Birmingham, Alabama offers few temptations. By dusk downtown is a quiet collection of shuttered buildings and lifeless streets. An enterprising delinquent could investigate the car wash that doubles as a “private club” or indulge in the local literary scene at Alabama Adult Books, but Birmingham is a fairly sleepy place. This could be one reason the Memphis Grizzlies chose the midsize Southern city as the location for their 2009 training camp: There’s not much mischief for the team’s newest player—and easily its most infamous—to get into. But Allen Iverson isn’t looking for trouble.
It’s the evening after his first practice with his new team, and Iverson has retreated to his room at the Hyatt. Draped in an oversize team T-shirt and gym shorts, the 34-year-old icon perches his narrow six-foot frame (closer to 5'11" up close) on his bed beside a half-eaten container of takeout food and an empty bag of Doritos. His trademark cornrows—cut last season in a possible bout of existential confusion—have grown back. Despite the day’s activity, basketball is not on his mind. “I swear I would never want to meet Michael Jackson,” Iverson tells a handful of friends sprawled on the carpet. They’ve flipped to a CNN special about the deceased singer, who also happens to be Iverson’s favorite artist of all time. “Fuck around and faint or something, the way I feel about him,” Iverson chuckles in his gravelly voice. “Soon as you see Mike, next thing you know, you wake up and you’re in the fucking hospital.” It’s a moment of comic vulnerability from a man known for Napoleonic bravado, but perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he sees something special in an eccentric talent who inspired both love and loathing. Maybe Iverson recognizes that some people deserve to be appreciated while they’re still with us.
At this point it’s difficult to know whether to speak of Allen Iverson in present or past tense. Despite owning the fifth-highest scoring average in NBA history and having reshaped the sport of basketball in his own tattooed, baggy-denim-clad image, he has almost become an anachronism. The 50-point games with adrenal moments where he cupped his hand around his ear and reveled in the roar of the crowd, the acrobatic drives where he levitated to the hoop by sheer force of will, they are glories of the past. Even Iverson grudgingly acknowledges that he has lost a step. The question now may not be whether he remains an unstoppable force capable of turning defenders into leaden sculptures, but whether one of the most important athletes of our lifetime still matters at all.
To the trained sports fan, he does. In his recent Book of Basketball, ESPN columnist Bill Simmons describes Iverson as “one of the all-time athletic superfreaks,” who for most of his 20s was “the Association’s single most menacing player.” Beyond Iverson’s on-court dominance, however, Simmons notes what may be the bigger story, Iverson’s cultural impact, calling him “one of the most influential African-American athletes ever, a trendsetter who shoved the NBA into the hip-hop era and resonated with blacks in a way that even Jordan couldn’t duplicate.” To those too young to have seen him in his prime, too old ever to have understood him, or too threatened by his appearance and his checkered past to see beyond them, Iverson is nothing more than an afterthought, one of a handful of players who held things down between the age of MJ and the rise of King James. What they don’t realize is that without Iverson, there might be no LeBron. Without Iverson, a generation of fans might have walked away from the game they loved. He brought the style and swagger of the streets to the NBA, along with a sense that the miraculous could happen—the little man could be the victor.
Following a brilliant, decade-long tenure with the Philadelphia 76ers and a pair of respectable years on the Denver Nuggets, things went shockingly awry for Iverson when he was traded to the Detroit Pistons early last season. While the Nuggets surged to the Western Conference finals, the Pistons, a perennial powerhouse, spiraled into mediocrity and dysfunction. After posting career lows in several categories, Iverson was removed from the starting lineup for the first time ever. Citing a back injury that many in the media believed was imaginary, he spent the end of the season on injured reserve. Criticism came from all corners, and it cut deep. Iverson’s legacy, leadership, and heart were questioned. “He’s holding this team hostage because he cannot accept the responsibility of coming off the bench,” said former All-Star Reggie Miller during a TNT broad-cast. Even after four scoring titles, 10 All-Star Game appearances, and a league MVP award, every slight that had ever been cast his way was, to many, finally given credence. He was egotistical. Undisciplined. A loser. “I felt like I was going to be used as a scapegoat,” Iverson says. “It opened up an opportunity for people to throw all the bricks at me. Look at my whole résumé, my scoring and all that. You predicate my whole career on last year?” Unfortunately for him, some of the people who reached that conclusion were also the men who cut checks.
The summer of 2009 was Iverson’s first opportunity to test the market as a free agent, but by the end of August he was one of the few remaining players without a team. “He’s used to being a marquee player,” says the GM of an Eastern Conference franchise who passed on Iverson’s services. “If you have a younger team, he may win you a few more games, but he’s not going to do a lot to develop other players.” On September 10, Iverson settled for a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the lowly Memphis Grizzlies, a salary that constituted a serious pay cut from his previous $22 million-per-year contract. Two months later—after Iverson had seen limited time in just three games and retreated to his home in Atlanta for “personal reasons”—the team terminated his contract. After a career of glory, controversy, and seismic cultural impact, is this how things end for the Answer—in basketball purgatory?
Players like Jordan and Kobe dominated due to superb athleticism, technique, and guile, but only a handful of superstars in the modern era have been so physically unique that stopping them with one defender was impossible. LeBron has a guard’s agility and a power forward’s frame. Shaq is a glacier in human form. And A.I. is a bullet.
Continue to Part II
In his prime Iverson’s speed turned ordinary outlet passes into one-man breaks where he slashed downcourt like a wolf cutting through a pack of bewildered, plodding cattle. He could change direction so violently with his crossover dribble that Latrell Sprewell, while with the Golden State Warriors, inspected his teammates’ sneakers and warned of ankle injuries before a game against Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers. But Iverson never made filling up the scoring column appear effortless: His points came from knifing into the lane, contorting midflight, and floating teardrop shots over the outstretched arms of hulking opponents. That he would score by the bushel was inevitable, but individual buckets were tortured acts of heroism. He took calamitous tumbles to the hardwood and earned a reputation for playing through strains, pulls, and broken bones. “He’s by far the best I’ve ever played with,” says five-time NBA All-Star Chris Webber, a Sixers teammate of Iverson’s. “He’s built to kill, he’s built to shoot, he’s built to destroy you. That’s Allen. He’s coming at you all the time. He has a boxer’s mentality.”
References to other sports are common when Iverson’s abilities are discussed—partly because his stature seems an unlikely fit for a game of giants, but also because he is the purest of athletes. As a junior at Virginia’s Bethel High School in 1992, he passed for 14 touchdowns, rushed for 15, and racked up five more on special teams while leading the team to a state championship. He intercepted seven passes in one game at safety, an ironman accomplishment that elicited comparisons to Deion Sanders. He likely could have excelled in any number of sports, but it’s apparent his natural gifts were well-suited for hoops. “God put this man on Earth to play basketball,” says former Sixers president Pat Croce. “I couldn’t force him to do things in the off-season. He played street ball, he’d eat his fried chicken. Then he’d come to the first day of camp and run a five-minute mile. He’s six feet, 165 pounds soaking wet, long arms, big hands, spindly legs. He’s a freak of nature.”
Due to his unorthodox collection of attributes, simply plugging Iverson into a lineup can be the basketball equivalent of using a flamethrower to fix a flat tire. He’s the size of an elf but possesses the mind-set of a volume scorer, not an egalitarian distributor. Despite racking up more assists than almost any other shooting guard, Iverson has frequently been cast as a selfish player. Never was this accusation more justified according to the media than during the 2002 playoffs, when, after being slammed for not attending practice, an indignant Iverson went on a three-minute rant, using the word “practice” 25 times. An excerpt: “I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re in here talking about practice. Not a game, practice. What are we talking about? Practice?"
“Allen never made the people around him better, because it’s always about Allen,” former Sixers GM Billy King—the man who traded Iverson to the Nuggets in 2006—told The Charlotte Observer last summer. Iverson is unimpressed by the critique. “When we worked together, he never told me any of this,” Iverson says. “I think that’s cowardice. Don’t wait till you’re jobless and not in a good situation no more to bring up this stuff. I didn’t agree with a million decisions he made, but I always supported him. The guys they put in the uniform to play with me, those the guys I believed in, those the guys I trusted, and those the guys I thought could get it done along with me.” What Iverson doesn’t mention in his own defense is that his avoidance of practice had little to do with a lack of respect for team-mates and everything to do with the litany of injuries he suffered in each game thanks to his life-or-death style of play. To Iverson, conserving every ounce of energy to go up against opponents was how he could best help his team.
It was Larry Brown, a coach renowned for his keen basketball mind, who best solved the enigma of how to utilize the Answer. During his six-year stint in Philadelphia, Brown stocked his roster with physical, if inelegant, role players. “We tried to get defenders and rebounders and unselfish guys with him because I wanted him to shoot the ball,” says Brown, now the coach of the Charlotte Bobcats. “Everybody would say you need a post presence, this and that. Well, Allen created double-teams wherever he was on the court. If he missed, we became the best rebounding team in the league.” In 2001 the Sixers advanced to the NBA Finals before falling to the Los Angeles Lakers. Following the season, Iverson won MVP and Brown Coach of the Year. It was as close as Iverson has ever been to a title.
The answer was born in Hampton, Virginia on June 7, 1975 to 15-year-old Ann Iverson—nicknamed Juicy—a scrappy tomboy who was playing basketball and getting into fistfights when she was five months pregnant. His biological father was a phantom, and the Iverson household suffered the strains of abject poverty: cut utilities, a ruptured sewage line, eviction. He witnessed his first murder at age eight; his best friend was stabbed to death at 16. If Iverson hadn’t hit the Powerball in the great genetic lottery, there are innumerable ways his story comes to a swifter, grimmer end. “You’ve got to remember where he came from,” says Croce. “He’s had no parental guidance. None. He’s the leader of the family and his neighborhood.” Even after being named the top high school basketball player in the country and one of the top 10 football players by Parade, Iverson came close to being swallowed back into the mire.
In the winter of 1993, an 18-year-old Iverson was charged with “maiming by mob” when a fight broke out at Hampton’s Circle Lanes bowling alley between his friends, all black, and another group, all white. Racial epithets, punches, and chairs were thrown. Iverson maintained his innocence, but after a trial plagued by conflicting witnesses, he was sentenced to five years in prison. Due to his celebrity, the severity of the punishment, and the fact that no white men were charged, the case drew national attention. After four months in a minimum-security work camp, Iverson was granted clemency by Governor Douglas Wilder. The conviction was overturned, and Iverson enrolled at Georgetown University to play for John Thompson, a legendary disciplinarian who became A.I.’s first real father figure. There he flourished, winning two NCAA Big East Defensive Player of the Year awards in two seasons before departing for the NBA. Though he seemed to have moved on from the incident, friends say it still haunts him. “Allen was wrongfully accused, wrongfully tried, wrongfully convicted, and wrongfully sentenced for something he did not do,” says Gary Moore, Iverson’s business manager and former youth league football coach. “It was a very, very mean and cynical decision made by adults on a young kid whose life was so promising. He will never let that go.”
Iverson has returned several times to the role of a celebrated athlete at odds with the legal system. There was an arrest for gun and marijuana possession in 1997. There were accusations in 2002 that he threatened two men with a handgun. (These and the marijuana charges were eventually dropped.) And a court ruled he was liable for negligence after his bodyguards beat up a guy in a nightclub in 2005. “I had to grow up so fast,” Iverson says. “Been poor all my life, and overnight a millionaire—got a bunch of ‘yes men’ around me, a bunch of leeches, people telling me my shit don’t stink when I know it do. I basically jeopardized my life. I think of some of the places I used to go, some of the things I used to do, and it’s scary. Somebody get killed there last weekend, and I’m there this weekend.”
Scrapes with the law, the troublemaking friends, the club-hopping in the wrong part of town—they are indelible parts of Iverson’s image. Unlike other athletes from rough backgrounds who soften up their edges, Iverson’s popularity was based on hood authenticity. In many ways he was treated not like an athlete, but like a rapper.
He did a Reebok ad alongside Jadakiss, received in-song shout-outs from Jay-Z, Rakim, and Big Pun, and even toyed with the idea of a rap career until receiving media blowback for spitting violent, anti-gay lyrics on a track in 2001. (“Come at me with those faggot tendencies / You’ll be sleeping where the maggots be.”) “Maybe he did lose a lot of money over the years by having cornrows and tats and talking the way he talked and acting the way he acted, but I don’t think he really cared,” says Todd Krinsky, vice president of sports and entertainment marketing at Reebok.
To put Iverson’s outlaw image into perspective, consider who came before him. Whatever Michael Jordan’s personal flaws, his public persona had a gleaming halo from basketball dominance and marketing ingenuity. He endorsed sneakers, batteries, fast food, soft drinks, underwear, and any other product with a suitable advertising budget. But Iverson was never willing to cheese for the camera. “A lot of times in corporate America you have to look a certain way that’s appealing to the mainstream to be able to get endorsements,” he says. “That’s not something I was concerned with. The hardest thing for me to be in life would be somebody I’m not.” But from James Dean to Tupac Shakur, rebels have proved magnetic. Thanks to a cultish fan base, Iverson’s Reebok sneaker line has been the longest running behind Air Jordans, and his jersey has been one of the 10 most popular since the NBA started tracking sales in 2002.
The relationship between the NBA and black culture has always been awkward. The league mines the inner city for talent, style, and a customer base for $100 kicks, but remains wary of alienating white fans by being too black. This dilemma has brought on a number of regulations intended to assuage white people’s fear of young black males. Rules against taunting and trash-talking were instituted, along with draconian punishments for fighting that would make NHL players scoff. Then there’s the dress code. Instituted in 2005, the decree requires players to wear “business casual” clothing when engaging in league business. The list of banned items—jerseys, baseball caps, do-rags, gaudy jewelry—reads like an inventory of Iverson’s closet. “I pretty much believe I am the reason for the dress code,” he says, adding that the conservative fashion guidelines stifle players’ individuality. “You have guys with different personalities and different images and different games. You want some nice guys, some in-between guys, and some bad guys.”
For the grousing purists who populate talk radio and pen sports columns, Iverson singularly possessed—and normalized—almost every negative trait associated with the modern athlete: the wardrobe, the legal problems, the rapping, the selfishness, the squabbles with coaches, the posse of nefarious childhood friends, the showy style of play. “It’s pretty much impossible to overstate how much Iverson means to the race-culture dynamic that, to some, brought down the NBA,” says Nathaniel Friedman, coauthor of The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. “If Allen Iverson had been a mere All-Star with a ‘street’ game and ‘hip-hop flava,’ he’d be a cult figure. But A.I. was the most arresting player since MJ, maybe even while the two overlapped. He legitimated everything he stood for or was imagined to stand for.” Years later the Jordan and Iverson models have merged. A player like LeBron James can hail from impoverished upbringings, cover himself with tattoos, consort with rappers—all while being considered a wholesome family entertainer.
Iverson will likely never be content as a secondary player on a bad team, as his brief time in Memphis indicates. That marriage was one of mutual resignation—he needed a different team, they needed someone to sell tickets—and, as such, ended in a messy divorce. But whether he agrees to come off the bench for a better team (at press time rumors circulated of a move to Cleveland or even New York) or decides to retire on a low note, the Answer’s impact on the game extends beyond what he accomplishes in his 14th season. “I practiced and tried to mimic everything he tried to do,” says Mike Conley, a third-year guard on the Grizzlies who during preseason was competing with Iverson for a starting spot. “Being the size he was, and to be able to do what he was doing gave a lot of people like me hope.” And there it is in a nutshell: Only when players stop putting ink in their arms, when they stop twisting their hair, when they stop crossover dribbling, when they stop playing basketball with proud fury, when they stop fighting to break out of the world’s most treacherous neighborhoods—only then will Allen Iverson cease to matter.