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Allen Iverson's authenticity paved the way for today's NBA

The mission was clear: Go to the NBA. Take over. Do so in a way that told the basketball world a new era had arrived.

If you were not a part of his inner circle, Allen Iverson didn't give a damn about you. The thing is, he was atypical in that he wanted you to know it, specifically because it was his way of saying he knew you would never give a damn about him anyway, no matter how much you smiled in his face.

His talent would make you care.

His performance would make you salivate.

His achievements would make you kneel.

All the way to the Hall of Fame, someday.

Iverson's story is not foreign, of course. It's similar to that of many players in today's NBA. Most are African-Americans. Most come from impoverished backgrounds. Almost all strive to elevate themselves to a level of greatness that has forced a global audience to pay attention, to emulate, then join.

Yet very few have ever impacted basketball like Iverson. No matter how hard they try.

"I always tell folks I played every game like it's my last," Iverson said earlier this week, in advance of his Hall of Fame induction on Friday. "And I meant that. But sometimes I don't think people realize what I mean when I say that. It's not just about playing so hard; it's why I played so hard. You know what I mean? It's what I wondered would happen to me if I didn't do it.

"You've got to know my history and how I truly feel to realize where I'm coming from."

But few will ever know. No matter how hard they try.

During to a career that would culminate with Iverson averaging 26.7 points per game, winning four scoring titles and one MVP -- at 6 feet, 165 pounds -- folks witnessed his heroics but barely knew the intimate challenges he faced.

Iverson knew being incarcerated, then granted clemency, wasn't a likable trait for Madison Avenue; that he wasn't the ideal spokesman for the NBA. Iverson knew a visibly polished Kobe Bryant was preferable to the tattoos, cornrows and street persona proudly worn on the sleeves, neck and elsewhere on this former All-American out of Georgetown.

But Iverson also knew everyone couldn't be Bryant or Michael Jordan. He knew that if MJ and Kobe -- and no one else -- were the standard, society wouldn't have a true depiction of NBA stars to come.

"I was 6 feet, so folks could relate to that," he once told me. "I was 165 pounds, so folks could relate to that. But I was also someone who wanted to be me, judged for what I do and who I am, instead of what you say I'm suppose to be. It's true that some [people] don't want to play the game, but a lot of dudes don't know how to. And even the ones that do, most ain't going to be accepted. So what about them?"

Even today that is still a legitimate question.

LeBron James has helped provide answers by showing you he can be a champion, pre-eminent role model and global icon, even if tattoos are draped all over his body. Steph Curry has proven as much, as well, by being a baby-faced, long-range assassin who, at 6-foot-3, looks like a regular dude instead of a Goliath of a man.

From Carmelo Anthony to Chris Paul to Dwyane Wade and beyond, players are speaking not just with their play on the court, but with their willingness to address issues off the court. And although Iverson is no innovator in that department, his willingness to express himself certainly made it easier for athletes to open up more in a day and age that's demanding it, not asking.

What few knew is that Iverson wasn't this way because he couldn't help himself. He was that way because he could be, because he wanted the world to look beyond the veneer, forcing everyone to acknowledge that you didn't have to look, act or "Be Like Mike" to be immensely popular to basketball and the world.

In the midst of all of that, there were personal challenges.

There were friends and family who always wanted money and time. There was a loving wife, Tawanna, whom he fully admits he should have appreciated more. There were many days when charity was expected instead of appreciated. There was even a time, according to close confidants, when a member of his inner circle forgot where they parked a Bentley, a ride Iverson had purchased for them, at Philadelphia International Airport -- and instead of continuing to look for it, they simply went to the dealership and bought another one because, well, they could.

"I didn't know anything about that," Iverson once told me. "Maybe because I didn't want to know, honestly!"

The challenges were relentless. And this was before Twitter, Facebook and the like became so entrenched. But Iverson still marched on.

He rose. He fell. He crumbled. Then rose again. Financially. Ethically. Morally at times. Letting critics talk, cynics swell and allowing his life to become far more difficult than it needed to be.

"There were many occasions when it wasn't even Allen who had done anything," former Sixers president Billy King once told me. "It could've been someone in [Iverson's] crew. But it didn't matter. You might as well blame him because the last thing he was going to do was tell on anyone. No matter the reason. Not matter the consequences. He'd take the heat himself for anyone he cared about, and simply say he wasn't perfect."

The Answer will tell anyone he was a mess at times. That he could've been better, but wasn't. But along the way, while talking of his trials and tribulations, he'll ask that you remember his triumphs. He'll ask that while saying what you want, don't forget to tell the end of the story.

Iverson will ask that you don't omit how he performed under adverse circumstances. How he never cheated fans with his effort, even when tempted to do otherwise. And how, in the end, that is the reason he's so proud he'll be in the same building as the all-time greats.

Perhaps Iverson gave a damn, after all. He just had to act like he didn't to be considered one of the best ever.

"Nobody truly knows the road I traveled," he said.

Chances are, they will by this weekend.

Related Video
Stephen A. shares favorite moments of Iverson's career
Stephen A. shares favorite moments of Iverson's career
Stephen A. Smith recalls Allen Iverson's fearlessness and looks back on some of AI's greatest moments, from the crossover on Michael Jordan to the infamous step over on Tyronn Lue.

Iverson: I don't know how I'll get through HOF speech
Iverson: I don't know how I'll get through HOF speech
Allen Iverson joins SportsCenter to preview his speech at the Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 9 and how hard it'll be for him, considering all the people who have stood by him over the years.

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