I can remember 1996 as the turning point in my life from being a wayward boy to evolving into a young man. Sure, I still had no idea on what to make of these cute 8th-graders in my life. (Hi Tanischa and Trinity) Nor did I know what to make of these strands of hair on my upper lip that my mom affectionately referred to as “peach fuzz.” However, what I did begin to accumulate was a sense of what I perceived to be “cool.” Which, in 1996, was a confusing time for everyone involved…even if you were just 13 years old.
The allure of Allen Iverson in 1996 was the coolest shit ever. The hype, mystique and hatred that surrounded Iverson in the mid-90’s is something that a documentary would probably cover quite well. The real on Iverson, however, was crystal clear. He was the best player in college basketball, he wore the coolest shoes on the planet (the Air Jordan XI’s) and played for arguably the coolest college basketball program of all time in Georgetown. There wasn’t a mold in which Iverson was made, he was an original, a 1 of 1.
If there was ever an idealistic basketball player’s film that an impressionable young fan of the game should watch, on how to play the game, it would be Ray Allen. Ray’s game in many ways was the exact opposite of an Iverson, as Allen’s game was refined in conformity and structure, as Iverson’s game ripped through such restrictions like a dog savagely eating a piece of meat. Never had “doing it the right way” been so cool, and watching Allen do it at Connecticut of all places was striking, since it was a program that until 1987 was largely irrelevant in the college basketball landscape.
The 1996 Big East Championship between Georgetown and Connecticut was a clash of our future heroes, iconic programs and the holy grail of college coaches.
No one knew just how good Allen Iverson and Ray Allen would be in the NBA, but as a teenager, there was no denying that the duo were just plain awesome. They might as well been gods to me, that’s how much respect they commanded in 1996. The universities they represented also were about seeking that respect. John Thompson’s Hoyas being the bastion of hope that a basketball team could be a singular unit, so familial, so cliquish, almost like a gang, that nothing could break them. It was rebellious, it was different than the rest, and it was awesome. Jim Calhoun made Connecticut into UConn, he turned Storrs into a breeding ground for future NBA stars, he made basketball in the northeast relevant in ways that St. John’s and Boston College couldn’t, and only Syracuse could parallel.
In retrospect, what took place in Madison Square Garden between these two teams was just another contest to determine who would carry the flag for the Big East in the upcoming NCAA tournament the following week. Without hitting the google machine, I couldn’t tell you who won the 1996 NCAA title (Kentucky) but I can tell you vividly about this particular game. This game mattered, in ways that even a national championship couldn’t.
I mean, it was 1996. There’s so many things I can remember…
The Chicago Bulls won 72 games.
Bill Clinton served his second term as President.
The greatest NBA All-Star Game jerseys happened.
Derek Jeter ascended to the throne as the King of New York.
Allen Iverson’s iconic #3 Georgetown jersey.
Ray Allen’s ridiculous fake-pass-turn-leaner that bounced on the rim 38 times, and went in.
It was 1996, it was a pretty cool time.
Eddie Maisonet is the founder and editor emeritus of The Sports Fan Journal. Currently, he serves as an associate editor for ESPN.com. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 fitteds and snapbacks, and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”