Sports

A Step Too Far

The NBA stopped a boundary-crossing move in the ’90s. Why has it left the Eurostep alone?

James Harden drives past Taj Gibson, making a Eurostep along the way.
James Harden of the Houston Rockets drives past Taj Gibson of the Minnesota Timberwolves on Feb. 13 at the Target Center in Minneapolis.
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

It was the fourth quarter of an otherwise nondescript game in March 1997 between Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Allen Iverson’s 76ers. Iverson, the front-runner for Rookie of the Year, found himself with the ball near the top of the key, guarded by Jordan. As he went to work breaking down his defender, any informed basketball fan watching in real time knew which move he planned to use.

Iverson crossed the ball in front of his body from left to right, then back the other way between his legs. He cupped the ball in his left hand while pushing it as far to his left as he could—feigning intent to move in that direction—before bringing it back across his body at an accelerated speed. Jordan bit on the fake, freeing Iverson for a clean look. His shot went in.

Iverson’s crossover on Jordan would become one of the decade’s iconic plays. But the move, like Iverson himself, had already become a lightning rod for controversy. Months before the Iverson-Jordan showdown, there were reports that the NBA had instructed officials to closely monitor palming and had singled out Iverson’s crossover as a violation. This response foreshadowed a multiyear effort to constrain Iverson’s creative approach to dribbling. The league’s litigious reaction is worth considering now because professional basketball is once again flush with an inventive move that’s making defenders look foolish while raising questions about its legality—and this time the league isn’t stepping in to stop it.

So what made Iverson’s crossover so controversial? The 6-foot guard wasn’t the first player to claim the crossover as his patented move—in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Warriors point guard Tim Hardaway regularly broke opponents’ ankles with his version. But Iverson’s variation drew special attention from the league, other players, and media members, who claimed Iverson carried the ball before the final dribble and therefore violated the discontinued dribble statue (colloquially known as palming). Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan wrote in a November 1996 story, “The NBA has actually instructed referees to monitor Allen Iverson’s natural dribble, which, as all college basketball fans have known all along, is a palming violation … By God, there’s slim hope for this league yet.” Scottie Pippen, who was on the court when Iverson crossed up Jordan, noted in his postgame comments that league officials “do allow [Iverson] to pick the ball up and carry it pretty high.”

Iverson’s critics had a point. The more you study the clip of Iverson vs. Jordan, the more apparent it becomes that what knocks Jordan off balance isn’t the speed with which Iverson moves the ball across his body. It’s that split second before Iverson goes left to right for the final time, the moment when, with his hand clearly cradling the ball from underneath, he moves it left and then holds it still. Jordan shifts his weight to his right foot, and Iverson achieves separation when he moves back the other way.

The NBA office sided with Iverson’s critics. As a Los Angeles Times story from a few months into his rookie season notes, “Every week, it seems as if the league sends out another memo on [Iverson’s] palming.” But efforts to curtail Iverson’s crossover didn’t immediately take hold. The trendsetting phenom continued to shake defenders and flirt with the line dividing legitimate basketball move from clear violation. Other players adopted their own versions of the  crossover. Young fans loved the way these players regularly put opponents on skates, while cranky columnists often blamed Iverson for the deterioration of the game’s fundamentals.

As the 1990s bled into the 2000s, the NBA doubled down on its efforts. It seemed as if every season began with at least one story of how the league planned to more strictly enforce palming. Players adapted. They modified their crossovers to avoid cupping the ball in such an obvious manner. Kobe Bryant adopted a version that was almost a carbon copy of Hardaway’s—a lighting quick one-two punch. Iverson stopped palming the ball so audaciously. He added new wrinkles, like stepping backward as he went through his legs and forward as he brought the ball back across his body. The original Iverson crossover slowly disappeared from the game. (Coaches still occasionally claim palming affects the game, though the concern is not nearly as rampant as it was at the turn of the millennium. The examples cited are also very different in character.)

At about the same time the NBA succeeded in banishing the Iverson crossover, another move made its way into the league. Starting in the mid-2000s, a young Argentinian player named Manu Ginobili popularized the Eurostep, which tests the limits of a rule that allows a player to take two continuous steps after gathering his dribble. Rather than take those two steps in a single direction—generally in a straight line toward the basket, as players have for decades—Eurostepping players take the first step in one direction before reversing course and stepping back the other way, all while maintaining forward momentum. The individual steps are more like horizontal bounds, and the sudden change of direction midmove tends to leave defenders wrong-footed. The problem is that just about every Eurostep entails a minihop taken prior to the first full diagonal step—and therefore adds up to 2½ steps. This makes the move’s relationship to traveling analogous to the Iverson crossover’s relationship to palming: Both cross the line dividing legal from illegal and provide offensive players with an unfair advantage.

Former Warriors guard Sarunas Marciulionis, who played for Lithuania’s national team at the 1992 Olympics, is the player credited with introducing the move to the NBA. But the Eurostep didn’t become a recurring part of league play until Ginobili regularly executed it while helping the Spurs win three NBA titles. His version proved infectious, and American-born players like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James integrated it into their own repertoires. (When Ginobili announced his retirement last summer, James tweeted his congratulations: “The game of basketball has you to thank for the most swag move in basketball right now which is the ‘Euro Step’!!!!”)

Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to watch an entire NBA game without seeing the move. James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the front-runners for MVP, lay equal claim to the game’s most devastating version, though players from Russell Westbrook to Joel Embiid deploy it regularly. Despite its rule-infringing nature, the league office defends the Eurostep’s legitimacy as fervently as it once sought to invalidate the Iverson crossover. Even when a player like Harden takes the Eurostep past its logical extreme, inciting fans to wonder why a travel wasn’t called, the league rushes to assert that officials made the right call by letting it slide.

This raises the question: Why isn’t the league treating the Eurostep the way it treated the Iverson crossover? Both moves violate long-standing rules, yet the NBA has welcomed the Eurostep into the fabric of the game. Part of the answer may be contextual. This season’s dip in television ratings notwithstanding, the NBA has experienced a popularity bonanza in recent years, and some ascribe this good fortune to increased scoring. NBA teams are running up and down the floor and scoring at record paces, and killing the Eurostep would rob offensive players of a potent weapon.

Part of the reason might also be cultural. The quasi-moral panic incited by the Iverson crossover was rooted in more than just a fear that some enterprising young player had found a way to break the rules. Iverson’s crossover felt like an extension of street ball and hip-hop, two cultural spheres the NBA maintained a tenuous relationship with throughout the late ‘90s and early 2000s. As Thomas Beller noted in a New Yorker article, the Iverson crossover “managed to take the aesthetic of hip-hop and translate it into basketball.” The process of breaking down a defender with flashy dribbling was the province of those who plied their trades on inner-city courts, and the crossover was a staple of the And1 Mixtape Tour, which briefly offered fans a version of basketball rooted in assertive one-on-one play.

In the mid-2000s, NBA commissioner David Stern gained a reputation for wanting to keep hip-hop culture at bay despite its obvious popularity with many basketball fans. His alleged distaste most infamously manifested itself in the 2005 dress code, which players like Jason Richardson and Paul Pierce criticized as an affront to the styles and sensibilities of young black players. It’s impossible to know the true motivations behind Stern’s dress code or the league’s decision to strictly enforce palming, but both policies felt like sneaky efforts to limit hip-hop’s impact on the NBA.

The Eurostep doesn’t face this problem. It represents something the NBA wants to celebrate: its global appeal and the influx of talent and playing styles from abroad. Introduced by a player from Europe and made popular by a player from South America, the Eurostep jibes with the NBA’s conscious attempts to portray itself as a global game. It’s as illegal as the Iverson crossover but doesn’t come with the same cultural connotations.

The Eurostep might be the game’s swag move of the moment, but the NBA should take steps to outlaw it. Giving insanely proportioned and remarkably gifted athletes like Antetokounmpo the power to pick up the ball and run past defenders creates an obscene competitive advantage. NBA players don’t need that advantage, and they would be even more resourceful if forced to play within the traditional rules.

The case of the Iverson crossover is the perfect example. The NBA’s crackdown on palming didn’t make the crossover disappear. It just forced players to execute the move within the confines of established rules. This led to a more entertaining product.

Iverson’s second-most-famous crossover took place in the 2001 NBA Finals, when he sent Lakers guard Tyronn Lue to the deck. Iverson made that move without the palming he used against Jordan, and in that sense, it’s an even more impressive feat of individual dribbling skill. Today, Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry have taken the crossover to new heights, but if the league had decided to encourage palming, rather than eradicate it, these players wouldn’t have needed to be so inventive. The Eurostep makes things too easy for players like Harden and Antetokounmpo. The league should challenge them to break down defenders and score without breaking rules that make sense. Legalizing traveling via the Eurostep, which is what the NBA has done, is unfair to defenders and detrimental to the evolution of the game.