Allen Iverson was always going to make the Hall of Fame. The only question was when. And if Iverson hadn't been voted in this week, it would've had nothing to do with his skill as a basketball player. Voters would be sending a message to Iverson, the same message he got throughout his NBA career: You don't belong. You transgressed. You ruined the sport and must pay.
This lasting enmity -- and the fact that several years removed from retirement, Iverson is still fighting it -- speaks to just how much the fiery, diminutive guard accomplished during his prime. His talent was indisputable. He was a scoring machine, fearlessly driving the lane and carving up defenses with a style that was equal parts reckless abandon and cocksure method. Barely scraping six-feet tall, Iverson was without question the best "pound-for-pound" player in the league and, according to his staunchest supporters, the best ever in that department.
The Sixers' upset of a near-unstoppable Lakers team in the opener of the 2001 Finals neatly sums up his career. AI stared down the impossible without flinching and, refusing to be discouraged by an uneven first half, led his team to maybe the most improbable upset in Finals history. They won the battle, lost the war and nevertheless went down in history.
Granted, Iverson's game could be tedious at times. He was the quintessential volume scorer; for every lightning-quick drive to the basket, dexterous move or outlandish crossover, there were nights of clanked shots and ball-stopping isolation plays. He spawned countless imitators at the time, none of whom could match his creativity or indomitable spirit.
However, his long-term influence on the sport has persisted. Without Iverson, the likes of Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook, both point guards who have embraced a scoring role without suffering as playmakers, wouldn't exist. It's no coincidence that over the last few days, both have spoken publicly about the formative role Iverson played in their lives.
But Iverson's contribution to basketball -- and in large part, the reason some people scorn him to this day -- was bigger than on-court play. Only a handful of players have been as thoroughly transformative as Allen Iverson. Magic and Bird brought the NBA out of its '70s dark ages and into a new golden era, Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan, and today, we see Curry casting a long shadow over the sport. No one is claiming that Iverson was their equal as a player. But basketball is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is pure athletics. Taken as a whole, his legacy looms as large as any of them.
AI was unfiltered, unmitigated and wholly refused to be something he was not. His look, his attitude, his undying loyalty to the Newport News community that reared him came as a shock to the basketball community. He was nearly suspended over lyrics from his sub-career as a rapper. He sported cornrows and baggy shorts. His numerous tattoos were a virtual cipher of signs and symbols. He'd emerge from the locker room wearing throwback jerseys, over-sized sweats and flashy jewelry, sending a loud-and-clear statement that he'd made it on his own terms and would never compromise himself for the benefit of others.
Allen Iverson was realness personified. The phrase "unforgivable blackness," coined by W.E.B. DuBois and recently adopted as the title of Geoffrey C. Ward's Jack Johnson bio, aptly described how many felt about Iverson. He wasn't just controversial for how he played the game; who Iverson was and his boundless confidence in that identity were in themselves an affront to media and fans who expected their athletes to speak, look and act in a certain way.
Ever vigilant, the gatekeepers had their say. He was decried as a "thug." The league instituted a zone pretty much to try and slow AI down. The ill-fated dress code of 2006 was nothing more than a ploy to stamp out Iverson's impact on NBA fashion. His rant against practice, taken entirely out of context, was seen as a gotcha moment discrediting Iverson once and for all. That's how much he terrified his critics.
Even a decade later, we see an NBA that's inconceivable without Iverson's influence in unlikely places. At the risk of sounding corny, he made it OK for players to be themselves, a form of empowerment that directly fueled say, LeBron James' insistence on exerting control over all aspects of his career in every situation imaginable. Oh, and lest we forget, James is covered in ink and nobody even blinked an eye at it. Different as the two may be basketball-wise (and as public figures), you can draw a direct connection between Iverson and LeBron.
It's even been suggested to me that, rather than AI bringing hip-hop to professional basketball, he in fact helped mainstream the music by giving it a whole new platform. He forced America to confront people, places and ideas that had formerly been excluded from the realm of basketball, other sports and even the broader sociocultural conversation. Only Allen Iverson could put Jadakiss in a Reebok commercial.
To this day, some still refuse to acknowledge Allen Iverson's importance. His game may have irked them, but it's his enduring effect on the league that gets them really worked up. At this point, resisting Iverson seems like a positively outdated notion. It persists as nothing more than a grudge because some folks simply can't admit they were wrong. As Iverson enters the Hall of Fame, though, we see an acceptance not only his greatness as player, but also everything he stood for.
It may have been a long time coming, but finally, Allen Iverson can stop fighting. He's gotten the credit he always deserved. This may not matter at all to him. But for the rest of us, seeing Iverson once and for all embraced by the basketball establishment just plain feels good. He was a larger-than-life figure who inspired millions of people. And this week, the sport finally paid him a proper tribute.
* * *
SB Nation Presents: NBA rookies imitate Allen Iverson, LeBron James and more stars
Be sure to subscribe to SB Nation's YouTube channel for highlight videos, features, analysis and more