Sixteen years ago today, Allen Iverson shook Tyronn Lue, buried the jumper, stepped over him on his way back down the court, and stole his soul. It’s a play that has been immortalized by time in inescapable video format.
It’s something that has transcended the binary nature of sports, where there’s either a winner or a loser. In this video below, the context isn’t relevant and you can’t find a scoreboard anywhere in the frame. All that matters is that Iverson rewrote Lue’s entire damn career into “the guy who got stepped over” with six seconds of basketball that was soaked with vicious disrespect:
The context is important, of course, even if the play itself has developed life long beyond that. This happened in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, and Iverson hit the jumper with less than a minute left in overtime. The 76ers were clinging to a two-point lead when Iverson shot that fated jumper, a bucket that gave him 48 points for the game. Philadelphia held on to win that night, and all of that matters.
This doesn’t become an iconic moment in NBA history if it’s a Tuesday in December, sure. But it also doesn’t matter that the 76ers lost the next four games and this series. We know the Lakers won three straight championships in the early 2000s, and we also know Iverson had the most defining crossover of his career. It’s not marred by his failings in the series itself.
Likewise, it doesn’t matter that Iverson’s other crossover — the one where he crossed up his childhood idol Michael Jordan, the one he says he preferred to the time he stepped over Lue — came in a 76ers loss.
Those were different times, and iconic moments don’t live like they used to. There’s a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is the unavoidable #RINGZ culture. It’s something that has pushed out and replaced the definition for extraordinary, where now only titles ultimately matter and great players are judged solely by how many rings adorn their fingers when they retire. Here’s Zach Lowe defining the phenomenon in a 2014 Grantland column:
The Paul discussion crystallizes two nagging trends in basketball fandom, media culture, and sports analysis: (1) an obsession with championships as the sole marker of success, and (2) hand-wringing over legacy, “narratives,” and how the collective We perceives particular NBA players.
#RINGZ culture seemed to rise up along with the internet. Before message boards spawned and then social media took over, sports culture was pushed mostly by print and especially television media. Sports journalists aren’t inherently the best gatekeepers, but the conversation never totally devolved into the same “championship or bust” mentality.
Once fans could add their voices on a national stage, it naturally gravitated toward a more black-and-white outlook — either you’re a winner or you’re a loser, and nobody wants to be a loser. (In the past decade or so, though, sports media has absolutely fueled this fire.)
I wonder how other immaculate highlights of our recent years will age. We’ll probably see Stephen Curry’s 35-foot game-winner as one of the defining plays of his career. But Curry will likely pick up his second championship in these current finals and join the #RINGZ club. Would it hold up otherwise?
Iverson’s legacy is more than basketball, given what he meant to the culture. But even on the court, Iverson is best known for his audacious shot-taking and exhilarating shot-making; for his crossovers that everyone spent time trying to emulate. That’s exactly what his legacy should be.
Will Chris Paul get the same on-court respect if he never wins a ring? His legacy right now is that he has never reached the conference finals, let alone the finals themselves. In another era, maybe this absurd Game 7 game-winner would have another life in the coming years:
It probably will only be remembered in passing now.
As long as #RINGZ culture is all that matters, moments like Iverson’s may not have lasting power anymore. As #RINGZ culture would argue: He lost that series, so why did that crossover even matter? Did he end up winning the championship?
Sports moments will never stop happening, but now the criteria for what makes them special have changed.