Shoals Unlimited: With Trade to Detroit, AI's Cultural Status Comes Full Circle

Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week. ↵

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↵It's safe to say that, barring a deadline deal pairing LeBron with Kobe, this Iverson trade will be 2008-09's major storyline. There's been a good deal of expert analysis on how the trade impacts both teams; for some of mine, click here and here. ↵

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↵But Allen Iverson's never been just a basketball player. He's a cultural icon, and has been for more than a decade. That's a long time to remain relevant, which is why, at each phase in his career, Iverson's image and the attitudes around him have shifted subtly -- in no small part due to what city he's playing in. ↵

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↵When AI was the pride of the Sixers, he was loved and hated by the city of Philadelphia. Some of this had to do with polarization along racial lines, especially when Iverson entered the league as hip-hop egoism incarnate. But there was also the way that the guard's perpetual underdog, never-say-die, fight through the pain attitude jibed with Philly's gritty, blue-collar identity. After all, this is a town whose identification with Rocky goes beyond bad self-stereotyping or tourist-friendly ploy. While it lasted, Iverson's special bond with Larry Brown further muddied the waters. Iverson didn't play The Right Way, but Brown looked on him like a son, and their 2001 run was one of the city's more inspiring basketball moments. ↵

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↵This was when everything Iverson stood for was either ignored or grudgingly accepted, like the whole "Rednecks for Obama" movement. Of course, when that team fell apart, public opinion fractured along more predictable lines, much as it had during those early years. ↵

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↵As for Iverson's time with the Nuggets; sorry Denver, but you're not a city most of us have any associations with. His context there was the Nuggets, specifically his relationship with Carmelo Anthony. He proved he'd mellowed with age, could mentor some, and at least superficially, defer to a younger leader. As I wrote last April, it was also during this time that Allen Iverson simply lost his ability to shock and jar some fans. He was an ingrained part of the league, an influence on an entire generation of players; in turn, the game had learned to deal with Iverson's legacy, understanding it a little while making it clear what would and wouldn't fly for youngsters whose talent level fell short of AI's. ↵

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↵In Detroit now, though, Allen Iverson is once again subject to reinterpretation. There are parallels with his time in Philly: Motown is the same kind of troubled metropolis as Philadelphia, perhaps on an even grander scale. And while Larry Brown may be a distant memory in Detroit, the Pistons are still considered avatars of unselfish, orderly team ball. The city will have to appreciate his toughness but will have to come to grips with his style of play—capable of involving others, but first and foremost about taking on the world in an attempt to get buckets. ↵

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↵Detroit's not exactly known for racial tension, especially in sports. The city's majority African-American population will embrace Iverson, at this point a living legend, while the suburban, predominantly white fans who flock to the Palace will approve for all the reasons Philly did—with the added incentive of an older, wiser, less erratic Iverson. This city's desperately wanting a superstar to rally around, something they haven't had since Jerry Stackhouse. AI brings an element of unpredictability and flash to a flat team -- and an economically-depressed region -- that could use the buzz. But with his toughness as evident as ever, and the experience to recognize where the limits are, he's not going rogue on Dee-Troit Basketball anytime soon. ↵

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↵Thus, his image comes full circle. A new career in a new town, but one where there's no question he's free to be himself -- as opposed to Philly, where he was always dogged by the specter of racial strife, or Denver, where Melo made his persona redundant. This time, Iverson has the chance to once again prove he's one of a kind, to distinguish himself from his imitators, and yet at the same time prove his appeal is more universal than ever. Not because the rest of the world has caught up with Allen Iverson, but because the world's finally ready to let Iverson stay one step ahead of it. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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