It's strange what can define an athlete's career. Just ask Allen Iverson.
This was on display earlier this year when Reebok introduced a new sneaker to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Iverson's signing with the Philadelphia 76ers. A milestone, especially as A.I. gets set to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame. Yet in a promo spot for the sneakers, Iverson doesn’t really go on about breaking Michael Jordan's ankles as a rookie or scoring 48 points in the first game of the 2001 NBA finals. Instead, he talks about how "former teammates, family members, friends" still bust him about the time he repeated the word practice over 20 times within a few minutes. "Everybody teases me about it," he says. What does this have to do with sneakers? They're called Question Mid "Practice." To celebrate the anniversary of Iverson's NBA starting, Reebok named a shoe after the most infamous press conference in NBA history.
Now part of American sports lore like Ruth's called shot or Ali's trash talking, the presser was called to address rumors that Iverson would be traded; after their first round playoff loss to the Boston Celtics, Coach Larry Brown had said any Sixers player could be traded. Iverson the basketball player was there to squash those rumors, but what people may not have realized was that Iverson the human was dealing with a personal tragedy that dwarfed what was happening on the court. Yet that part of the story rarely is included. It's remembered by one word.
Iverson actually covered a lot of range during the press conference, including his respect for his coach ("I'm the pit bull in his yard, and if anyone tries to intrude, I'll be the first one to bite and protect his home"), his status as the Sixers' franchise player and the league's MVP and how criticisms of him affect his family ("Ask yourself: if your daughter had to listen to people talk bad about daddy or mother all the time, how would you feel, honestly?"). But his recursive talk about practice has been used to level all kinds of criticisms against him: that we was being stubborn, egotistical or even drunk.
Two things are missing when people talk about the presser. The second most repeated word in Iverson's rant is game – he says "game" 18 times and "practice" 31 – and for good reason. Iverson is frustrated that reporters are asking him questions about practice – something he obviously finds important – and not about games, where he sweats and bleeds on the court. For Iverson, "practice" is a metaphor for the noise outside the essential 48 minutes of the game. It is life behind the scenes, outside of the public view: simply put, nobody's business but his own, his coach and team.
The other element of the presser that is possibly the most important are Iverson's cryptic references to grief. Think of the different directions that Iverson's being pulled in this single presser: he has to affirm his commitment to the team, the city, and especially to his coach. He's got to look forward to the next season. Although the Sixers had made it to the Finals the year prior, the first-round beating by Boston left fans looking for answers and the best player on the team was called on to provide them. That, and he's dealing with a personal loss. Sure, he says "practice," but he also says, "I feel that everything is going downhill for me as far as my life." If that was played as much as that single word has been since that day, it would put a very different spin on how the presser is remembered in soundbites. Iverson says that he's "upset because of one reason," but then proceeds to actually give another reason: "I lost my best friend."
One of the last things Iverson says in the presser is "My best friend is dead and we lost," again connecting the pain of his life with the pain of his sport. He was talking about Rashan "Ra" Langeford, one of Iverson's groomsmen at his wedding who'd been shot to death just six months earlier. Although he has been accused of lavish and reckless spending during and after his career, Iverson would financially support Langford's wife and children after the tragedy. Another part of the Iverson legacy you don’t hear much about.
When Iverson sat down for that press conference in 2002, there was no Twitter or YouTube. Fans might have seen short clips of the conference his rant on ESPN, heard sound bites on sports radio or read about it in newspapers, but there was some distance between them and the moment. In the age of social media, fans inhale game and press clips, and can endlessly remix the words and actions of athletes. Yet while the Crying Jordan meme can be pasted and posted anywhere in any context, Iverson's viral moment is equal parts video and sound, it's a bit trickier to capture. It is active, dynamic, even poetic in its refrain of that single word. Most importantly, it has become viral only in hindsight – which means newer fans want Iverson to relive the moment so that it unfolds in front of their eyes in real-time.
Fourteen years after the press conference, Iverson will join Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming as part of 2016's Hall of Fame class. There was the short period after the announcement where clips of his greatest shots and moves were played, but the talk quickly returned to this odd, yet somehow appropriate, defining media moment of his career. Earlier this year when Iverson's Hall of Fame selection was first announced, he was asked at another press conference held in April to discuss his induction, "Does this room bring back any memories for you." Iverson laughed and responded, "What do you want me to say, practice?" There were more questions before the actual reporter who asked him about his practicing habits back in 2002 asks him again. You can tell Iverson expresses some regret about the incident, saying his kids make fun of him about it and things happen like "I can go outside today and go to a restaurant or wherever and somebody will come up to me and say, 'Practice? We talkin' bout practice?' Man, I am a Hall of Famer and that's all you can think about?"
As he gets set to finally receive the credit he deserves as one of the game's greatest and most exciting players, maybe we should stop calling Iverson's infamous presser a rant, and instead acknowledge that it's the thoughts of a man prone to recursive storytelling. Iverson has always been a complex athlete and a complex man. He's possible of many pivots within a single presser in the same way that he's been spun by the lows and highs of his life.
We can't deny the superficial comedy of the original presser, which has become a part of our sport lexicon. Aaron Rodgers and LeBron James have mimicked Iverson's lines during their own pressers – and Iverson would impersonate himself on the team bus when he played for the Denver Nuggets. Even Iverson has embraced it: a "Talkin' Bout Practice" video remix, with excerpts laid over a beat, is on the front page of Iverson's official site.
Unlike other athletes, Iverson has owned his viral moment in the sense that he's been refreshingly human in dealing with a time of public grief. Much later in the presser are lines that haven’t become as viral: "You bleed just like I bleed, you cry just like I cry, you hurt just like I hurt. But I am Allen Iverson. I get paid to play basketball." It's fine to laugh and maybe cringe a little bit when Iverson repeats the word practice – but let's once and for all recognize that there's much more to the moment and to the man.