TORONTO — Two wildly popular basketball icons—one a pint-sized backcourt scorer, the other a 50-gallon drum of low-post diesel—have taken a major step toward entering the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame announced at its annual All-Star Weekend press event Friday that Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal are the headliners in the 2016 class of finalists for induction. Final selections for induction will be made during the NCAA Final Four in April.
Iverson, 40, was a nine-time All-Star and four-time scoring champion who led the Sixers to the 2001 Finals. He retired from the NBA in 2010 with career averages of 26.7 PPG and 6.2 APG over 14 seasons before continuing his career overseas.
O’Neal, 43, won four titles with the Lakers and Heat, earning 15 All-Star selections, an MVP and three Finals MVP awards before retiring in 2011. He averaged 23.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG and 2.3 BPG during a 19-year career.
The contrasts between the two legends were evident when they were welcomed to a stage that was littered with Hall of Famers like Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas and Reggie Miller. Iverson struck a purposefully casual look, dressed in a blue Reebok T-shirt, gold chains, jeans and a navy New York Yankees hat. O’Neal wore a dark suit and tie, as if ready to take the set for TNT’s Inside The NBA. When the 6-foot Iverson, often called the NBA’s “pound for pound” best, hugged former NBA referee Dick Bavetta, the two men practically saw eye to eye. The larger-than-life O’Neal, meanwhile, drew a wisecrack about his size from Yao Ming, his fellow 7-footer.
But both men looked and sounded at ease while discussing their assumed inductions and thanking their parents—Iverson singled out his mother while O’Neal praised his recently deceased stepfather—for supporting them.
“I’m a product of Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, and all of those guys who paved the way for us,” Iverson said. “They might not have an idea of what they did for us as kids who wanted to be like them.”
O’Neal reiterated the message of gratitude, although he put a sarcastic twist on it for the sake of the assembled cameras.
“I want to thank all these guys on stage for inspiring me so much, except Rick Barry,” he said. “He came to LSU and wanted me to shoot free throws underhanded. I couldn’t do it, Rick. I would rather shoot 0%.”
Later, he turned his ire in Bavetta’s direction.
“Dick Bavetta, I don’t like you either,” O’Neal cracked. “You gave me 10 technicals and threw me out of games twice.”
Joining Iverson and O’Neal as 2016 Hall of Fame finalists are: NBA All-Star Kevin Johnson, WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes, coach Tom Izzo, coach John McLendon, coach Lefty Driesell, coach Leta Jones, coach Robert Hughes, coach Muffet McGraw, coach Bo Ryan, coach Eddie Sutton, referee Darrell Garretson and Wayland Baptist University.
When Iverson took the stage, he saw Johnson and immediately launched into story time, recalling a demoralizing loss to the former Suns guard during his rookie year.
“I remember what he did to me,” Iverson said, referring to a Feb. 26, 1997, game against the Suns. “Maurice Cheeks was our [assistant] coach. I was crying, honestly. That was the only time someone destroyed me like that. Maurice Cheeks told me, ‘Don’t worry about it AI. One day you’ll give somebody 36, 9 and 9.’ That’s what he did to me.”
The public telling of this vignette was a considerate gesture by Iverson, who is adored by the league’s current players for his scoring ability, perseverance and authenticity. On Thursday night, he held court at a party in a Toronto high rise, sharing huts and taking pictures with the likes of James Harden, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade.
“To me, it’s his toughness, his fight and his spirit, night after night after night,” said Hall of Fame chairman Jerry Colangelo, when asked what sets Iverson apart. “His tenacity. … He was as nasty as they come on the floor because of his ability to get anywhere he wanted to on the court. And he was a big time scorer.”
For O’Neal, the Big Aristotle, everything was always big, big, big during his supersized career: Big-time scorer, big-time rebounder, big-time shot-blocker, big-time actor and rapper, big-time markets, big-time winning, big-time partnerships with Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. None of it would have happened, O’Neal said, if not for a 7-foot center with career averages of 4.5 PPG and 4.9 RPG.
“Football was my sport [in high school],” O’Neal said. “I wanted to play football, never wanted to play basketball. … Then Jon Koncak signed $15 million for three [years]. I wasn’t that smart, but I knew that was $5 million a year. … So I started playing basketball [and] I just wanted to be like the greats like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.”
When the Hall of Fame presentation and photo op finished, Iverson made a beeline for the door, with a small pack of reporters chasing after him. Because he didn’t want to jinx his official selection, Iverson refused to open up about his emotions, repeatedly saying, “I ain’t giving y’all that one.”
But the same excitement over the possibility of induction that appeared in O’Neal’s voice, as he described the legendary centers that inspired him, came through in Iverson’s best one-liner from the event.
“We may be seeing you later this summer,” NBA TV’s Rick Kamla told Iverson, referring to the Hall of Fame induction in September.
“Maybe,” Iverson replied, in deadpan fashion. “Where?”
“Springfield …” Kamla shot back.
“Oh, I hope so,” Iverson said, a wide smile crossing his face.