Tom Lemming remembers the first time he saw Allen Iverson play, back when Iverson was at Bethel High School in Hampton, Virginia. By that time, Iverson was a known quantity. Even in the talent-rich Tidewater region, in eastern Virginia, Iverson's star power stood out, and he was being discussed as a blue-chip recruit. Lemming got on a plane to see for himself.
"He had terrific reaction, instincts, loose hips, and a great vertical," Lemming told VICE Sports. "A lot of people bring it up and ask me how good he was. He was a great player. Not a good player, but a great football player."
In some alternate universe, Iverson might have become the same sort of path-breaking star in football that he ultimately would be in the NBA. The same live-wire athleticism and fearless ferocity that would make him a legend on the court—and, as of Friday's induction in Springfield, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame—made him a force on the gridiron, too. Iverson fielded scholarship offers from major college football programs at the same time as he weighed basketball offers. The choice he made wound up changing basketball, but Lemming, a well-known national football recruiting analyst for the past 38 years, believes that Iverson could have made an impact if he'd stuck with the sport that was his first love. "He would've made the NFL," Lemming said. "Who knows, he could've been an NFL Hall of Famer."
The Showtime documentary Iverson features footage of Iverson playing football on the fields at Aberdeen elementary school in Hampton for coach Gary Moore, who served as a mentor for Iverson. Moore is now Iverson's personal manager.
"From day one, he actually wanted to jump right in and play," Moore said in the documentary. "He wanted to be my star player. That aggression and that enthusiasm is what I admired most about him. When I saw him dance and move, completely reverse his field all the way back around and not allow any of those kids to touch him, that's when I really said, 'Wow, this boy's something.'"
All the local high schools recruited Iverson. He ended up at Bethel in part because Dennis Kozlowski, the school's football coach and athletics director, had coached Iverson's aunt in high school track and field.
When Iverson was a five-foot-six, 145-pound eighth grader, hundreds of fans would come out to watch him play for Bethel's junior varsity team. The next year, he started at wide receiver and safety on the varsity. In his sophomore season, Kozlowski moved Iverson to quarterback but still played him on defense. As a defensive back, Iverson tied a Virginia record by intercepting five passes in one game and helped Bethel to an undefeated regular season before losing in the first round of the playoffs.
Life away from the field wasn't as easy. Iverson's father was never around, and his mother wasn't always available; at times, he lived with the families of both Moore and basketball coach Mike Bailey, each of whom created a more structured environment. After missing too many days of school and falling behind in his classes as a freshman, Iverson turned his attendance around in his sophomore year, Kozlowski says. But midway through that football season, a police officer from nearby Newport News called Kozlowski, a friend who used to play in the same adult softball league.
"He says, 'Koz, we got Allen on tape going into a drug house in Newport News,'" Kozlowski told VICE Sports. "He says, 'We thought about pulling the car over and doing something and maybe arresting everybody in the car, but we opted not to do it. I told my superior that I wanted to call you and give you a chance to talk to him. We don't want to ruin his chances.' I told him I appreciated the call and we would keep it quiet."
That day, Kozlowski asked Iverson to come by his office after practice. When Kozlowski inquired about where Iverson had been the previous evening, Iverson said he was at a friend's house watching television. After Kozlowski told Iverson that the police had him on video, Iverson admitted he was there but denied that the drugs were for him. Kozlowski believed him.
"He said, 'My momma gave me the money to go get her drugs and I went to do it,'" Kozlowski said. "How could I chew a kid out, because even I listened to my grandmother and my mother when I was young, playing high school football in Pennsylvania, to run down to the store to get bread or get milk, because we needed it in the house. If your mother tells you to do something, you're not going to question it. You go do it. And that's what he was doing. I had to attempt to reach him through other means, such as: if you do get caught with drugs on your possession, your dream of going to play professional football or play professional basketball evaporates. It disappears, so you can never do that again."
Iverson committed himself to sports. He played basketball most of the year and only played football from August through December, which didn't seem to hinder his development. As a junior, Iverson led Bethel to the 1992 Virginia state championship against E.C. Glass High School of Lynchburg, which had lost the title game the previous year. A few days before the championship, E.C. Glass coach Bo Henson drove the 200 miles from Lynchburg to Hampton to watch Bethel's semifinal game against Huguenot. Bethel got off to a slow start and trailed 16-0 in the fourth quarter.
"Somebody looked at me and said, 'Hey, don't count 'em out. Iverson's gonna bring 'em back,'" Henson said.
Iverson did just that. He threw a touchdown pass, successfully completed a pair of two-point conversions, and ran for two touchdowns, including a two-yard quarterback sneak in overtime to clinch the 22-16 victory. Before facing Bethel, Henson clipped out newspaper articles on Iverson and placed them on the desk of Tate Gallagher, a student in his history class and E.C. Glass's starting quarterback. Gallagher and others had never heard of Iverson.
"He was trying to warn me how good this person was," Gallagher said.
When Gallagher arrived at City Stadium in Richmond, he wondered what all the fuss was about. During warm-ups, he and his teammates looked over at Iverson getting ready for the game. They weren't too impressed. "We were like, 'Man, his legs look like noodles and his arms like noodles. We got this,'" Gallagher said.
That confidence didn't survive long past kickoff. In the first quarter, Iverson ran for a touchdown and returned a punt 60 yards for another. He later intercepted two passes on defense and threw for 201 yards in Bethel's 27-0 victory, the school's first state championship since 1976. "His speed was just extraordinary," Gallagher said. "He was so quick."
Iverson's heroics didn't surprise Henson, who coached E.C. Glass for 21 years. During that time, he faced future NFL quarterback Michael Vick and receiver Ronald Curry, who was the national high school player of the year as a quarterback in 1996. Neither of those guys compared with Iverson, he says.
"I played against some great ones in 21 years," Henson said. "But he was the best that we played against, no question about it…. I feel like anytime he put his hand on the ball, he was capable of taking it to the house."
By that time, dozens of major college football and basketball coaches stopped by Bethel's practices and games to watch Iverson and woo him. Florida State envisioned Iverson as the ideal replacement for Charlie Ward, who played quarterback for the Seminoles' football team and point guard for the basketball team. After winning the 1993 Heisman trophy, Ward quit football and embarked on an 11-season NBA career.
"We were on him hard," former Florida State assistant head coach Chuck Amato told VICE Sports. "He was just a great athlete and a competitor. He would've been the first Michael Vick."
Iverson was named Virginia's high school football player of the year that season, then won the same award in basketball a few months later after averaging 31.6 points per game and leading Bethel to the state title. As it turned out, that state championship win was the last high school football game Iverson ever played.
In February of 1993, Iverson was arrested for his involvement in a brawl at a bowling alley in Hampton. The case was controversial and racially charged: racial slurs were alleged to have started the fight, and of the dozens of people involved, only Iverson and his friends, all of whom were black, were arrested; the other brawlers, who were white, were never charged. That summer, he was convicted of three felony counts and sentenced to five years in prison. Iverson spent four months at Newport News City Farm, a minimum-security jail, and in late December of 1993, Virginia governor Doug Wilder granted him conditional clemency. As part of that deal, Iverson was released from prison and allowed to finish high school, although he couldn't play high school sports. His conviction eventually was overturned by the Virginia Court of Appeals in 1995.
Iverson's legal troubles dissuaded most colleges from pursuing him. He ended up at Georgetown, where he played basketball for legendary coach John Thompson. Thompson told the Daily Press newspaper in Virginia at the time that Iverson's mother traveled to Georgetown and asked Thompson to help her son out and allow him to play for the school. Although Iverson was grateful for the opportunity, he missed football. Iverson revealed in a 2012 interview with Slam magazine that he approached Thompson during his freshman year and asked about playing for Georgetown's football team.
"He said, 'I'll tell you what I think about you playing football. If you don't get your skinny black ass the eff out of my face…you better,'" Iverson told Slam. "Just like that. I never thought about playing football again after that. I mean, he made it clear that this is not why I was here."
In hindsight, it's hard to argue that Iverson's decision to stick with basketball was anything but the right one. He was the top pick in the 1996 NBA draft, the 2001 MVP, and an 11-time All-Star; no point guard in history has a higher scoring average. There is no doubt he belongs in the Hall of Fame. And yet, even Iverson still wonders about how his football career would have turned out.
"Football is always going to be my No. 1 sport," Iverson told Doug Gottlieb of CBS Sports last May. "It was my first love. Obviously if things went another way, I probably would have ended up playing football instead of basketball, but God got his way of doing things."
If Iverson stuck with football, Kozlowski thinks he could have had a career similar to that of NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, a shutdown cornerback and one of the league's top kick returners. Still, Kozlowski doesn't blame Iverson for concentrating on basketball. "I'm ecstatic for him," says Kozlowski, who plans to watch Iverson's induction on Friday. "He deserves it for everything that he has done. One thing I can tell you is he's always played with his heart, he always played at 110 [percent], especially in football. When the game was on the line, he always gave his best."
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