Shaq and A.I. Together Again

When Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson are shoulder to shoulder tonight, when they are inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame as the most extraordinary and iconic players of their generation, and after their numbers are reduced to a sum, there they will stand, two brilliant NBA scorers who, once upon a time, were the new version of the old product: genius stars who were willful, stubborn and gifted.

Big says nothing at all about Shaquille O’Neal that you didn’t already know. Small reduces Allen Iverson to a lazy cliche. They were more than whatever definition they were supposed to incorporate. Competitive to a fault, copied, criticized, imitated and adored, O’Neal and Iverson shaped the league into their image, nurturing its urban roots, reflecting their hip-hop identities, mimicking nothing that happened before they were drafted; this was not old-school.

Their first challenge was to shape their complex lives.

For Iverson, it was a world sequestered by race and perception. Accused of a crime, sentenced to 15 years in prison as a result, Iverson watched fate intercede on his own behalf as his future hung in the balance. A brawl in a bowling alley forced the town of Hampton, Virginia to choose sides based on racial lines. Iverson, the best athlete to ever come out of Hampton, a football and basketball phenom, the high school quarterback who won the state title and the high school point guard who won the state title, Iverson was front and center, involved in a ruckus that turned into a riot. On one side was Iverson, the special, the magnificent, charged with being the ring leader. On the other side was a white man who accused Iverson of provoking him. Iverson defended himself by saying he was a victim of racial slurs.

An appeals court would overturn the conviction, and this is how Allen Iverson first came into the national spotlight: as one more black kid wronged by a racial caste system and then forgiven, or as a thug athlete who got away with something others simply would not.

In 1993, when the bowling alley fracas was taking place in Hampton, farther down south, Magic rookie, Shaquille O’Neal, was playing the New York Knicks in a game that would take three overtimes for the Magic to win. Shaq played 45 minutes and missed 17 out of 25 shots (32%) which reinforced the prevailing theory about the seven footer whose introduction into the league was as a dominant, immovable force. The regurgitated analysis was of a Shaq capable only at the rim, one-dimensional. He had no skill to his game, no finesse or touch. He couldn’t score like Kareem Abdul-Jabaar or Wilt Chamberlain. He was a sideshow, an entertainer, a crowd pleaser.

In that overtime game against the Knicks, Shaq had 19 rebounds, but it was his 9 offensive rebounds no one paid attention to but they were the Shaquille O’Neal evidence: he wasn’t just a big man dunker. He had a quick first step, he was explosive, he was an anomaly for his size. He could finish right or left. He had a jump hook. He had an up and under. He had a one step spin in the lane. But that narrative would take a long time in coming and like Iverson, Shaq’s early career was about disproving a negative.

*     *    *    *   *

Shaquille O’Neal was drafted in 1992, out of LSU, the number one pick, a no-brainer. Selected after Shaq was Alonzo Mourning, a Hall of Famer. Christian Laettner was the number three pick in 1992 because of his dominance at Duke. Robert Horry of the 7 NBA titles was the number eleven pick. Harold Miner who everyone called Baby Jordan when he was at USC was the number twelve pick; Miner was overrated. Malik Sealy who was killed after leaving Kevin Garnett’s birthday party in 2000 was taken number fourteen. Latrell Sprewell was the 24th pick.

There were other role players who had decent careers taken in the first round in 1992: Jimmy Jackson, LaPhonso Ellis, Walt Williams, Doug Christie, Tracy Murray, Don McClean, Hubert Davis, Jon Barry.

In Shaq’s first week in the NBA, he was Player of the Week, the first rookie to ever accomplish that particular feat. His rookie numbers were impressive: 23 points, 13 rebounds, 3 blocks. He was the first rookie voted by fans to the All-Star game since Michael Jordan. He singlehandely brought the Magic to respectability, 41-41, and only missed the playoffs because the Magic lost a tiebreaker to the Pacers.

O’Neal was Rookie of the Year.

He led the league in scoring his third year, 29.3 points per game. He was second in MVP voting to David Robinson. The Magic won 57 games and made it all the way to the NBA Finals before being swept by the defending champion Houston Rockets.

The first time in the Finals, Shaq wasn’t blinded by the light. He put up 28 points, 12.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists.

It would be the beginning tour de force for Shaquille O’Neal. He would appear in five more Finals, winning four of them.

*    *   *    *    *

Allen Iverson headed the iconic 1996 draft class. That draft produced some of the greatest talents the league had ever seen. Kobe Bryant, future Hall of Famer. Steve Nash, future Hall of Famer. Ray Allen, future Hall of Famer.

Add to that mind boggling list Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury, Antoine Walker, Peja Stojakovic, Jermaine O’Neal, Zydrunas Ilguaskas, Derek Fisher.

Iverson was the number one pick because the 76ers fired their coach, John Lucas. Lucas would have insisted the 76ers draft Kobe Bryant number one. Bryant had worked out with the Sixers during the summer and Lucas was a believer that Bryant was the best player entering the draft, bar none. But Lucas was fired and the 76ers took the Georgetown phenom, Allen Iverson.

Iverson was the little guard with a huge heart that took the floor and competed on every single play with an avid disregard for his body getting beat up in the lane. Iverson played like the quarterback in high school, fearless and single minded. He was a dazzling scorer. He took a lot of shots and he made a lot of shots and he missed a lot of shots. But when the game was on the line that was when A.I. was in his moment. His first NBA game he dropped this: 30 points, 6 assists, 63% shooting.

Overnight, he was a cult hero, a rookie who had five straight 40+ points games in a row. 44 points against the Bulls. He played the entire game and shot 50%. 40 points against the Hawks; he played the entire game. 44 points against Milwaukee. 50 points against the Cavs. He shot 53% and played 46 minutes. 40 points against Washington; 45 minutes he played. Iverson was more efficient when he was tired. He ended his first year averaging 23.5 points, 7.5 assists, and was Rookie of the Year.

Iverson’s third year, he made it to the conference semi-finals and lost to the Pacers. He played eight playoff games that year and scored 30 or more points in five of them. It was just a matter of time before Iverson’s will and desire would be the driving force that would carry his team to the mother of all matchups, against the O’Neal-Bryant Lakers.

Then, Allen Iverson pulled off the greatest Finals single game upset in NBA history.

*    *     *    *    *

Never in the history of the sport had a NBA team gone undefeated in the playoffs but the 2001 Lakers were heading in that rare direction. They won 19 games in a row and hadn’t lost since April 1st. They were a dominant Shaq-Kobe force and scheduled to play the Iverson led Sixers who made it into the Finals on the effort and radiance of Iverson the scorer who was the MVP because of his stubborn ethos to attack every part of the floor with his jumper. He carried Dikembe Mutumbo and Theo Ratliff and Aaron McKie into Staples Center to play the defending champions who were considered a lock to wrap this series up quickly, in boring fashion.

But Iverson the heroic took 13 shots in the first quarter and had 12 points. Shaq had 10 points. Iverson had 18 points in the second quarter. No one on the Lakers had an answer for him, not Kobe Bryant, not Derek Fisher, not Rick Fox.

The underdog Sixers had a six point halftime lead. Iverson forced Phil Jackson to throw young Tyronn Lue into the fire as a last gasp measure to stop him. It worked for about twelve minutes but in overtime Iverson made the iconic shot over Lue, a stepback jumper and when Lue fell backwards, Iverson gently stepped over him, gave Lue that withering stare down- really, you’re trying to guard me? And then Iverson smiled. He had taken 41 shots. He scored 48 points. He had 5 rebounds, 5 steals, 6 assists.

Shaq matched Iverson on the glorious scale. He had 44 points and 20 rebounds. He played 52 minutes. He shot 60%, had 5 assists. Shaq was the regular season MVP in 2000. Iverson was the regular season MVP in 2001. This was their showdown and they went at it hard with Iverson as the survivor and getting the upper hand, a game one win in the Finals, home court advantage stolen, a tremendous upset that had Iverson gloating.

“Some people got their feelings hurt but I’m glad nobody bet their life on it because they definitely would be dead by now.”

For Iverson, it was the last perfect playoff moment. He would not win another game in the series. He would appear in 31 more playoff games and only get to the second round once.

Shaquile O’Neal won his second NBA title in that 5 game crushing of Iverson’s squad. O’Neal was the Finals MVP. He followed up his 44 point, 20 rebound performance with a 28 point, 20 rebound game two victory. He had 30 points in game three, 34 points in game four and 29 points in the close out game. He posted double digit rebounds in every game, averaging 15 rebounds in the Finals.

Shaq would play in 111 more playoff games after he and Iverson hooked up. He won two more titles, bringing his title number to four and legitimizing him as one of the best big men to ever play.

*    *    *   *   *

There is no such thing as a perfect career, not in this sport. Shaq was traded by the team he won three titles for. He played for six teams in his career: Magic, Lakers, Heat, Suns, Cavaliers, Celtics.

Iverson was traded by the team he bled for and carried to the Finals. He played for four teams in his career: 76ers, Nuggets, Pistons, Grizzlies.

Both have had regrets; they were young and hard-headed. Shaq wishes he’d had a physical regimen he stuck to in the off-season. That may have avoided many of the nagging injuries that cropped up later. He would have finished higher on the scoring list, perhaps third or fourth instead of sixth, trailing Dirk Nowitzki. He claims he gave only 30% of his potential and many Lakers fans, as well as Kobe Bryant, silently agree.

Iverson regrets a lot too. He did it his way and it was his way that caused a lot of friction and misconceptions about what Iverson was all about.

To many, O’Neal and Iverson played a heroic style of game, a style of torture and domination and iso basketball that humiliated those whose job it was to guard them. For others, watching them was to see the unimaginable, the different, the freakish, the impossible, the blessed. Frankly, the NBA had never witnessed an agile big man like Shaquille O’Neal. They had never seen a little guy take a beating and keep on scoring like Iverson.

Both were fearless competitors that dominated the sport for a decade or more and so it makes sense that the circle ends for both of them at the same exact place. Springfield, Massachusetts, on a stage, at a podium, the star of their own story, the star of their own life, names etched into the league’s history. There is good. There is great. There is extraordinary.

Iverson and Shaq were extraordinary at being brilliant. They were a work of art.

4 NBA titles. 7 NBA Finals appearances. 3 Finals MVP’s. 2 Most Valuable Player Awards. 2 Rookie of the Year Awards. 26 All-Star appearances. 5 All-Star MVP’s. 11 All-NBA 1st Team selections. 6 scoring titles.

Shaquille O’Neal: 28,596 points. 13,099 rebounds. 2,732 blocks.

Allen Iverson: 24,368 points. 5,624 assists. 3,394 rebounds.

 

photo via llananba