Mythology in America is a funny concept. Sure, there have been people here for millennia and they all passed down stories and legends, but in relation to Middle-East and Mediterranean lore, our bowl sits nearly bare. Sports fill that void as the gladiators of modern times give life to moments that transcend just a game. The moment in question signaled a sea change in NBA history. On March 12, 1997, the Chicago Bulls were on their way to their second straight title, fresh off the undisputed greatest season in basketball history. They were at the height of their powers. But their superstar, the face of the sport, was aging. Before there was “The Last Dance,” there was a question as to when the great Michael Jordan would finally show cracks in the armor. Philadelphia had The Answer.
Allen Ezail Iverson never won an NBA championship. He was a scoring champion (four times), steals leader (three times), All-Star (eleven times), Rookie of the Year, and Hall of Famer. For better or worse, he is emblematic of a very specific era in NBA history- the Post-Jordan rebuilding of the league.
A rookie in 1996-97, Iverson was the first overall pick by the Sixers that summer. I don’t remember what it was like to watch him at Georgetown, but I remember how much attention he received immediately in the NBA. The trials and tribulations of Allen Iverson are well-documented in documentaries and books. His story is heroic and tragic in its own right, but the night in question was something outside of all of that.
The Sixers, as most teams who end up with a top draft pick, were terrible. Coming into that night, they were 16-45. It was an otherwise lost season in their history, ending mercifully at 22-60. The Bulls had lost EIGHT games to that point. They would finish 69-13, an insane record that is diminished historically by the 72-10 they left behind the year before.
In 1996-97, Allen Iverson led the Philadelphia 76ers in points, assists, steals, threes attempted, threes made, twos attempted, twos made, personal fouls, and turnovers. It wasn’t a one-man show, to be fair. Jerry Stackhouse and Derrick Coleman were fine. Stack never lived up to expectations, but had a solid NBA career. Coleman was on the back half of a fine career as well, but his best years were definitely in the rear view.
What is often lost in myths are the facts that bring a story back into reality. The night of the crossover was not Iverson and Jordan’s first meeting. It wasn’t even their second. The Bulls and Sixers played in each others’ second game of the season- Chicago won by 29. And later, just before Christmas, they met in Philly. The Bulls won by 6. Of course, the NBA doesn’t truly grab the consciousness of the country until after Christmas, so it’s no surprise those games are forgotten.
Michael Jordan was a hero. He was an icon. He was the person someone could point to and say “that is why I care about basketball.” So when Iverson had his chance, looking to truly cement himself on the national stage, he took it.
Allen Iverson is synonymous with the crossover. He didn’t invent it. Hell, Michael Jordan himself was crossing up Larry Bird on the regular. Iverson perfected it. Made it the hotness. The next decade of basketball would be represented by hero ball, mixtape videos, and a near nightly competition to see who could deliver the flashiest, most disrespectful move on an opponent.
This particular crossover was not disrespectful, nor was it flashy. It was barely even successful. Jordan was such a great defender, even at the age of 34.
Ron Harper is on Iverson, and he’s on him tight. Clarence Weatherspoon, nickname Baby Barkley, was on Jordan. Then came the switch.
Weatherspoon sets and tosses back to Iverson and blocks Jordan, who for a brief moment considers going to his right, thinking Iverson might go underneath on the wing. Instead, he dribbles up to the top of the arc. Phil Jackson yells “Michael” as if he needed to be prodded into teaching the young buck a lesson.
The stage is set. The crowd stirs as they understand the moment at hand. This is no longer a game between David and Goliath. It is the kind of theater that makes sports so powerful.
Both men understand the situation. If Iverson fails to shake his hero, he’ll look too big for his own shoes. If Jordan fails to stop the kid, he’ll be vilified as “getting too old for this shit” in the words of Roger Murtaugh.
Iverson dribbles with his right hand, gives a few dribbles between his legs, fakes left and steps right.
Iverson cuts, crosses, steps left hard.
Jordan follows. But…
Iverson bounces off his left foot and glides forward and to the right.
Jordan follows, but its too late. Iverson has separated. He pulls up and sinks the jumper. CoreStates Center erupts.
Try as he might, even the GOAT of GOATS could be felled.
Iverson had won that battle, and in the process became an instant icon of the next generation. It was a moment that had no true effect on the game as a whole, but signified so much more. That an era of basketball would soon come to an end. That one great career was nearing its end and another was just taking off.
Jordan and the Bulls won the game, as they tended to do back then. Final score was 108-104: closer than their first two contests, but still the same result in the standings.
Allen Iverson scored more than 30 points in 20 games that season. Five times, he put up at least 40. A month after his duel with his idol, he put up 50, a feat he would match or surpass 10 times in his career. Iverson was an inner-circle great of his time.
Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won the NBA title. And the next one (spoiler alert for The Last Dance). He later remarked at a kids camp how Iverson would become great if he learned to play the game at the “higher level”. He had this to say after the game:
Was Jordan humbled by The Crossover? Did Jordan feel any ill will toward Iverson for finally making him into the victim? The answers lie between the ears of Jordan himself. We’ll likely never know the truth.
The myth of that night extends now over 23 years later. You’ll have people tell you they swear Jordan lost his balance and touched the ground. That Iverson missed the shot so it didn’t matter. That Jordan outscored Iverson so it didn’t matter. And that’s what’s great about mythology. It bends and turns and grows like a weed over time.
The difference between this myth and Paul Bunyan or Odysseus is one thing- we can roll the tape.