How Allen Iverson convinced me to join an art show

Ben Ezugha

In the previous year, I had some monumental changes in my life. I settled into a new job, and I found a groove with my babies that helped to ease the newness of fatherhood. After the initial shock to the system from all the change, I found myself thinking about the stagnation in my personal growth. As January 1st, 2019 came and went, I began conceptualizing ways to push myself. God (or “The Universe”) heard my inner plea, and decided to test my willingness to try something I’ve never done before; and I accepted.

A mutual friend on Facebook posted about an art show he was hosting that needed artists to submit work. I have been to a couple of his shows in the past (generally a mash up of different pop culture themes) and I’ve always left with the question: “If I were to do this, what would I do?” This time, the topic of the show —NBA legend, Allen Iverson— was enough for me to give it a shot.

“This Bronze is Worth More Than Gold: An Art Show for Allen Iverson and All Unsung Heroes”, is a show intended to “highlight overlooked greatness. This includes athletes who never won rings, directors who never won Oscars, presidential candidates that came up short and whatever else our city's talented artists can come up with.” To me, there was no doubt on what I wanted to tackle. Allen Iverson was one of the first black athletes who was unapologetically black. Michael Jordan, Eddie Murphy, and Michael Jackson spent the 80’s proving that black people could profit millions in the sports and entertainment industry. They were phenoms that alerted Corporate America that black artists and entertainers could in fact push pop culture. Even though they were black icons, they were polished, branded entities. None of them totally embraced the culture and the essence of blackness as it stood. The 1990’s broadened that scope for more African Americans to enter the superstar stratosphere behind them, but it was a time where if you wanted to be the face of a brand, and you had a black face, you had to be clean cut and media savvy. Non-threatening towards a white audience. Iverson was not that in the slightest.

From Hampton, Virginia, Iverson was an east coast guy. At the time, east coast rap and style dominated the music scene. He was drafted in 1996 to the Philadelphia 76ers, a franchise whose fans are blue collar and traditionally known for supporting the athletes that played hard with their city’s name on their chest. He was the dubbed as the “anti-hero” during the final stretch of Jordan’s second 3-peat with the Chicago Bulls. Iverson challenged the establishment on the court as much as he did off of it. At his peak, his street style was in full display as he accepted the MVP trophy in 2001 in baggy sweats and a du-rag. That moment of unmitigated blackness prompted the league commissioner to mandate a dress policy to suppress a style that had already permeated through a league that was 80% black, in attempts to make his athletes appear more “professional”. Before Iverson; only rappers of the thuggish-ruggish variety wore cornrows. After Iverson; suburban, middle class black kids were wearing cornrows in their hair. Even some white kids had it too. He was the first in the NBA to go all out tattooed. He was the first to debut a shooter sleeve and 3/4 to full length compression tights (a style now commonplace in the NBA and the blacktop). He was the first in line of many shoot-first point guards who’s strength relied in his ball handling, quickness, and midrange shooting, in a league that would soon value analytics and high percentage shots. Before Black Lives Matter started the tidal wave for self-love, appreciation, and “wokeness” amongst Black Americans in recent memory, Iverson was being himself, raw and uncut, before social media gave regular people platforms to do it themselves. And for that, he became a cultural giant.  

My take on Allen Iverson for this art show was to depict him as a Christ-like figure. Looking up somberly to the heavens with a crown of thorns on his head. In sports, we value rings culture so much, that we overlook those who gave it their all and fell short. The very thing that made him unique on the court, also doomed him from obtaining a championship: a franchise committed to building around a high volume shooting, six-foot guard. My contribution to the show is to say that he may not go down as an NBA champion, but his legacy paved the way for the current crop of NBA point guards to be more aggressors than facilitators. Out of the dress policy made to stymie who he knew himself to be, came the flowers that blossomed into a fashion renaissance that we see on Instagram today. They all look like him and play like him on the court, while following his blueprint of branded individuality off of it. Some may see the image and understand the theme, but as a practicing Catholic, I know others might consider it to be sacrilegious. I don’t care. It’s art.

There’s only so much of the status quo you can take before it becomes stale. And if you were in middle school/high school in the mid 90’s, and you were black, you saw the impact Iverson and Reebok had that was an alternative from the clean cut, corporate, bald head, hoop earring of Michael Jordan. It was raw. It was real.

I only hope my piece reflects that.

Come see the show, Saturday, March 2nd at the Speakeasy Bar in Oklahoma City. 7pm!