PHILADELPHIA -- In my lifetime, I have experienced two transcendent moments watching basketball players for the first time.
One came back in 2003, when I saw LeBron James score 52 points in a high school basketball tournament. Everyone understood we were witnessing something new, something significant.
The other time wasn't in person, viewing a player James called "pound-for-pound, the greatest player ever": Allen Iverson. I am a lifelong Georgetown Hoyas fan. And I will never forget the summer and fall of 1994, clutching my Street and Smith's that had Iverson listed alongside future stars like Felipe Lopez, Zendon Hamilton and Jerod Ward.
Finally, in November, Georgetown and Iverson made their season debut, against the defending champion Arkansas Razorbacks in Memphis. It feels like a recent memory, the feelings have such clarity. But look at the videotape: It is old, and now, so is Allen Iverson.
So I watched Allen Iverson retire today, Iverson finally admitting what the NBA had forced him to confront, that he'd played his last game three years ago, at age 34.
And I couldn't stop seeing that 19-year-old kid I watched for the first time in my living room, sitting with my father, both of us astounded at the speed and strength he had, even then. Billy Packer invoked Isiah Thomas. My father invoked former N.C. State star David Thompson. I hadn't seen anyone at all like him.
Neither has Sonny Hill, the "Mayor of Basketball" in Philadelphia, who's seen them all, from George Mikan to Andrew Wiggins.
"Out of all the players in this game, and I go back to the infancy of this league, Allen Iverson had the most unique set of skills and will I've ever seen," Hill told me on Wednesday. "And I don't just mean at this level. I see these guys early on, all along the way. And there's been no one like Allen Iverson."
There was nothing subtle, nothing unrevealed about Iverson's game, from the first time I encountered it, to every single time that followed. Immediately, Iverson raced down the court and took a shot, seconds into his first collegiate game, against the defending champs. Next time down the court, he found Othella Harrington for a no-look pass under the basket, too quickly for Harrington to handle it. Third time down, right through the heart of the Arkansas defense, whistled for a charge. And then he kept coming.
"He was shooting the ball out of control," Arkansas point guard Corey Beck said after the Razorbacks had beaten the Hoyas. "I heard his teammates say, 'Pass me the ball.' If you're going to be the point guard, you've got to be the general out there. But he sure has a lot of confidence in himself."
Asked on Wednesday whether, three years after his last game, Iverson could still help a team, none of that had changed.
"You're asking me," Iverson said, sitting at a podium in the Wells Fargo Center with three of his children. "You're asking somebody with more confidence than anybody in this place. Obviously, I'm gonna tell you I'd be effective."
It is a criminal understatement to call Iverson's game merely effective. It was mesmerizing to watch Allen Iverson play the game at a different speed than anybody else. That was true in college, and it was even true in the NBA, a place where the fastest and the strongest congregate.
I remember savoring every game he played at Georgetown, a place he landed because John Thompson, the elder Thompson, made a decision to give Iverson a chance. This isn't remembered with the proper reverence. Thompson had to work so hard just to build a program at Georgetown that wasn't regarded as a collection of thugs, ugly, easily-discerned racial coding used to describe the collection of 1980s Georgetown teams that, surprise, turned out to be a collection of NBA ballplayers, but also, many graduates (Thompson graduated virtually everybody he coached) who went on to great success in many other fields as well.
Thompson put Georgetown's reputation on the line for Iverson, who'd served jail time for a conviction fraught with racial complexity. He was eventually granted clemency, but it was Thompson who signed on for the role of making Iverson into a basketball player and a man.
It wasn't a surprise to see Iverson's mother, in a bedazzled Iverson Sixers jersey and 76ers hat, give a long hug to Thompson on Wednesday. She knows Thompson, as Iverson put it Wednesday, saved his life.
It would have been a shock if either one hadn't been there. Something about Allen Iverson makes those in his corner stay there, no matter what mistakes he makes along the way.
Beck, that Arkansas point guard, didn't see it right away. Thompson did.
Iverson's college coach said this in 1994, after Iverson's first game ended 5-for-18 with eight turnovers: "I've seen a lot of great players over the years. But I've said it constantly: Freshmen are freshmen."
Thompson also said this that day: "I think all the superlatives for him are merited, no question. We'll see it before the year is over."
We did. And a year later, when Iverson's perimeter shots started falling, I knew he wouldn't play much longer at Georgetown. Seeing the Hoyas lose to Marcus Camby's UMass team in the regional final in 1996 was disappointing less because it ended a season, and more because it was so clearly the final game of Iverson's collegiate career.
Thompson commanded Iverson's respect in a way few did once he left for the professional game. It became a vicious cycle: Too many people judged Allen Iverson by his unapologetic style off the court and failed to properly appreciate the way his singular attacking style flummoxed opponents on it. Iverson, intent upon remaining himself, missed vital chances to make life easier by rounding a single edge.
Maybe he'd have been better off with Thompson in his ear for longer than the two years, on a regular basis, watching his every move.
"I think it was just watching him," Iverson said of Thompson on Wednesday. "And how he conducted himself, and how he handled himself in every situation. Just paying attention to how he went about his life. It was so easy to listen to the advice that he always gave me, because you could see the success that he had. Not being a basketball coach, the success that he had in life, and the respect that he had of so many other people.
"He never really got on me, at all," Iverson continued. "But it was easy for him to get me on track."
Iverson's professional career seemed to miss that respect he described as coming to Thompson at times, too many Corey Becks seeing what Allen Iverson wasn't, no comps to be found, and missing out on what he was.
Too many people seem to ignore the fact that Iverson took the Sixers to the NBA Finals almost entirely by himself. In 2000-01, the next three high scorers for the Sixers after Iverson were Theo Ratliff (who was traded during the season), a 34-year-old Dikembe Mutombo and Aaron McKie. Iverson took too many shots? Really? Who else was taking them?
"I just want to thank the trainers, the doctors for helping me through," Iverson said, too. "Without those guys, I don't know if I would have been able to make it, being that I broke every bone in my body and I had every injury that you can have."
That's no surprise. Iverson averaged better than 42 minutes per game in seven different seasons, and led the league twice more at 41.5 and 41.8. To put that in perspective, since Iverson put up that 41.8 in 2007-08, no one has averaged that many minutes per game in any season.
It all caught up with him. But plenty of players without Iverson's talent stick around for longer in a part-time role. Just as Corey Beck didn't know how to categorize him at the beginning, no NBA franchise could see Iverson as a role player -- when he'd always been the entire show -- near the end. This might be a limitation of Iverson: It's almost certainly a failure of imagination from the league, too.
So Iverson stuck by the phone for three years, waiting for a call that never came. His business manager speculated Wednesday that maybe he'd be a CEO, or an executive producer. Iverson talked about being a "24/7 daddy."
But despite his insistence that he was happy, the sadness of the occasion identically marked both Iverson and his daughter from the podium. It was hard enough for Allen Iverson to figure out how to live life while making millions of dollars and protected by the bubble of a professional athlete.
No one, Iverson included, seems to know yet how to imagine him doing anything else.
And no one who ever had the pleasure of seeing him play really wants to, either. I'm going to miss watching Allen Iverson play basketball. I can only imagine how much he'll miss being Allen Iverson playing basketball.