The “We talkin ’bout practice! Not a game!” comments that then-Philadelphia 76ers’ guard Allen Iverson made to the media on May 7, 2002 have lived on for decades afterwards as a sound clip, as a reference for comedic bits, and even as a citation from people in other professional sports. But, as a few pieces explored this year around the 20th anniversary of that rant, there was more going on there than just “talking ’bout practice.” One notable one comes from Justin Tinsley at ESPN’s Andscape (formerly The Undefeated). Some highlights:
Despite baring his soul, many didn’t hear what Iverson was actually saying. Instead, he was once again seen as Iverson the knucklehead. Iverson the perpetual antagonist. And, as many referred to him back then, Iverson the thug.
“I’m upset for one reason: ’Cause I’m in here. I lost. I lost my best friend. I lost him, and I lost this year,” he said during the contentious event. “Everything is going downhill for me, as far as just that … as far as my life.”
…Twenty years ago, Iverson spoke for 35 minutes, and yet what we remember is a minute-long sound bite that completely obscures what he was going through.
The backstory behind Iverson’s frustration isn’t a mystery; he explained it that day. On Oct. 14, 2001 — just two weeks before the start of the NBA regular season — Iverson’s best friend, Rahsaan “Rah” Langford, was murdered outside a Hampton, Virginia, apartment complex. He was 29. Throughout that season, Iverson would wear black armbands with “RA” embroidered on them, tapping his friend’s initials before each free throw.
…What no one in the news conference knew then, aside from Iverson, is that the trial of his best friend’s alleged killer had started only days earlier.
“We sitting here and I’m supposed to be the franchise player,” Iverson pleaded, “and we talking about practice!”
ESPN also covered this with a Scoop Jackson video piece:
It’s notable that Iverson himself spoke to Dan Patrick about this last week, and about how he didn’t like how his remarks were interpreted:
Dan Patrick: “You didn’t like to practice either though, Allen…”
Allen Iverson: “Man, that was so off. And that was something that bothered me a lot because I think the way kids looked up to me, and the way even guys in the league looked up to me, I didn’t ever want them to think that that wasn’t important. That wasn’t the message that I was sending. Just that press conference, and they just kept asking me about the same thing and I got fed up…I couldn’t accomplish the things I’ve done without practicing. No way, couldn’t happen.”
The “practice” rant remains remarkable as one of the early cases of a press conference comment going viral, and being constantly and consistently replayed without context. But the actual context of it is absolutely worth considering, especially when it comes to Iverson taking on this press conference in the wake of a playoff loss, and referencing the death of his friend during that.
And Tinsley’s piece is worth a read for a full look at how Iverson now sees this. Iverson seems to have a lot of understanding towards the reporter who asked the question he went off on, and to even the repeated broadcasts of that clip without the context, and he admits the various failings on his end in clashes with then-Sixers’ coach Larry Brown, but he’s also a little disappointed at the media in general that the wider context of what he was trying to discuss in this particular press conference wasn’t relayed. And that’s fair; yes, absolutely, these were remarkable and unusual comments, but they didn’t indicate that Iverson never practiced or claimed there was no value to practice. So it’s interesting to look back on this with some nuance, and to look at it in the context of the various struggles around how NBA players were portrayed at that time. And it’s good to see some thoughtful looks back at this.