There exists among many sports fans a reflexive need to assign a mysticism and morality to what happens on the field. If a team happens to win a game, it's because they "wanted it more" than the other team, and not because they just happened to make more shots. If a player performs well in clutch situations, its due to some indeterminable "killer instinct" and not a quiet confidence in his own abilities. While annoying, it's understandable why they'd do this, though. Being a diehard sports fan can require a near complete psychic and emotional investment in what happens with your team. And with that level of investment, its natural to want to believe there are greater factors at play; that "heart" and "will" and other unquantifiable entities matter more than skill level, athleticism, and chance. Because without sports having some higher meaning, we're ultimately just rooting for and against geographical proximity and, to quote Chuck Klosterman, laundry.
The prevailing narrative around Allen Iverson the basketball player — not Allen Iverson the icon cultural iconoclastic — is an example of this need to metaphysicize sports.
It was revealed Monday that he will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as part of an especially star-studded class that includes, among others, Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming, Tom Izzo, and Sheryl Swoops. Naturally, the news of his induction dominated pop culture yesterday. And much of the basketball-related conversation about him invariably recalled abstractions such as his heart and desire and fearlessness. All obscuring the fact that none of that heart and desire and fearlessness would have mattered if Allen Iverson wasn't one of the best natural athletes of the last 50 years. He wasn't able to thrive as a six foot and 170 pound guy in a sport full of giants because he played "harder" than everyone else. He thrived because he was a freak of nature with a 42 inch vertical leap, arms long enough to scratch his knees while standing straight up, and the type of God-given stamina where he could smoke weed and drink Hennessy all night, wake up, and play 48 minutes without breaking a sweat. In a sport full of genetic anomalies, he was a fucking alien.
So, instead of honoring his legacy and impact by taking part in the praise bukkake of Bubblechuck's intangibles, I want to write about something tangible and real he left on the game: The left-to-right leaning crossover, most famously seen here as he crosses Michael Jordan twice with back-to-back versions of the same move:
Now, Allen Iverson wasn't the first person to do this. He didn't learn it until he was at Georgetown; taught to him Dean Barry, a walk-on at the school. They'd play one-on-one after practice, and Barry apparently would consistently trick the much quicker Iverson with it. So Iverson eventually asked Barry to teach it to him.
What differentiates this particular crossover from others is that it requires you to shift your body — shoulders and hips — to the left while also extending the ball in your left arm as far away from your body as you can before crossing back to the right. It's called the leaning crossover because you literally lean the opposite direction of where you eventually intend to go. This is a particularly effective move for someone with long arms and big hands; both of which Iverson possessed. And when you factor in his quickness, it became unstoppable.
It's also cheating.
In order for this move to work, it requires you to momentarily pause your dribble while dribbling. And this can only be done if you either place your hand on the side of the ball or completely underneath it. But this is technically not allowed in basketball. It's a palming violation. (Also commonly known as "carrying.") Now, are there other dribble moves where the gray areas between legal and illegal are explored? Yes. But none as blatantly as the leaning crossover. In literally every single clip you just watched, the referee could have called palming, and he would have been right.
Iverson was so influential though that this move became ubiquitous. Other players adopted it. (And those other players includes me, as it became my go-to move in high school and college.) This resulted in a stretch of time — approximately 1997 to 2007 — where the most popular basketball move was an illegal one. But then NBA referees actually started calling carry when Iverson would do that move, and this seemed to trickle down to all levels of basketball. Today, the leaning crossover is still incorporated by many players — Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers has perhaps the most effective one (seen here at the 2:31 mark) — but it's a pared-down and much more compact version of what Iverson would do.
Ironically, the existence of and popularity of this move metaphysicizes Iverson more than any talk of his "desire" and "will" does. He was such a force of nature — with such a force of personality — that, for a decade, he convinced basketball to allow a cheat that was both unstoppable and blatant.