More than that, Allen Iverson has had an overwhelming impact on the very rap music industry that inspired him. Countless artists from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds ranging from Jadakiss to Fat Joe to Eminem have honored Iverson in their lyrics. The impact that he had on normalizing the style of music they produced in the eyes of the American public cannot be overstated. We have emerged from an era in which men like Iverson were treated like criminals into one where an artist like Drake can be a global brand ambassador for the Toronto Raptors. In the face of so much backwardness and division, that is progress at the very least.
So while the NBA and the hip-hop world will always have a contentious and complicated relationship, let us never forget that guys like Iverson said “screw the suits” and rolled in with tatted up arms and big gold chains, sang Biggie Smalls songs at press conferences and showed America that urban black culture and black fashion deserve seats at the table.
Marc Cugnon is a senior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .