Allen Iverson will always be remembered as the cornrowed, tattooed NBA great who became a cultural icon for his refusal to conform as much as for his amazing career as the best pound-for-pound scorer in NBA history.
He also may never be fully redeemed from the bad or sad stories that follow him -- his many denials that he has financial troubles, the reports that he has problems with alcohol and gambling, the court testimony during his 2012 divorce proceedings about what a bad husband and father he was to his childhood sweetheart, Tawanna, and their five children.
But when Iverson made a rare public appearance to accept the Game Changer Award at the inaugural National Basketball Players Association's Players Awards on Tuesday night in Las Vegas, he captivated the room with a poignant speech that deserves to be remembered as much as his infamous 2002 "We're talking about practice" rant.
On this night, anyway, the 40-year-old Iverson quit pretending he is beyond all his troubles. As he looked out at the room full of his peers -- most of them active players, many of whom grew up idolizing him -- what he said after thanking them for remembering him was laced with perspective and humility, a quality he's not been known for.
Iverson started by thanking his idol, Michael Jordan, and explaining, "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be on this stage. I wouldn't have had the vision to be a basketball player. So I love him for that, and I honor him for that."
As he continued, paying homage to other former rivals and today's players, what became achingly clear is Iverson still yearns to play even now, even though he's five seasons removed from his last NBA game. "I had a conversation with God,'' Iverson said with a wistful smile, "and I asked him if can he let me come back as A.I. and sprinkle a little M.J. on me, a little LeBron mixed with some Melo and Kevin Durant, with Steph Curry's jump shot and handle -- ha -- and Chris Paul's toughness." And everyone clapped and laughed along with him.
But Iverson switched gears almost immediately and grew serious, as if the idea he was never going to play anymore hit him all over again. He talked about what life without basketball is like. The room grew silent as he spoke.
"When I leave outta the crib every day, people always ask me, 'What's up, A.I.?' And I tell them the same thing 99.9 percent of the time," Iverson said. "I tell them, 'The same fight. Different round.' And that's what it is, you know?
"This world is a world title fight, you know what I mean? And some rounds are A's. Some days, you're gonna get knocked down. Some rounds going to be good, some gonna be bad. But the only thing that matters is getting back up. And fighting again."
The assurance that he hasn't given up fighting drew more loud applause -- mostly because it hasn't always been clear these past three or four years, especially, if Iverson still has the resolve to fight his way out of his troubles.
There's been a Showtime documentary that he promoted that fondly remembered what an amazing player he was on the way to winning the league's 2001 MVP award and four scoring titles. But there has also been a damning book that chronicled the rougher parts of the story of how a 6-foot, 165-pound kid like him willed himself to be one of the best players in the world.
There have been numerous published reports that people close to Iverson are deeply concerned about him. Past teammates and dear friends from his 76ers days, such as team executive Pat Croce, said they tried to keep in touch, but often Iverson wouldn't answer for weeks, if at all. During divorce proceedings, his eldest daughter asked to live with him because she feared he'd become too reclusive. Larry Brown, Philadelphia's coach when Iverson drove the Sixers to the '01 NBA Finals opposite the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers, told The Washington Post, "I worry about him. A lot."
Even John Thompson, the former Georgetown coach who stuck his neck out for Iverson and gave him a scholarship despite a felony conviction for his part in a 1993 bowling alley brawl, typically refuses to discuss his ex-player with reporters, except to restate how deeply he cares about him. (After he spent four months in prison for the '93 brawl, Iverson was later given clemency by Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder.)
Iverson lost custody of his children in the divorce proceedings. But before long it leaked out that he and Tawanna were talking again, then even vacationing together again in Hawaii with at least one of their children.
Today, a rapprochement seems to have been reached.
Tawanna was in the audience Tuesday when Iverson picked up his award, and in his closing, he acknowledged her and everyone else who has kept the faith in him:
"I want to thank my family, my friends, this is a tribute to y'all and my fans for believing in me and helping me get to this point. My kids. I want to thank y'all for being that crutch when everything is not going so well. I get to come home and see y'all and use you as a crutch.
"I also want to thank Tawanna Iverson," he said. When he turned toward where she sat in the crowd, she smiled back.
"I met her at 16 years old and we still here, baby. I love you."
Iverson is still here, all right. Maybe he's even approaching the point where he genuinely realizes all the things he accomplished and all the crazy stuff he's done was -- to borrow a phrase from him -- just practice, people. We're talkin' about practice.
Maybe it was practice for the man he has yet to become.