Apr 10, 2011, 9:29 PM EDT
Over the next few weeks at The700Level, we’ll be posting poll matchups as part of our Philly March Madness competition.
Examine the cases of
the two fine Philadelphia athletes
below, and cast your vote at the
bottom as to which you think should
advance to the next round. And as
always, feel free to explain your selection
and/or debate the choices in
the comments section.
Today and tomorrow: The Final Four and the Finals. Here’s hoping
for our biggest voter turnout yet as we finally name a greatest Philly
athlete of the last 30 years.
Previously Defeated: (16) Von Hayes, (8) Simon Gagne, (4) Randall Cunningham, (2) Chase Utley
Sports Writers Say:
“Still, if Erving had merely been the best player in the world; if he had merely been the best player in the world who was also the nicest guy in the world—if he were simply that, his departure from the game would not be treated in the extraordinary manner that it has been. There is always a prettiest girl, a fastest gun, a best player, a nicest guy. No, for all his talent and humanity, what has set Julius Erving apart is the way he combined excellence and entertainment in sports.
Baylor had done it, too, but somehow he was lost in the shadows; perhaps people were not quite ready to understand Baylor. They were when Dr. J came along. He didn’t break any records; he didn’t force any rule changes. But what he did was to alter the perception of the game, and the way people appreciated it. Surely, that is the rarest accomplishment for any athlete.
For comparison, think of the two indisputably great athletes who were Erving’s contemporaries on Broad Street: Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. Both have been as accomplished at playing baseball as Erving has been at basketball. Yet for all their strikeouts and wins and homers and MVP trophies, baseball is no different because of them.
More than any single player, though, Erving transformed what had been a horizontal game (with occasional parabolas) into a vertical exercise. Basketball is now a much more artistic game than it was before—than any game was before—because of Julius Erving. The slam, before the Doctor, was essentially an act of power—a stuff is what it was usually called—as great giants jammed the ball through the hoop. Erving transformed the stuff into the dunk, and made what had been brutal and a product of size into something beautiful and a measure of creativity.
Because of Dr. J there is no longer the bias that a spectacular athlete cannot also be an accomplished one. Indeed, in basketball, there is a high correlation between dazzle and talent—and that is the legacy of Julius Erving. When the Harlem Globetrotters were a legitimately fine team, they would occasionally halt their comic antics (say, against the College All-Stars) to engage in what was pointedly referred to as “serious basketball.” Today, such performers as Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins—leading members of the Erving School—or Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, of different academies, are at their very best precisely when they are also at their most entertaining.” -Frank Deford, Sports Illustrated, 1987
Sports Writers Say:
As the years and decades pass, both Iverson and no. 21 on the Pyramid will be picked apart by an army of statisticians looking for various ways to undermine their careers. And that’s fine. Just know that Iverson passed the Season Ticket Test every year this decade (starting with his ’01 MVP season): when season tickets arrive in the mail, the recipient invariably checks the schedule, marks the certain can’t-miss games and writes those dates down on a calendar. The importance of those games is measured by rivalries, superstars, incoming rookies and the “I need to see that guy” factor. That’s it. From 1997 to 2007, Iverson always made my list. Always. So I don’t give a crap about Iverson’s win shares, his ranking among top-fifty scorers with the lowest shooting percentage or whatever. Every post-Y2K ticket to an Iverson game guaranteed a professional, first-class performance (no different from reservations at a particularly good restaurant or hotel), and for whatever reason, he was always more breathtaking in perosn. He’s listed at six feet but couldn’t be taller than five-foot-ten, so every time he attacked the basket, it was like watching an undersized running back ram into the line of scrimmage for five yards a pop (think Emmitt Smith). He took implausible angles on his drives (angles that couldn’t be seen as they unfolded, even if you’d been watching him for ten years) and drained an obscene number of layups and floaters in traffic. He had a knack for going 9-for-24 but somehow making the two biggest shots of the game. And he played with an eff-you intensity that only KG and Kobe matched (although MJ remains the king of this category). For years and years, the most intimidating player in the league wasn’t taller than Rebecca Romijn. I always thought it was interesting that Iverson averaged 28 minutes of playing time in his eight All-Star Games and played crunch time in every close one; even his temporary coaches didn’t want to risk pissing him off.
Iverson’s career personifies how the media can negatively sway everyone’s perception of a particular athlete. There was a generational twinge to the anti-Iverson sentiment, fueled by media folks in their forties, fifties and sixties who couldn’t understand him and didn’t seem interest in trying. Nearly all of them played up his infamous aversion to practice (overrated over the years) and atypical appearance (the cornrows/tattoos combination) over describing the incredible thrill of watching him play in person. They weren’t interested in figuring out how an alleged coach-killer who allegedly monopolized the ball, allegedly hated to practice and allegedly couldn’t sublimate his game to make his teammates better doubled as one of the most revered players by his peers. (Right before Philly dealt Iverson to Denver in 2006, the ex-players on NBA Coast to Coast (Greg Anthony, Tim Legler and Jon Barry) traded Iverson war stories like they were talking about a Mayan warrior.) They glossed over the fact that he was saddled with an incompetent front office, a subpar supporting cast and a revolving door of coaches in Philly. (Iverson only played with two All-Stars in Philly: Theo Ratliff and a becoming-decrepit Dikembe Mutombo. His prime was saddled with overpaid role players (Eric Snow, Aaron McKie, Kyle Korver, Kenny Thomas, Marc Jackson, Brian Skinner, Greg Buckner, Tyrone Hill, George Lynch, Corliss Williamson), overpaid underachievers (Derrick Coleman, Keith Van Horn, Sam Dalembert, Joe Smith), overpaid and washed-up veterans (Todd MacCulloch, Toni Kukoc, Chris Webber, Glenn Robinson, Matt Geiger, Billy Owens) and underachieving lottery picks (Jerry Stackhouse, Tim Thomas, Larry Hughes.) They didn’t care that he was one of the most influential African American athletes ever, a trendsetter who shoved the NBA into the hip-hop era and resonated with blacks in a way that even Jordan couldn’t duplicate. They weren’t so interested in one of the most fascinating, complex athletes of my lifetime: a legendary partier and devoted family man; a loyal teammate who shot too much; a featherweight who carried himself like a heavyweight; an intimidating competitor who was always the smallest guy on the court; an ex-con with a shady entourage who also ranked among the most intuitive, self-aware, articulate superstars in any sport. If I could pick any modern athlete to spend a week wi
th in his prime for a magazine feature, I would pick Allen Iverson in a heartbeat.
And yeah, his field goal percentage wasn’t that good and he took too many shots. Whatever. Fifty years from now, I hope people realize that Iverson had better balance than everyone else, that he was faster and more coordinated than everyone else, that he took a superhuman pounding and kept getting up, that he was one of the all-time athletic superfreaks. We already know that he was the best high school football player in Virginia history, but he also would have been a world-class soccer player, boxer or center fielder, someone who could have picked his sport in track and competed for an Olympic spot, and while we’re here, I can’t fathom how much ground he could have covered on a tennis court. (Tangent that’s too important for a footnote: Every time the World Cup rolls around, I always find myself thinking about which NBA players could have excelled at soccer. Iverson would have been the best soccer player ever. I think this is indisputable, actually. Deron Williams would have been a great stopper. Josh Smith could have been a unstoppable soaring above the pack to head corner kicks. And can you imagine a better goalie than LeBron? It would be like having a six-foot-nine human octopus in the net. How could anyone score on him? Couldn’t we teach Bron the rudimentary aspects of playing goal, the throw him in a couple of Cleveland’s MLS games? LIke you would turn the channel if this happened?) Iverson wrecked his body on and off the court and somehow kept his fastball, which shouldn’t be counted as an achievement but remains amazing nonetheless. (You could fill an entire chapter with secondhand Iverson stories of the “I heard he slept with ten women in one night” and “I heard he was out drinking all night, then played a day game in Boston and scored 49″ variety. By all accounts, the guy doesn’t sleep. He’s a vampire. Might explain why his career came to a screeching halt in 2009.) And he deserves loads of credit for dragging a mediocre Sixers team to the ’01 Finals when so many other scoring machines had failed before him. Unlike Gervin, McAdoo and Dominique, Iverson played with a swagger that pushed a decent team to a whole other level. He believed they could win, he killed himself to that end, and everyone else eventually followed. Watching Game 7 of the Bullets-Spurs series from ’79 and Game 7 of the Bucks-Sixers from ’01, the biggest difference between Gervin and Iverson – two spectacular offensive players – was the way they carried themselves. Gervin never gave the sense that the game was life or death to him, whereas Iverson went into foxhole mode, with his ferocity lifting his teammates and energizing the crowd. -Bill Simmons, The Book of Basketball
Elite Eight Results:
(1) Julius Erving (53.6%) over (2) Chase Utley (46.4%)
(2) Allen Iverson (68.1%) over (5) Brian Westbrook (31.9%)
(1) Mike Schmidt (51.6%) over (3) Brian Dawkins (48.4%)
(4) Ryan Howard (72.9%) over (3) Donovan McNabb (27.1%)
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