Apart from his cultural impact, crossovers, and toughness, the soon-to-be officially retired Allen Iverson will be best remembered for the infamous "Practice?" press conference after the Philadelphia 76ers exit from the 2002 playoffs. It became an iconic moment if only because a high-profile athlete defied the conventional wisdom that practice is an essential part of preparing for a game. Yet it also served as a distillation of Iverson's personality and public image. For those who already didn't like Iverson, it proved that he was selfish and a bad influence on an entire generation of young athletes. For those inclined to appreciate him, it showed his unwillingness to compromise or tell the public what standards dictated they wanted to hear.
On Wednesday night, another of the era's greatest guards claimed to have had some influence on Iverson's line of thinking about practice. During a segment on "Fox Sports Live," nine-time NBA All-Star and new Fox commentator Gary Payton said he gave Iverson advice on remaining able to play while fighting through injuries and fatigue. In Payton's opinion, Iverson ran with that rationale and ended up with one of the most memorable press conferences in sports history.
Watch the clip above — Payton explains it at the 2:20 mark — and join us after the jump for the full quote.
Gary Payton: "We were out somewhere on a summer, and we were all out having a good time. And we had a little bit too many, and he asked me 'How do you keep your body in so good of a shape and don't get hurt and stay always on the court?' And I just told him for real, my coach George Karl didn't let me practices. So that was it — I said 'You have to stop practicing.'"
Andy Roddick: "So what was your reaction after you saw the press conference?"
Payton: "Oh no, not this. Don't say it like that, Allen! Don't do it like that! But when he said it, I said 'No, That was not our conversation.' [...]
"And I've seen the interview, and I said 'No, don't do that to me.' And then all of a sudden it gets back to Larry Brown, and Larry Brown approaches me when we played them and says I'd created something. ... I said 'Coach, I did not create that. I told him what my coach let me do, and I know you're a different coach. So don't get that to me. Don't do that.'"
Roddick: "What if you'd said 'Coach, I was drunk, I don't know what I said.'"
Payton: "I should have just said 'Coach, I'm drunk. That's all I'm saying, coach. I was drunk.'"
Ah, yes, the infamous "I was drunk" defense. It never fails!
If we take Payton's story at its word, then it appears that he is not really to blame for Iverson's comments. NBA players have made a habit of sitting out practice (or serving as light participants), particularly during the later stages of the season when nagging injuries pile up and a team's top producers must log as many minutes as possible. Payton's initial advice was logical and helpful, which is why Iverson's press conference was always more shocking for the way he said these things than for its actual argument.
It's this difference between logic and image that points to what made Iverson such a fascinating player and public figure. In many ways, he was the sort of athlete fans say they crave: a hard worker willing to sacrifice his body for production, with the confidence to take big shots and put the team on his back when necessary. However, Iverson presented himself as an outsider and representative of a hip-hop culture that many fans weren't ready to accept. In the press conference, he could have made Payton's argument, maybe received some criticism from people who don't understand the realities of NBA competition, and gone on his merry way. But Iverson never made this sort of thing easy.
That's what made him a lightning rod for criticism, but it's also why he will be remembered as one of the most watchable and essential athletes of his era. He defined several cultural arguments of the time and bled authenticity. The majority of us considered his retirement official years ago, but we pay tribute to him now because, no matter what, Iverson's word carries a great deal of weight. If he's ready to accept the end, then we know it's true.