PHILADELPHIA – John Wall first met Allen Iverson at Reebok headquarters in Boston about four years ago, when Wall was a peach-fuzzed 19-year-old who had just completed his freshman year at Kentucky and Iverson was still a legendary figure who, unbeknownst to many, had already played his final game in the NBA.
At the time, Wall was a shoe free agent, on his way toward becoming the No. 1 overall pick, and exploring his options in search of the right company to serve as the foundation for his personal brand. Iverson was the closer on the deal, sent in by executives to convince Wall to become part of the Reebok family.
“He came up and had a long talk with me,” Wall recalled on the night that the Philadelphia 76ers raised Iverson’s No. 3 jersey to the rafters at Wells Fargo Center. “He told me how he always wore Jordans and Nikes and Adidas and all that, but those were the people that had been loyal to him and he wanted to do something different. I think that’s what made A.I. who he is. He did things his way and didn’t want to let nobody else change him.”
Wall had spent so much of his youth wanting to become Iverson that he was in complete awe to be in his presence for the first time.
“Nervous,” Wall said of his emotions on that afternoon in June 2010. “You really don’t say too much. Just agreeing on everything he’s saying. But after a while he opened up and he respected my game and I told him, he was my favorite player.”
Wall eventually committed to a five-year, $25 million deal with Reebok, which used Iverson’s image in an animated commercial that signaled the 2001 NBA most valuable player was passing the baton to a kid almost 15 years his junior. Wall has since severed his ties with Reebok, switching over to Adidas last year. But Wall couldn’t deny his affinity for Iverson and the influence that he had on Wall’s game on a memorable night in Philadelphia.
With Iverson in the same arena on Saturday, Wall had to contain his emotions to avoid doing too much.
“That’s the player I looked up to, more than anybody else, in my era. A role model, why I enjoyed watching basketball,” Wall said after scoring 17 points and handing out a career-high 16 assists in the Wizards’ 122-103 win over the 76ers. “I looked up to him, being a small guard. That’s who I took a lot of my game from.”
Wall admitted that, because of Iverson, he had braided hair so long that, “I looked like a girl.” Since he didn’t hit his growth spurt until before his junior year, Wall always identified with Iverson. He claims that he was about 5-feet-6 as a freshman in high school, so he developed a similarly reckless style of play – while also wearing headbands and arm sleeves to resemble the 11-time all-star and four-time scoring champion.
“Only thing I didn’t have was the tattoos,” Wall said.
These days, Wall still wears an arm sleeve but his style of play is vastly different from Iverson’s. The 6-4 Wall is a dynamic point guard content with setting up his teammates rather than being 6-0 virtuoso on a relentless pursuit to score and score again.
But they are both incredible athletes and excitable competitors and it was hard not to think about Iverson’s step over Tyronn Lue in the 2001 NBA Finals when Wall blocked Kyle Lowry’s shot at the end of the first overtime in Wednesday’s triple overtime victory in Toronto and made sure he walked over him.
When asked on Saturday how he would’ve defended Iverson, Wall got momentarily stumped and nearly cursed. “Man, sh-oo-oot. I don’t know. Try to use my length,” Wall said with a shrug. “But that didn’t work for too many people that tried. He has that fearless effort that he doesn’t care who’s in front of him, that nobody can stop him and he found ways to attack that basket at 160 pounds. I think that’s where I get my edge, don’t care who’s down there, I’m going to attack.”
Wall was honored to be in Philadelphia playing on the night that Iverson joined the other 76ers legends by having his number retired. Iverson has had difficult adjustment to life after basketball, but he is still revered in the city where spent more than 10 seasons and admired by a crop of 20-somethings ready to leave their own mark on the league.
“It’s emotional, it’s a dream come true for him with the tough times he’s been through,” Wall, 23, said. “This city embraced him. Let him be who is a person, they respected him. No matter what he did the night before, he always came out and gave his best effort. That’s something you can never knock from nobody or take from somebody that had a heck of a career like he did.”