The Aug 2011 edition of Slam Magazine is on shelves and the cover story is on Allen Iverson. I had seen it several times in passing and wanted to stop and look through it but I never had time.

Last night in Food Lion I parked my cart full of groceries in the middle of the magazine aisle and I stood there and read Slam’s interview with Iverson.

What it said prompted me to write something I’ve been thinking and saying for some time now.

In my opinion, Michael Jordan is unquestionably the most important player in the history of the NBA, considering the totality of his contributions.

As well, Shaquille O’Neal is probably the most colorful and quotable player, often being able to get away with crude remarks because of his humor and childlike antics.

I name these two because the NBA and sports media would like us to believe that Jordan and Shaq were the two most magnetic and beloved NBA athletes over the course of the last two decades.

But this is a half truth.

Jordan and Shaq dominated the ‘90’s and early 2000’s respectively, both winning three consecutive championships apiece from ’96 through ‘02. They were the faces of the league and the two most marketable players during their reigns.

Yet while young black kids, who now make up the majority of today’s NBA, were rooting for Jordan and Shaq to win titles, they were modeling their swagger, and for some their entire game, after Allen Iverson.

Iverson brought a flagrant hip-hop counterculture to the game that non African-American, or non urban, youth did not want to see. Yet while his style was undesired, he never modified himself to fit a corporate image.

Considering the playing styles, trends, and mentality he introduced to the league, Iverson has had the greatest singular influence on today’s NBA superstars.

In the early 2000’s, before the NBA implemented a dress code, every young player was wearing do-rags, large jewelry, baggy pants, sports Jerseys or tall tees, and fitted caps to games—a style spearheaded by Iverson.

The dress code, made mandatory league wide in 2005, was a completely unveiled attempt to put an end to this trend, banning players from such attire at all NBA functions including charity events.

But while the NBA put an end to the Iverson effect among players off the court, it could do nothing to stop his influence on the court.

From a fashion standpoint Iverson was the prototype for peers and basketball enthused youth. He was the first player with cornrows and he was the first to cover his body with tattoos.

For about eight years huge numbers of young black players rocked braided hairstyles. As guys got older, and balder, the style sort of faded out. But tattoos, which are a little more permanent, have remained, and grown in popularity.

Tattoo parlors and tattoo haters alike can thank Iverson for this.

The unexpected marketing sensation even made odd sports gear trendy. Before him, players weren’t wearing arm and leg sleeves, and head bands were of moderate usage. Once Iverson began sporting these accessories, kids with little to no knowledge of what the gear was even created for, were buying them off the shelves.

Add that with the fact that his jersey was always a top seller, particular among young people, Iverson created a lot of revenue for a league that never accepted him.

In terms of his game, the Iverson style of play, to this day, is pretty much the only style visible among playground players, grade school ballers, and high scoring small guards in college and the pros.

What does this style consist of? Basically, crossing players up even if it means dribbling a hole into the ground, constantly trying to get to the basket, and shooting the stitching off the ball.

As a basketball purest, I can’t say I am huge fan of this fundamentally deprived approach to the game. And quite frankly, it is widely considered to be the reason A.I. is not in the league today.

But for him at the time in which he played, it was kind of necessary. In the prime of his career in Philly, he never had a descent second scoring option behind him. Every night he had to put it all on his shoulders, which produced the Lone Ranger mentality that players emulate today.

Because of his allure, Iverson’s, not Tim Hardaway’s, rendition of the crossover became the go to move for the majority of young basketball players on every level. And with an untamable craving to get to the hole, and the will to take a pounding in doing so, Iverson made having “heart” a staple in an increasingly soft American basketball culture.

But the epitome of Iverson’s importance and contributions to today’s NBA is something that cannot be measured by apparel sales, stats, or general popularity. Actual it is the underlying root of these things—the reason we are even able to analyze such tangible measurements.

Iverson was important because he was not ashamed of being Iverson. Everything from his in your face persona to what he wore on and off the court was the result of him being himself.

Iverson was modeled and shaped by an impoverished, hood upbringing. He never shied away from this.

He didn’t change his friends simply because someone said to. He refused to shove his loud mouth mother into the background, though she really did need to simmer down.

Iverson was loyal to those he felt deserved his loyalty.

This is not to say that he shouldn’t have distanced himself from some people. Certainly his affiliations, including those with family members, were the sticking point of a lot of the negative press that surrounded him throughout his career.

But Iverson was true enough to himself not to shun his loved ones simply because it would have been better for his image. We’ve seen plenty of black athletes take that road.

To be honest, other than the infamous fight in a bowling alley when he was a teenager and a domestic abuse charge in the early 2000’s, both of which he was exonerated for, Iverson’s legal and social troubles are comparable to that of Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.

Throughout his glorious but often scrutinized career Iverson said what he felt, dressed how he pleased, and played the game his way, because he was determined to always be himself. That is as good an example as a faulted man like Iverson—because every other role model is perfect—can give.

The Slam article mentioned a meeting between Iverson and controversial Miami Heat star LeBron James when James first entered the NBA. Reportedly Iverson gave James tips on how to carry himself in the NBA and how to avoid the mistakes that Iverson made.

When I look at James, who is clearly unafraid to be who he wants to be here lately, I see some Allen Iverson. I like what I see.

I don’t agree with everything James may say or do. I didn’t agree with Iverson a lot of times. And I have certainly had major criticisms of both of their games.

But I will always appreciate what Iverson has imparted to James and other players. He taught young black kids to be themselves regardless of how acceptable their backgrounds or personalities are to the greater white culture.

For young men who have been coined “$40 million slaves,” that lesson is more important than championships.

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