This ain’t Bill Russell we’re talking about here. It was Allen Iverson who famously dissed Coach Brown ten years ago this past May 7, 2002, and I still can’t help but laugh. If there is one player this side of Wilt Chamberlain who personified everything that goes against what being a Boston Celtic is all about, it’s our main man A.I. Imagine if Larry Bird had pulled something like that. Or Reggie Lewis. Or John Havlicek. Or Bob Cousy. You get the point…
Still, the Iverson rant is as funny today as it was back in the day. The video below — and any other existing clip that happens to be floating around on YouTube—can’t do justice to Allen Iverson’s press conference of May 7, 2002. The Practice Rant has come down through the years as a scattering of hilariously defiant, repetitious sound bites. But what made it a masterpiece was the entirety of it, a rapid-fire burst of genuine emotion that lasted for roughly 30 minutes. We’re probably never going to see the likes of it again.
By the year 2002, press conferences had become exercises in rote non-communication—canned rituals of questions and answers designed to get a short clip worth showing on SportsCenter, or a quote or two for most print reporters to fill space as deadline loomed. Meltdowns were increasingly rare, since a PR person could step in at any moment and end the whole thing before it flew off the rails, or someone would miss an opportunity to ask just the right follow-up question by bringing the conversation away from the matter at hand. But none of that was an issue here. There was just no stopping The Practice Rant.
The 76ers had been eliminated in the first round of the NBA playoffs four days earlier, the anvil finally landing with a 33-point knockout loss to the Celtics. It was the year after Iverson was the league’s MVP, the year after he had willed a mediocre roster to the Finals with one of the more extraordinary individual playoff performances in history. That Iverson sacrificed his tiny body for 48 minutes every night was never an issue. But now Sixers coach Larry Brown had said that Iverson has “got to change,” that he “has to be practicing, he has to set the example.” The love-hate relationship between Iverson and Brown was an old story by then, but now the coach was talking about players who “simply won’t be here” if they aren’t “responsible enough and sensitive enough to their teammates to be on time, to practice, to prepare.” Iverson simply couldn’t take it anymore.
Sports Illustrated still has an online transcript of The Practice Rant in all its glory here. Iverson began by saying he’s not going to “feed into this stuff” and “do any talking.” But as the reporters’ questions turned to the nature of his practice habits—fair game, since the media were not permitted to view practice and instead had to rely on Brown for most details—Iverson suddenly couldn’t stop talking. He would say the word “practice” more than 20 times in a span of two minutes, yes. But he also promised to come back the following season as the “biggest, strongest bodybuilder in the world,” at one point asking, “If I come back next year and look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, will y’all give me the MVP automatically?” A Sixers PR person eventually tried to change the subject, but Iverson insisted on continuing. He might not have enjoyed what was happening, but he was certainly relishing the opportunity to speak his mind, consequences be damned. The exchange devolved so far that Iverson ridiculously asked Phil Jasner, the late, great beat man for the Philadelphia Daily News, about his own playing career.
The next day, the Daily News published a column by Rich Hofmann that included these words:
Iverson is feisty and he is proud—and he doesn’t care who knows it. Iverson is also a little bit blind to some things and a little bit thin-skinned about others—and he doesn’t care who knows that, either.
You get the sense he’s like the rest of us—he likes to be liked. But what makes him different from most of us is that he isn’t willing to tell you what you want to hear so that you’ll like him. And he makes that emphatically clear on a daily basis.
Hofmann ended his column by contrasting Iverson’s rant with that scene from Bull Durham in which Crash Davis instructs Nuke LaLoosh on how to talk to the press by saying as little as possible:
Crash: “It’s time you started working on your interviews.”
Nuke: “What do I gotta do?”
Crash: “Learn your cliches. Study them. Know them. They’re your friends…Write this down: ‘We gotta play ‘em one day at a time.’ “
Crash: “Of course. That’s the point.”
“That’s exactly the point,” Hofmann concluded. Ten years on, more so than ever.