SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – From the time the Orlando Magic drafted him first overall in 1992, and he playfully feigned surprise by asking, “Who me?”, Shaquille O’Neal always understood that the way a man of his imposing size could win over people while destroying the opposition was to be the ultimate entertainer and showman. Four years later, Allen Iverson went first overall to the Philadelphia 76ers, determined to make sure that it would be one of the last nights he would ever have to wear a suit or do anything else that would make him uncomfortable; he wasn’t seeking anyone’s approval, only to exist.
O’Neal and Iverson entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame together on Friday night, both using nearly 30 minutes to mesmerize the audience with the unique styles that made one a successful pitchman and now television analyst and the other an icon beloved for keeping it way too real.
O’Neal, the more accomplished and decorated of the two, was given the coveted closing spot and used it to deliver a hilarious, well-crafted speech filled with timely one-liners, bleeped-out words on NBATV, clever quips and a few zingers – including a swift shot at longtime frenemy Kobe Bryant. Iverson fought through tears for an extended shoutout, made the first-ever enshrinement references to comedian Dave Chappelle and popular – and somewhat obscure – rappers from his playing days, and ended with a gut punch to those no longer in his inner circle.
Yao Ming, Jerry Reinsdorf, Tom Izzo and Sheryl Swoopes also got to bask in the three-hour induction ceremony, but the night was owned by the two legends who hogged the most time and attention; the two legends who shared nothing in terms of physical stature but whose personalities dominated so much of the era between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. That was evident from the night’s opening speech, when Yao, the towering Chinese big man whose career was unfortunately cut short because of recurring foot injuries, delivered a witty joke that referred to one stigma that Iverson has never been able to escape.
“When I heard I would be the first speaker tonight, I think maybe somebody made a mistake,” Yao said. “Don’t laugh, because I think this spot belonged to the great Allen Iverson. You know why? Because I need more practice than him.”
Iverson expected that he would break down and cry at some point during his speech and he was forced to hold back tears earlier than expected when Springfield Symphony Hall began to rumble like the former Wachovia Center when he routinely tacked 40 points on someone. “MVP!” chants from upper deck fans, many of whom were dressed in his No. 3 jersey, overwhelmed the building and Iverson before he could even make his way to the podium.
A box of tissue seemed necessary once Iverson got behind the lectern and got choked up thanking his presenters; his former college coach at Georgetown, John Thompson (“Coach Thompson [saved] my life.”); his longtime NBA coach with the Philadelphia 76ers, Larry Brown (“Once I started to listen … that’s when I became an MVP.”); and 76ers legend Julius Erving. But it was probably best that Iverson was forced to suck it up and not turn his moment into a sob session. Back in a suit for one of those rare instances, Iverson remained true to himself with words that played out like a cathartic freestyle that was short on stories but heavy on acknowledgements. He couldn’t name every family member, friend, coach, teammate or loved one – but he came close – and even slipped in the musicians who motivated him. [/restrict]