Allen Iverson once got his hair braided in the middle of an NBA game. I'm not sure what year it was or at what point in the season — just that there's a low-res photo of him sitting on the bench in his 76ers uniform, with a towel draped around his shoulders and his mother's hands working on six perfect cornrows. Neither seems particularly bothered. Anecdotes like this one — and there are many other almost-unbelievable instances of his not giving a fuck — informed his reputation, almost moreso than the nasty crossover and water-wet shot he deployed across 14 seasons in the NBA. His sheer skill as a player was overshadowed by his larger-than-life personality, and by his unwillingness to bend to the coded racism that got him called a "thug" for his love of hip-hop, for his baggy pants, and for the tattoos that covered his body.
Now, 20 years after Iverson was drafted as a first-round pick, the narrative has changed. The swagger that he introduced into the NBA has become almost a given in the league, and it's easier to celebrate him as a phenomenon who earned 11 All-Star appearances, an M.V.P. title, and several awards for scoring and stealing (that he never won a championship ring feels like an error on the universe's part). In September, Iverson was inducted into the Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, he delivered a touching, remarkably honest speech thanking his family, peers, and fans.
To coincide with what feels like the beginning of a new chapter in Iverson's life and his re-emergence into the public eye, photographer Gary Land is releasing A.I., a 272-page photo book chronicling years of A.I.'s professional and personal life. Land, who has gone on to become a célèbre sports photographer, first met Iverson early in both of their careers. He then became his life, on and off the court; the pair developed an easy familiarity and "became boys," Land told me. That comfort changed everything, giving him access to a man known to bail on photo shoots and corporate obligations. You can see that relationship in many of the photos, which range from grainy shots from the early days to glossy images from Reebok campaigns. When I recently spoke with him over the phone, Land expanded on the pair's unique relationship, what A.I. was like away from the hardwood, and why this was the right time to look back on his enduring legacy as a player and an American.
Do you remember the first time you met Allen Iverson?
Yeah. It was 1998, and I was just an employee for Reebok. It was just before digital so my job was to manage their photo archives. I was asked to attend a photoshoot in New York City with Allen [to learn how the process works]. I ended up bringing my little Pentax K1000 and a roll of film. I was the low man on the totem pole. Literally, like, I shouldn't have been there in the first place. was in an elevator or something and I heard one of the PAs saying, "Yeah, his car is pulling up."And I was like, "Holy shit." I got off on the next floor and ran down the stairs hoping I could get a glimpse of him. Nobody was out there and I saw this limo pull up. I saw him get out the car and I walked up to him and pointed my camera in his face. He put his hands up like a boxer would and that was the first photo I took of him.
Then we went back inside and I introduced myself and he just was just like, "Yeah cool, whatever." Then I went to my house and developed the film and made some prints and hung them up in my cube [at work]. And the president of the company walked by and was like, "What the hell is that?" Next thing you know, she's like, "These are amazing, can we use these?" I was like, "Yeah, sure." One of them was used in Rolling Stone magazine for an ad. From that moment on, they were like, "Get Gary to shoot this, get Gary to shoot that."
Life has taught him, rightfully, to be skeptical of a lot of people. How did you go about trying to earn his trust in the beginning?
I think it's just not taking advantage of him. A lot of people that would try to shoot Allen would just be like, "Holy shit, I'm shooting Allen. I'm just gonna shoot everything and overdo it." With me, I could just feel his vibe of not wanting to be there and just wanting to live his life, of not wanting to be in the spotlight. So, I would get what I needed to get and we were done. I think I earned his respect; he knew that I had his best interests [in mind]. I didn't overstep my boundaries and I respected him as a person.
How did your relationship with him evolve over the years after that first day of putting the camera in his face?
It kind of evolved naturally. Because I love basketball, we'd always have a lot of things to talk about. He was a very busy guy but if we had some down time he'd be like, "G, come on" and then I'd have to give my camera to somebody and we'd go play ball. I was that dude where he would just be like, “OK, I can shut it off and just be myself with G. He's nobody special.” I felt like I was honest and pure and innocent as he was in his mind so it's just this weird connection that we had. I felt like he kind of enjoyed the times that I shot him, to be honest with you. [He was known for] not showing up to shoots and stuff, but there was only a super small percentage of those times where he didn't show up. Maybe, 1 out of 20 times he wouldn't show up. But, for everybody else, he just wouldn't show up at all. I used to get big-time photographers — like, we're talking about the biggest in the industry — going like, "How the hell are you shooting him all the time?”
You were around for a lot of momentous occasions in his life. I read that you were with him on 9/11. What do you remember about that?
I left Boston when the terrorists left Boston so it was crazy. My wife thought I was pretty much dead until I called her up many hours after I was supposed to land. That day was just nuts. My job was to go shoot Allen and as we landed in Philly, everything just unfolded around us at the airport. At the car rental place, we saw the Pentagon get hit. Then I got a call from Allen's manager like, “We're gonna have to push the shoot back maybe until tomorrow.” But then we ended up meeting with Allen that night, on 9/11. We were actually at a Dave & Buster's in Philly, just playing pool and having a couple of beers with a couple of guys from Reebok and Allen’s boys.
I remember him getting super emotional and mad. Like, “Dude, if I was there I would've done something. I would've tried to do something to stop them.” It wasn't a show; he wasn't playing around or joking. He was really touched and moved and freaked out about the whole thing like everybody else was. I wrote in the book that when you get around a guy like Allen, you think about all the things that he is: he's one of the greatest basketball players of all time; he's MVP; he's a scoring champion. He's just everything, you know? But that day, he was like one of us — an American that was hurt, wounded. That was crazy, to see that part of him. It was also very humbling, too, to realize that we shared that together. My son was born a year later to that day, on September 11th. I probably should have named him after Allen.
He’s got his flaws but when it comes down to it, he’s a normal person with an extraordinary gift that has touched a lot of people and will continue to touch a lot of people.
You spent that day with him, but you also shot him in all sorts of different contexts, including with his family. As a photographer, how did you go between those different parts of his life?
It’s just [about] going with the flow. Seeing people's moods and seeing the environment that you're in. Knowing how aggressive or how creative you need to be, or if [you need to] just tone it down a little bit, or listening to what people want. Those times I shot Allen with his family, I really wanted his wife to take charge. So I would be walking around with her and giving her my undivided attention. For example, I shot Allen's surprise birthday party and I just knew where to be: made sure I got him walking in, trying to capture this moment of people thanking him. You can only prep so much. If you prep too hard for anything, it just kills it. As far as going through all those different things, shooting all the highs and lows, I'm with him and I'm feeling those things, too. So that's probably why a lot of those pictures that I do take, you can actually feel it. Because I can read him and pick up on his emotions and his thoughts and what's going on.
Is he a different person around his family?
Yeah, 100 percent. Because I was there, I've seen it. Honestly, I feel bad about my fatherhood because I probably don't hold and kiss my kids as much as he does his. There was no doubt to me that Allen Iverson is a great father. Like, he just loves his kids, always. At the Hall of Fame ceremony, he was like, "Hey Booboo,” talking to his daughter in his little kiddie language. Who the hell does that? He was put out on front street with millions of people watching and he couldn’t give a crap. He was like, “This is the way I talk to my daughter, I'm not gonna sugarcoat it.” He loves life.
When he gets on the basketball court, he becomes a demon, he just battles. He's a different person when he puts that uniform on. He's a fierce competitor and everyone will talk about that but he's a super-softy. He cries, he's very emotional. When he was younger, people thought he was a bad guy. [But] you never know how your life is gonna turn out. I told him recently in a conversation, "Look Chuck, you were so huge and iconic as a basketball player. And I know there's a part of you that's like, ‘Damn, it's over.’ But it's not. The people that you've touched and reached throughout your career as a young man, there's so many things you can do into your older years. There's still a lot you can do." I don't think he truly understands that yet but he will.
The world that we live in now is different. The idea of a basketball player being into hip-hop and just being himself on and off the court isn’t something that is as scandalous as it once was.
I'm a white dude and I live in [Boston], the whitest town in America, and everybody gives me crap like, "Why are you wearing those sneakers? Why are you wearing a baseball cap?” And I'm like, "’Cause I want to." Then I mention A.I. and they're like, "Oh, he was a thug." It just irritates me, and I always defend him. I'm like, “OK, try growing up like he did. What would you do about it? How are you gonna be?”
I feel like something that was a big part of his identity was his style, and his hair in particular. There's a lot of shots of his hair in the book. Do any stories about his braids stick out?
Oh my god, just the diversity of it. He had so many different girls doing his hair. Every time I saw him, it was ropes and mazes and patterns. I don't know the terminology for all the different braids but it was just constantly cool and different. He tried to find the girls that could do hair different from everybody else. It would take hours. He would come to set and his hair would be picked out then he would get it done. We always prepped for that and would expect that it would take hours. But they were always tight. Then, honestly, everybody kind of emulated their styles from him.
I definitely copied a bunch of those.
There's a commercial that he did for Reebok and it was more like twists and he hated it. He was like, "I hate this man, I hate this." He was in the trailer like, "I ain't coming out." People gave him a lot of crap for it; it wasn’t his style. But every time he did a photoshoot or TV thing, he always changed it up. The more he became famous, the more he actually had to [switch things up]. That and the tattoos. When I first started working with him, he had, like, one. And then it just escalated. I remember him saying, "Damn, this is so much fun. I get one and I want another one and another one." Every time I saw him it was like, "Damn, you got a new tattoo?" and he was like, "Yup."
Him being misunderstood was one of the biggest factors that shaped his career. What do you hope people will learn about Allen Iverson through this book?
That he's a real person. He's got his flaws but when it comes down to it, he's a normal person with an extraordinary gift that has touched a lot of people and will continue to touch a lot of people. He is misunderstood. When you see the pictures of him and his kids and him laughing — there’s nothing bad about him in this book. There's not a lot of pictures of him being bad in general. When you look at it, you'll laugh a little bit, you might cry a bit. To me, Allen Iverson is a great, amazing basketball player but he's also a real person and he's overcome so many obstacles in life to be the amazing icon that he is. I just want people to see a little bit through my lens of just how great of a person he is, no matter what baggage he had in the past.
Is that why you decided to make this book? Why was this the right time to look back on Iverson’s life?
I'd been doing this book since 2003 and, for lots of different reasons, it never happened. When I found out he was being nominated for the [NBA] Hall of Fame, I was like, OK, I gotta do this now or I'm never gonna do it. He's still very relevant in the media and I felt like it would be a good time to do it. I was around Allen a lot of those times where he would just be scrutinized and picked apart for anything he did wrong. It was hard. He couldn't escape the “thug-ism,” if you will. He couldn't escape being that baggy pants, braid-wearing street kid. No matter what he did or no matter how good of a game he had or how many times he kissed his kid on court, he was still [considered] a thug. Something drew me into him, and I never really thought of as him as this celebrity. I saw him more as a dude who was misunderstood and who has a pretty incredible gift. I was just honored to be in there with him shooting this stuff.
What was that process like of choosing the photos that you ended up using?
It was really difficult because there was a lot that didn't make it in. The book could've been a thousand pages, really. I went back and looked through contact sheets for [photos] that people never saw. I gravitated towards imperfections: shit without a focus, light leaks, or anything that's weird that back then I would've said, Oh, this sucks. But I just felt like I wanted it to be solely Allen, and not all the people around him. I feel sometimes it's hard for him to get away from that. I didn't even put his mom in the book. I wanted it to be about Allen.
Has he seen it?
He said he loved it. The day after I gave it to him, he was like "Dude, that book is fire." His wife was crying a little bit and said how much she loved it. That's all I really cared about: that he's happy with it. He was looking at pictures of him wearing, like, XXXL clothes and he was like, "Man, what were we thinking wearing such baggy stuff?" I laughed and said, “I tried to tell ya, Allen. You didn't listen.”