My favourite game: Iverson stuns Kobe’s Lakers in the 2001 NBA finals | Bryan Armen Graham | Sport

The 2001 Philadelphia 76ers are a tall tale that only grows unlikelier with time. The premise flatly stated is absurd: the Sixers built a ballclub around a 5ft 11in delinquent from Virginia Beach and it worked. Allen Iverson became the least conventional star ever to lead a team to the NBA finals and the Sixers became the ultimate underdog squad for the ultimate underdog city.

From almost the day he arrived in my hometown aged 20, Iverson was plainly one of the NBA’s most transcendent talents, whose scoring instinct was amplified by a new-generation, kill-your-idols edge. His was the perfect game for the teenagers we were: reckless, almost violent, crackling with anarchic energy. It quickly became the greatest show in sports and it was happening right in our backyard. AI was just cool as shit. The whole city loved him. He was a singular but flawed talisman: who could win games by himself but refused to lift or do any real treatment, blew off practice because he was hungover, cursed out the coach and all but begged to be kicked off the team.

Yet Iverson’s preposterous feats of bravery – watching him throw his 160lb frame into the paint, carom off the elbows of linebacker-sized defenders, score a bucket and then bounce off the deck to do it again – were his nightly penance and absolution for more than a decade. If clean-cut superstars like Jordan and Kobe strived to embody the (false) ideal of perfection, Iverson unapologetically spoke to the frailties innate in us. He was beloved because he was fallible.

Allen Iverson

Allen Iverson led the Philadelphia 76ers against all odds against Shaquille O’Neal and the talent-stacked Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 NBA finals. Photograph: Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

No team before or since has ever made a player that little the focal point and understandably so; deep down we knew the blueprint was doomed. But in 2001, it all came together. The concept was simple: the Sixers surrounded Iverson with selfless role players who wouldn’t get pissed the smallest guy on the court was chucking up 30 shots a night, their names familiar only because most were on their third or fourth team.

The result was Iverson’s finest season. He became the shortest and lightest player ever to be named MVP, and the Sixers won with a lunch-pail style tailor-made for a town where people care a little bit too much about sports. Even as the injuries mounted during a grueling six-week playoff run – Iverson’s own list of ailments became almost comical – they kept ripping wins away from opponents in low-possession thrillers where your ass was not touching the seat for 70% of the game.

The Sixers were given no chance in the finals against the seemingly invincible Los Angeles Lakers, the in-form defending champions led by Shaq and Kobe who hadn’t lost in more than two months. Even at full strength Philadelphia would have had their hands full, but the depleted Mash unit that arrived at the Staples Center for Game 1 of the series was written off entirely.

The Lakers immediately showed why, rattling off 16 unanswered points behind the most physically fearsome big man in NBA history at his elemental peak. But after a patchy start Iverson caught fire, slashing and careening to the goal in transition, effortlessly shedding his perimeter defenders out of half-court sets and silencing the Hollywood plastics at courtside. By intermission he’d poured in 30, five off Jordan’s finals record for points in a half, as the Sixers built a lead that would swell to 73-58 in the third quarter.

Allen Iverson delivered one of the one of the great individual performances in NBA finals history against the Lakers in 2001.

After watching Iverson shred Kobe and Derek Fisher for the first half hour, the Lakers looked way down the bench to Tyronn Lue, the seldom-used point guard who had spent the run-up mimicking Iverson against the Lakers’ first team in practice. Lue harried and hounded Philadelphia’s star relentlessly, denying him the ball or forcing him into contested jumpers. Whether borne from tactical genius or desperation, it was working.

With Iverson in check, Shaq at his unstoppable best and my entire city hanging on every loose ball and rebound, the Lakers chipped away and sent the game to overtime. Then comes the part everyone remembers.

The Sixers are clinging to a two-point lead with about a minute to go when Iverson receives a pass near the corner. He hesitates a half-beat, as if to assess his prey, before crossing over Lue and lofting a stepback jumper that hangs in the air for what seems like ages before ripping through the net, punctuating the coup de grâce with an exaggerated high-step over his fallen foil. Forty-eight points, five rebounds, six assists and five steals. Sixers take Game 1, 107-101.

It was the apotheosis of the Iverson era and a Whitmanian triumph of the individual, a moment that struck so far beyond sports into the essence of our city’s insurgent soul, validating everything Philadelphia embodies and fiercely protected in our Allen: uncompromising, defiant, self-certain to a fault with a taste for the fight. The better team won over the best-of-seven series, as happens in basketball, but Iverson’s Game 1 masterclass has come to transcend the outcome in NBA history and define his place in the basketball pantheon: the greatest pound for pound to ever do it and a hell of a player.

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