-- SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- We celebrate Allen Iverson for his authenticity and then, as his sport bestowed its highest honor on him Friday night, he deceived us.
We thought he held it together during his Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement speech. He started off with watery eyes and voice even more gravelly?than normal, then he seemed to gain strength as he powered through a half-hour's worth of memories and appreciation. But we couldn't see what was happening behind the podium.
"My legs were shaking the whole time," Iverson confided after the ceremony that featured him, Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming, Sheryl Swoopes and Tom Izzo.
It was so important to him that he get this right, that he thank everyone who helped him get here. The whole thing still felt so surreal to him, even after it was over, even as he clutched the Hall of Fame trophy that he can add to the Hall of Fame ring and Hall of Fame jacket he picked up this week -- evidence upon evidence that he belongs among the all-time greats in his sport.
He stood in a stairwell, just off the Springfield Symphony Hall stage, waiting for the go-ahead to exit the building and climb into an SUV for the after-party. Whatever poise he had summoned to get through his speech was gone now. I covered Iverson throughout his two seasons at Georgetown and covered him in the NBA Finals and I had never seen him look like this, so bewildered, so ... shook.
That's the thing with Iverson: You never knew when the emotions might pour out.
He really came unglued the night before, during the annual dinner for the week's other honorees. Chris Paul, who received an award for community service along with Jalen Rose and Tubby Smith, became emotional himself upon his first visit to the Hall of Fame, overwhelmed by how small his place felt in the grand history of the sport. Paul looked down the stage at Iverson seated at a table in the front row and recalled how he once wanted to be like him, to the point he begged his mom to buy him a pair of Iverson's signature Reebok shoes. That did it for Iverson, who buried his face in his hand and started crying. It wasn't the first time he had heard a story like that, but listening to a great player like Paul describe how much Iverson meant to him, well, that got to Iverson.
When it was his turn to speak Friday night, Iverson had a chance to tell his three Hall of Fame presenters how much they meant to him.
He thanked Georgetown coach John Thompson "for saving my life, for giving me the opportunity."
He distilled his oft-contentious relationship with coach Larry Brown down to its most important element: "Once I started to listen to him the way I'm supposed to and was coached by him, that's when I became an MVP."
He paid his highest compliments to Julius Erving: "Just a great, great man. Handsome, old-school dude too."
The rest of his speech followed a traditional template but with a distinct Iverson flare. His thank-yous to his friends included shoutouts to Jughead, Stanky Wanky and Stump. He invoked imagery from the "Chappelle's Show" Rick James sketches to describe his first encounter with Michael Jordan. And in a Hall of Fame first, he said, "I want to thank Biggie Smalls, Redman, Jadakiss, Tupac and Michael Jackson for being my theme music throughout my career."
Iverson was struck by the same realization that hits so many people at the moment of their greatest individual recognition: It's the product of almost everyone but them.
Izzo took it a step further, thanking not only his family, his mentors and his players, but the game of basketball itself.
"It's allowed so many of us to live our wildest dreams," Izzo said.
Because of the sport, Izzo has traveled the world, met presidents, even played a game aboard an aircraft carrier.
"Basketball can be humbling," Izzo said. "It's taught me to laugh, to celebrate victory. It's also taught me to cry and handle defeat with class."
Shaq could have taken his show-closing speech in a number of different ways, but he opted for funny. (Shaq loves making fun of Iverson's "practice" rant, but Yao beat Shaq to it when he led off with a wisecrack that Iverson should have made the first speech, because Yao needed more time to practice). A friend of Shaq's said Shaq chose to go the funny route in part as a defense mechanism to avoid getting too emotional. So Shaq riffed on his sage-burning coach Phil Jackson, who once told him sage is the cousin of cannabis, so "Starting today, Phil and I will be opening medicinal sage dispensaries across the country."
He zinged his old ally/rival Kobe Bryant, calling him a guy "that pushed me and helped me win three titles in a row. ... He also helped me get pushed off the team and get me traded."
It felt like something out of a roast.
He squeezed in one last retort to the chorus of critics he heard during his career, whom he quoted in a whiny voice as saying, Shaq, bend your knees. Shaq, concentrate. Shaq, play defense:
He recalled the unprintable name his high school coaches always called him. He told a humorous tale of the time he drew unexpected inspiration from Dick Vitale. He talked about the time he did a Buick commercial, even though he couldn't really fit in the car.
"Hey, they paid me $3 million," Shaq said. "What, you want me to say no?"
No, we want you to keep being Shaq, just like we want Iverson to be Iverson, Yao to be Yao.
Yao gave such a stellar speech in his second language that the one time he stumbled and apologized, the crowd gave him a rousing cheer of appreciation/encouragement.
These players' personalities were always as important as their game, to the point that it didn't feel sad that they're no longer capable of duplicating the highlights that played in their introductory videos. They're still capable of making us relate to them or laugh with them thanks to their words.
Most of all, Iverson still grabs us with his persistence in the face of his own vulnerability.