Rooting for Allen Iverson

Yesterday, SB Nation’s Bomani Jones penned an outstanding column about The Tragedy of Allen Iverson and it got me thinking. A long jog through my memory over the past 24 hours has not revealed a team-sports athlete in my lifetime as complicated as Allen Iverson. The team-sports caveat is necessary because Mike Tyson might be a more confusing puzzle to unravel. Might. It’s a matter of debate that I’m not qualified or prepared to settle as to whether Tyson’s dominant rise and unhinged fall from grace is more nuanced than Iverson’s. Tyson seems to have found inner peace and fulfillment in his post-athlete life to an extent that Iverson has a long way to go in achieving.

In team sports, mercurial receivers Terrell Owens and Randy Moss come to mind. TO, though, had a physicality that Iverson would have used to score approximately infinity points per game. Contrastly, Randy Moss had the natural style and grace that made his dominance seem effortless. Randy Moss’s innate brilliance translated onto a basketball court yields LeBron James, who was born to accumulate triple doubles but can’t quite seem to get out of his own head when the relative ease becomes more challenging. But, like Iverson, Moss and Owens were both undone by their hubris and refusal to selflessly mold their otherworldly skillsets into the greater good of the team. When their talent eroded such that they were still better than replacement-level players but not worth the headaches that their individualistic behavior brought, they were unwanted.

My earliest memories of Allen Iverson place him at Georgetown. I was nine years old, was fascinated by his battles with UConn’s Ray Allen and SportsCenter highlights where every game he would pinball through defenders en route to 40 points. His quickness was awe-inspiring and it felt as though he had already accelerated from 0-to-100 before taking his second step. It was as if he was playing basketball with a Game Genie cheat for unlimited turbo. While these are my first memories, it was not the beginning of Iverson’s national prominence.

Bomani Jones writes about how this will not only carried him on the basketball court but in life:

No matter what anyone thought he did in that bowling alley, or what they thought he deserved, he made it out. Talent alone won’t do that for anyone. That’s the sort of thing done by hook or crook, and there’s no time on the back end to worry too much about how it got done. After suffering the worst in a dying shipping town, being caught on police cameras buying drugs for his mother like it was just a run to the store, the slim chance Iverson had to be successful panned out.

Ned Zeman’s 1993 Sports Illustrated piece (and, seriously, the access that the SI Vault grants to the writing and photographs of sports history is one of the 10 coolest things on the Internet) provides some context for the bowling alley brawl that Jones alludes to (I took a lot to provide a full picture but PROMISE THAT THE ENTIRE PIECE IS FASCINATING in retrospect):

After last Feb. 13, however, everything changed. That was when Iverson, then 17, and a bunch of friends—mostly jocks, all Bethel students, all black—headed to Circle Lanes to bowl some games, eat some burgers, make some noise. The woman at the counter sent them to the end of the alley, to a lane against the wall. To Michael Simmons, the tight end who has been a pal of Iverson’s since grade school, that always seemed to happen. You boys, over there. By the time they got their shoes and balls, it was 10:30. The place was rocking.

The black kids started goofing. They bowled on a closed lane, stood on chairs, cursed a bit too loudly. Stupid jock stuff. Somebody from the alley told them to cool it, then told them again. But, hey, it was Saturday night, heading into Valentine’s Day, time for a little fun. Iverson was the leader, the point guard, the quarterback. Bubbachuck, they called him, and what he said went. When Iverson began thinking cheeseburger, more than one friend offered to go with him to the snack bar on the other side of the alley. Over by a group of white guys.

As Iverson approached, the white guys were finishing their last game, not to mention their last pitcher. They had been at it since 8:30. Steve Forrest, 22, and Iverson exchanged looks, and that was when it began. The way Iverson tells it, somebody in Forrest’s party called him a “nigger” and a “little boy.” Forrest is a big guy—6’2″, 200 pounds—and he’d had his share of scrapes, including a felony conviction for cocaine possession. But Iverson, at 6’1″ and 175, was smaller only on paper. He has the lean, sculpted body of the superb athlete that he is. This yearParade magazine named him the top high school basketball player in the country and one of the top 10 football players. He played quarterback and safety, and returned six kickoffs for touchdowns in 1992, his junior year. That night he was the most recognizable person in Hampton.

“You ain’t gonna do nothin’ to me,” Iverson says he responded, his nose an inch from Forrest’s. Then, according to Iverson and his friends, Forrest swung a chair at him and set off a melee in which chairs, fists and slurs flew like bowling pins. Several of Iverson’s pals waded in and overwhelmed the whites. Another bunch of whites, who didn’t know either group and didn’t want to, was caught up; two people were knocked unconscious, one of them a 23-year-old college student, Barbara Steele, who was struck by a chair and would receive six stitches near her left eye.

Police moved in and later made four arrests. To many in Hampton, particularly blacks, who make up 39% of the city of 134,000 people, this is the key: All four suspects—Iverson; Simmons, 18; Melvin Stephens Jr., 17; and Samuel Wynn, 18—were black. “It’s strange enough that the police waded through a huge mob of fighting people and came out with only blacks, and the one black that everybody knew,” says NAACP crisis coordinator Golden Frinks. “But people thought they’d get a slap on the wrist and that would be the end of it.”

It wasn’t, not by a long shot. Last July, in separate trials, Iverson, Simmons and Wynn were convicted in circuit court as adults of “maiming by mob,” a matter of surpassing irony given that the seldom-invoked law had mainly been used to prevent Klansmen from lynching blacks. Still, all signs pointed to probation, maybe a few hundred hours of community service; instead, on Sept. 8 judge Nelson Overton sentenced each of the three to 15 years in prison, with 10 years suspended (Stephens, who was convicted of three misdemeanors in April, is out on bail and attending junior college in Missouri). To top things off, Overton denied all bail requests pending appeals, even though felons convicted of far more heinous crimes are routinely granted bail.

But Iverson willed himself out of that. Willed himself to stardom at Georgetown. Willed himself to four scoring titles. Willed himself and a 76ers team on which he scored just 85 less points (2207 vs 2292) than the next three leading scorers (Aaron McKie, Tyrone Hill, and George Lynch) combined to an NBA Finals appearance.

But this will was always hubristic. What Jones, myself, and many other young NBA fans at the time saw as endearing qualities–the sneakers, t-shirts, tattoos, and general defiance (We talkin’ about Practice…Not a game…Not a game…Not a game…We talkin’ about Practice)–were what undid him in the end. As we watched Jason Kidd–who is two years older than Iverson and without nearly as much natural athleticism–contribute to the Mavericks’ championship last season by craftily optimizing his strengths and limiting his liabilities, we could only wonder what value Iverson could still add to a viable contender if he chose to embrace the role of distributor or change-of-pace bench scorer.

Jones finishes:

He seems totally unprepared for his greatest challenge: life. Iverson was tossed out of high school. He dropped out of college. Not even the gods of irony are funny enough to make A.I. a coach. He’s demonstrated no interest in any activity meant to be performed 40 hours per week. In the most significant ways, he is alone. And there’s no reason to think any of this will get any better.

While it’s tragic, it unfortunately makes a great deal of sense that he refuses to be the 3rd best player on a good team while his earnings are garnished to cover debt. Iverson never was what others wanted him to be and it’s not as if you can tell a dog to be a cat in its old age.

The relentless pride that pushed him to excellence will not relent. It might be too much to ask for Iverson to have a post-career redemption similar to that of Tyson, who has, against all odds, seemingly conquered his insanity to become a somewhat beloved man who is both commercially and publicly relevant. But Iverson isn’t insane, he’s hubristic. To a staggeringly stubborn extent. And if he is going to find any fulfillment in the rest of his life, he is going to have to swallow his pride.

Like Jones, I have no idea what he could do. (I am resisting the obvious but cynical and patronizing suggestion that he gives the rest of his life to God even as that may be the path of least resistance.) Whatever that may be, everyone who followed his career is rooting for him to do it.

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