Charles Curtis | USA TODAY SPORTS
The man you see above is Bruce Hornsby, singer/songwriter, piano player and probably best known for songs like The Way It Is and Harbor Lights. He is the same Bruce Hornsby who has claimed he beat Allen Iverson — best known for dominating the NBA during a stellar 17-year career while averaging 26.7 ppg and winning four scoring titles — in a game of one-on-one.
Seriously! This is a story that has been around for a while. Back in 2005, True Hoop found an excerpt from Only the Strong Survive, a biography of Iverson, in which the then-high school star was jailed in 1993 for an incident at a bowling alley.
It turns out Hornsby called Iverson’s coach Mike Bailey and asked if he could help the fellow Virginia native. After Iverson was eventually pardoned from his prison sentence, they met up, played hoops at a local gym … and Hornsby won. But there was a catch! From the book excerpt:
As a piano player, however, Hornsby had to guard against any injury to his hands. So he’d come up with his “Piano Hands Rules.” Each player would get one shot each time they got the ball, and any rebound would be an automatic change of possession.
At Hornsby’s house, Iverson gawked at the Grammy and played “Chopsticks” on Hornsby’s baby grand. Then they went to a local gym to play ball. Iverson would later joke about Hornsby’s “funky” jump shot, with his elbow sticking out at an odd angle. Still, the shot went in. Just before they started playing, a nervous Bailey reminded Iverson: “Don’t hurt his hands.”
Iverson played tentatively as a result and didn’t like the Piano Hands Rules. He’s take one shot, and whether it was good or not, he had to automatically play defense. He couldn’t get a rhythm going. Hornsby could, though–and he won. The two started a friendship that continues to this day. Hornsby not only kept in touch while Iverson was incarcerated, he was among many celebrities who surreptitiously helped foot the bill for private-school completion of Iverson’s high school education when he got out.
When Bailey dropped off Iverson at home later that day, he leaned over to him. “Listen,” he said melodramatically, “I’ll never ever tell anybody this happened. Because the worst thing that can happen to an athlete is that people find out that somebody in a band beat you.”
Fast-forward to 2019. In a recent interview with Uproxx, he was asked about it, and there’s more of the context of how he asked Virginia’s governor to help the incarcerated Iverson (he eventually granted Iverson clemency):
I don’t talk about that very much, because it seems completely ludicrous, and it is. But look: He was convicted of brawling in a bowling alley, and sent to jail his senior year of high school. I thought it was a serious miscarriage of justice, and I was lobbying the governor of the time, because we had elected the first black governor, I would say, in America, Doug Wilder. This was 1992 or 1993 when this happened, and I started working with Spike (Lee). I told him about Allen Iverson before anyone knew about him, because he was a high school phenom around here.
A couple months after this happened, I got a call from his high school coach at Bethel High School, Mike Bailey, saying, ‘Hey, Allen knows what you did, and would love to meet you and blah blah blah.’ So I said, ‘Hey, why don’t ya’ll come up so we can play some basketball?’ So he said, yeah, he’d love that. And I don’t know what happened. I had one of those days where I couldn’t miss. And in front of lots of witnesses, this happened.
Like I said, I feel a little idiotic talking about it, because it seems not believable. But that’s the story, as quickly as I can sum it up.
No mention of the “Piano Hands Rules,” but beating a future Hall of Famer no matter what the rules are should result in bragging rights. This is totally believable, by the way — he played basketball in high school and his son Keith Hornsby plays in the NBA G League.
Here’s the story one more time, as told to Dan Le Batard in 2017, with the discussion of the modified rules: