When I reminisce about 2001’s Summer of Iverson, two things immediately come to mind. The first–of course–is Allen Iverson’s defiant stomp over Lakers pest Tyronn Lue. The other is hazier but more personal: a post-college graduation trip to Six Flags in New Jersey, which is when it clicked just how far we had taken our collective love affair with Allen Iverson.
This was still a few years before Jay Z killed jerseys, and it was a week after the conclusion of the NBA Finals, so virtually everyone in the park was wearing a Nike Swingman. Back then, an informal census was usually a good barometer of which players resonated with the masses; there were plenty of frontrunners wearing Kobe and Shaq jerseys, with some Vince Carters and Latrell Sprewells sprinkled in.
But far and away, the most common jersey I saw was the No. 3 Sixers, generally matched with a crisp pair of Answer IVs. Iverson had found that hip-hop sweet spot, thrilling hardcore fans with his talents while appealing to Middle America by offering danger at a distance. The numbers bear this out: AI had not just the top-selling jersey in the NBA, but the entire top 5.
For a recent college graduate brimming with wide-eyed idealism and unfounded confidence, Iverson’s anti-hero persona spoke to me. Generously listed at 6-0 and 165 pounds, Iverson’s unwillingness to be defined or limited by his smallish stature was an inspiration. Michael Jordan’s imperial indomitability held allure, but at 5-6 myself, I could better relate to Iverson’s underdog and underground status.
Iverson’s popularity skyrocketed that spring when he willed his undermanned Sixers to the NBA Finals. (To put in perspective how Herculean a task this was, in a win over the Raptors in the East semis, AI bobbed and weaved his way to 54 points; the Sixers’ next-highest total was Eric Snow’s 10.)
The zenith was in Game 1 of the Finals, when he shed Lue, scored 48 points, and snapped the Lakers’ 19-game win streak. That Los Angeles would win the next four games didn’t put a damper on his spring-long flourish; Iverson had cemented himself as the people’s champion, a counterculture icon whose heroics remained fresh in everyone’s minds over the summer.
Ever brilliant but eminently flawed, AI would have his share of success over the next decade, though he’d never fly as near to the sun as during that one amazing summer. Still, if 2001 was as good as it would get, that’s still pretty darn good.
It goes without saying that Stephen Curry and Allen Iverson are very different people and players. Still, while watching Steph make the leap last spring from All-Star to supernova amid much fanfare, it truly had the feel of The Answer’s meteoric rise. Just like with Iverson, it wasn’t merely what he was doing, but how he was doing it.
Though not quite as diminutive as Iverson had been, Curry’s size was viewed as a detriment by analysts such as ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb, whose predraft criticism seems laughable in retrospect. Of course, Gottlieb wasn’t alone in underestimating Curry, who was drafted seventh in 2009 after Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn, and the immortal Hasheem Thabeet.
These relatively humble beginnings lends itself to Curry’s appeal, just as it did for Iverson when he’d crash headlong into 7-footers in the lane. Juxtaposed against specimens like LeBron James, Steph’s babyface status makes him that much more intriguing when he drills a ridiculous shot, shows off his handle or throws some impossible pass.
“It’s very similar to AI back in 2001, in that they are both redefining the way a generation is going to play the game,” says Nick Engvall, editor of Sneaker History and an Iverson historian. “With both players, you could expect to see something unbelievable night in and night out. Though they’ve had completely opposite public-facing personalities, they are both inspirational to the average person because they aren’t built like incredible athletes, which makes them easier to relate to.”
Much as Iverson became the unquestioned face of Reebok, Under Armour struck gold with Curry, who has singlehandedly given them an identity. Select colorways of the Curry One achieved instant sellouts generally reserved for limited Air Jordans, and the Curry Two has been similarly well received. A few months ago, Steph signed a richly deserved extension that will keep him with UA through 2024 and gives him a stake in the company.
Where the two men begin to diverge is their personas. While AI was infamous for his Bad Boy image and checkered history, Steph is a second-generation star who dances with his wife on social media and summons his cherubic daughter to charm America. Curry’s magical MVP season also culminated with a Warriors championship, something Iverson was unable to muster. Granted, the Sixers had no players that remotely approached Draymond Green or Klay Thompson. But take nothing away from Curry himself, who is every bit as exciting as Iverson was, but is a more well-rounded and flat-out better player. Even AI is impressed–to an extent.
“How good is this dude where you can’t decide what’s better, his handle or his jump shot?” Iverson told Bleacher Report last May. “He’s a bad boy. He’s official! But his release ain’t quicker than [his father] Dell’s. I know–I had to guard him.”
While Iverson never came close to matching his NBA Finals run, the Summer of Curry continued well into the following winter. He leads the league at more than 29 points per game, and he’s on pace to set personal bests in field goal percentage, rebounding, steals, and three-pointers–breaking his own NBA record set last year. With the Warriors nearly impossible to beat, Steph seems a mortal lock for his second MVP award.
But then, it’s not too late for Iverson to reach new levels himself. At 40, AI has settled into a nice groove as a stay-at-home dad, and he harbors ambitions of becoming a professional fisherman and having his own show on ESPN.
“I’m just a regular 24/7 dad now,” Iverson told B-R. “I’m doing the things that I never paid attention to. They never had a full-time father, but they do now. I’m here for those things now. Being older, I can’t imagine a parent not wanting to be in their kid’s life. I will just never understand it. To me, it’s priceless.”
As it turns out, AI and Steph might just have far more in common than meets the eye.
illustration via Timothy McAuliffe