Saturday , Oct , 20 , 2007 C.Y. Ellis

Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant: What Makes Them So Different?

Arguably the two best guards of their generation, and certainly among the most talented basketball players of all-time, Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant have been compared and contrasted throughout their careers. Both were members of the elite 1996-97 NBA Draft class and came into the league with a huge buzz around them. They were remarkably gifted scorers and all-around players, and exhibited looks and charms that would make them mainstream stars with a large fan base. Their similarities end here, as both men come from different backgrounds and upbringings that have certainly played a role in shaping their unique and disparate personalities.

Born in Philadelphia, Kobe Bryant would move to Italy at the age of 6, where he played soccer until his return to the United States seven years later.  After a fruitful high school basketball career, the 17 year-old phenom declared for the NBA draft and was selected 13th by the Charlotte Hornets, who later traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers.  Part of his appeal was his natural basketball skills; he was an exciting player with a distinguished scoring ability and possessed an arsenal of creative dunks.  Slam Magazine described him as “the kid with the Magic smile and the Jordan moves”, comparisons which he was more than likely aware of, especially since his personality traits evoked those of these two basketball legends.  Charming, respectful, agreeable, yet also cocky, Bryant was a marketer’s dream.  His youth, combined with his athletic talents and media-darling public image, enabled him to secure endorsement deals with Sprite, McDonald’s, and Adidas.  Further contributing to his fame was his Slam Dunk Contest victory in his rookie season and his selection as starter in the1998 All-Star game. Despite not being a starter for his own team, Bryant’s excellent performance in the game demonstrated that he was indeed a force in the league, even while being the youngest player in NBA History to start an All-Star game.   

Allen Iverson’s pre-NBA days were radically different from Bryant’s.  In Valentine’s Day 1993, Iverson was allegedly involved in an incident in which a fight erupted between white and black people on different sides of an argument.  He was accused of hitting a woman with a chair, and if convicted, would haven likely been incarcerated.  Thankfully, the accusations were considered to be racially motivated, and his conviction was overturned on appeal when the governor granted him clemency.  Although it seemed that this incident would likely be forgotten, it was detrimental to Iverson’s image and marked the first time that he would prove to be controversial.  After two spectacular seasons in Georgetown University, Iverson was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the first pick in the 1996 NBA draft.  He made his presence felt immediately and was awarded the Rookie of the Year trophy.  Although his feats on the court were almost universally respected, his image was disliked by many.  As opposed to Bryant, who displayed elegant attire and a non-threatening aura, Iverson dressed in baggy clothes with visible jewelry, and sported a vast amount of tattoos. 

As is the case with many talented scorers, both players have been criticized for depriving their teammates of scoring opportunities by taking excessive shots and not distributing the ball enough.  It is important to note that Iverson entered the NBA as a point guard, and averaged 7.5 assists per game in his rookie season as a result.  When his team needed him to contribute more points than assists, he was moved to the shooting guard position and instructed to be more aggressive offensively, so his assists numbers went down.  During his tenure as the Sixers’ shooting guard, he was never the victim of much, if any, contempt by his teammates in terms of his alleged selfishness.  Bryant, however, was constantly referred to by Shaquille O’Neal, Phil Jackson and others as egotistic, individualistic, and even “uncoachable”.  This contrasts sharply with their public personas, as Iverson was seen as an immature and irresponsible thug because of his outspokenness, style of dress, and off-court problems.  On the other hand, Bryant was seen as a decent young man who kids could look up to, a reputation that was threatened when he was accused of rape in 2003.  As a result of this situation, his endorsement deals with McDonald’s and Nutella vanished.  His squeaky-clean image potentially shattered, Bryant apologized publicly for the incident, but maintained his innocence, and was eventually cleared of all charges with no major backlash.   

This was Bryant’s first and only brush with the law, coming more than ten years after Iverson was charged with participating in the Valentine’s Day brawl.  Through his career Iverson was also accused of carrying concealed weapons and marihuana on more than one occasion.  In the year 2000, he added to his resume of controversial events by releasing a rap song that included violent and homophobic lyrics.  He defended his use of language as an intrinsic example of ghetto life, but due to all the unnecessary negative attention he fell victim too, decided to change the lyrics, only to never officially release the song.  In contrast, Bryant released a family-friendly rap song in which he collaborated with supermodel and television star Tyra Banks. 

Another key difference between both players is the role they each have played in their respective teams.  Bryant’s role has changed considerably throughout the years.  In his first two seasons, he played coming off the bench, and only emerged as a powerful offensive option in his third and fourth years in the league.  Even as his skills continued to improve, he was still not the main focus within his team’s offense for the next four years, a role he would enjoy only after the 2004-05 season, when Shaquille O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat.  Iverson, meanwhile, was a scoring point guard in his rookie season, and later became a high-scoring shooting guard solely responsible for the majority of his team’s offensive output.  He would revert to the point guard position during the last years of his days with the Sixers, but scoring was still the focal point of his style of play. 

Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson represent opposite types of the modern professional athlete.  While some public figures choose to cater to the masses and avoid conflict, others use their fame as an outlet to explicitly address the issues of their concern and feel comfortable presenting their true selves to the public.  Their dissimilarity makes them unique individuals within the basketball world, and judgment of their actions and/or lifestyles should not overshadow the appreciation of their athletic skill.