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With the first pick in the 1996 NBA Draft the Philadelphia 76’ers selected a controversial 5’11 Guard from Georgetown and forever changed the face of the NBA. Before Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal was the closest the NBA came to representing the true spirit of Hip-Hop. But just as a new era of Hip-Hop was emerging, a new Hip-Hop athlete would have to emerge and A.I. didn’t disappoint. The cornrows, the diminutive frame, the tattoos, the attitude, the gangsta rap demo, the entourage, the extravagant spending, the abandoning of the V.I.P. set, the preference to party in clubs with other black people his age regardless of the fact that he was a millionaire and we were broke. All of those things made Allen Iverson our hero. The soundtrack for this era was provided by……
Jay-Z burst onto the scene in 1996 with Reasonable Doubt. The album was such an accomplishment that all these years later some hardcore fans argue that it’s his finest work and that even his best album since then doesn’t match the wordplay on display here. Prior to 1996 not many outside of New York had given much consideration to Jay-Z. His song “In My Lifetime” wasn’t considered a major hit but did get some play on the Friday night mixshow circuit. And super knowledgeable fans remembered him from his connection to Big Jaz (as Jaz-O was referred to on the D&D Project compilation album that dropped in 94).
Though both emerged in the year of 1996 Jay-Z has proven to be the far more successful more transcendent figure. Iverson heralded the full arrival of the Hip-Hop culture in the NBA. The old guard, the Tim Robinsons, Scottie Pippens, Michael Jordans and Karl Malones of the world were beginning their final descent. The players who weren’t particularly fond of rap and grew up in the pre-Hip-Hop world were getting ready to hang up their shoes. Allen Iverson’s crossover of MJ didn’t do anything to tarnish Jordan’s legacy but it meant a lot to us kids barely younger than Iverson. When he was booed by the crowd at the all star game for winning the MVP of the rookie game it solidified it for us. This was our guy and we had to circle the wagons. We absolutely tolerated no Iverson slander, about his game, about his image, about his off court problems, troubled past, or ratchet mother. A.I. was our guy. And the players that followed breathed a little bit easier knowing somebody had already taken the slings and arrows from those who lamented the Hip-Hopification of the NBA. Sadly his personal demons overwhelmed his talent and ultimately led to a career that will always be debated about in terms of what could have been.
The myth perpetuated by the media during the best of A.I.’s years was that Sixers team President Pat Croce and coach Larry Brown argued over keeping A.I. on the team after the 2000 season with Larry on the side of “no way”. And while they auditioned and traded many sidekicks for A.I.’s one man show none ever had any traction. His ultimate achievement on the basketball court may be the sheer force of will that he summoned to elevate a team consisting of him, Dikembe Mutombo and 10 role players to the NBA Finals during the 01’ playoffs to take on Shaq in his prime and Kobe during his ascendance.
Jay-Z on the other hand while being an insider in the Hip-Hop world began getting his school of hard knocks MBA under the tutelage of some of the greatest executives in entertainment history. I’m sure Harvard Business School doesn’t offer a better education than watching Dame Dash and Kevin Liles scream at each other in a Def Jam Boardroom in 1998. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on a wall during those years. Is there any wonder Jay-Z is a business, man and not just a businessman. Thus Jay-Z is fully prepared and well positioned for a life “after rap” the opposite of the way that A.I. isn’t fully prepared for a life after basketball.
Some have argued that Jay-Z’s artistic achievements post ’06 (the year of his comeback from his first retirement) have been inconsistent. And a few will assert that his tenure as President of Def Jam was negligible at best. And the way Roc-A-Fella Records ended never sat well with fans. Similarly Allen Iverson’s production on actual basketball court post ’06 was never that great. And the way he left his original team definitely doesn’t sit well with fans.
Jay-Z hasn’t really truly failed his fans though. I mean never. There have been low moments in a career of mostly highs. There was the disappointment of Blueprint 3. But the most hardcore Jay-Z stans (myself included) could argue that Blueprint 3 has some great moments. Some of us weren’t happy with the luxury brand rap of “Watch The Throne”. Some of us were less than thrilled when we bought a ticket to see him and Kanye perform “N—– in Paris” eleven times back to back to back.
But Jay-Z has accomplished so much. He basically destroyed the Roc-A-Fella brand and created the upstart label/management conglomerate Roc Nation. He helped bring the Nets to Brooklyn. He dissed the Yankees so well in that New York song that they didn’t even take it as a diss and invited him to perform it… at YANKEE STADIUM. And when it was time to take his brand to the next level he displayed zero fux about dropping his ownership stake and turning Roc Nation Sports into the Roc Nation of sports. (See how deceptively simple that is).
Allen Iverson has had a rough time of it. His alcoholism, his gambling, his ugly home life, his horrendous divorce, his money issues, his failed stints in Memphis, Philly, and….Turkey!!!. All of those things have us looking at our childhood hero s’ing our mfh’s . Washington Post articles and other recent profiles show us a tattered soul. It makes us sad to know that sometimes even money can’t save us from the ghettos in our mind. While Jay-Z continues to surprise us by innovating and reinventing himself, Iverson meekly accepts that he may never play basketball again and continues to dress like he did 10 years ago when super baggy jeans and throwback jerseys were the height of urban couture.
So while we are forced to look back to the early 2000’s and late 90’s to relieve the A.I.’s greatness, we can almost certainly look forward to great things from Jay-Z and his movie scoring, athlete contract negotiating, Hip-Hop, rock and pop management company/record label. All that and he still had time to thug out Beyonce. Meanwhile until Time puts out a list of the world’s 100 most tragic figures we won’t see A.I. on any magazine covers anytime soon.
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