Sunday, December 6, 2009

Down From the Door Where It Began


When you just start to watch sports, you tend to gravitate towards the winners. We're all born little bandwagoners. Our parents or friends have to teach us to root for the local team(s), because when you're young and without influence, you just root for the best.

The best team or the best player or maybe sometimes both, like Jordan's Bulls. I'd bet you money that Larry Johnson's kids play as Adrian Peterson when they turn on Madden. I'm not sure if he has any kids, but if he does and they play Madden, you can pay up.

Why am I talking about this?

Allen BubbaChuck Iverson. That's why.

I still love my adolescent favorites. They stay with you forever; in my case those halcyon days of Montana picking apart a team's defense, or of Griffey and that swing. But as you grow, you start to look for more from your athletic icons. It isn't enough just to be very good, because excellence in and of itself isn't necessarily wortwhile. At least for me.

Go watch that Michael Jordan Hall Of Fame press conference again, and come back and try to tell me that's an admirable man. He's a maladjusted maniac, fuming over tiny slights that happened decades ago and competitive to the point of insanity. MJ is probably the greatest of all time in basketball, but what's that worth when you're such a shitty person?

So I started to notice how Barry Sanders tossed the ball quietly to the ref every time he scored. I noticed how no one ever had anything bad to say about Cal Ripken.

The man is more important than the accomplishment.

And then, as this shift became manifest, Allen Iverson came along.

He was, from the beginning, dogged with legal trouble. Legal trouble that boiled down to racism. A new documentary from ESPN's 30 at 30 series will detail in depth the prejudices that a young Allen fought through, but a quick recap: Allen and three of his friends were bowling in an alley in his hometown of Newport News, VA.

Newport is a poor ass city; Allen didn't have a phone in his house growing up, the local nickname is "Bad News", etc. So Allen is at this point 17 years old and the biggest name in the county; he's an all-world football player who had just led his team to the state championship. (If you haven't heard - AI could've gone pro in football, too. He's called the Answer for a reason!) While there, a shouting match broke out between two factions of people, and then a fight. Out of the two dozen or so people at the bowling alley, only Iverson and his three friends were arrested. They were also the only black people there.

Allen was tried under an archane law that existed to prosecute lynchers —seriously—and served a few months in a correctional facility. There was no evidence behind any of the charges. Granted clemency, he met John Thompson and under his care attended Georgetown as a Hoya, the rest is fairly well known.

While he is on trial, Allen wears a suit for the first time in his life. Disgusted with the trial, the racist police and townspeople, the complicit media who never challenged the case, Allen throws his suit away after the case is decided. He never puts one on again.

So then of course years later, when they start having conversations about the dress code for the NBA Stern instituted to get his players to dress more professionally, Allen Iverson is trotted out as an example of what's wrong with the NBA. No one ever bothers to mention the reason Iverson won't wear a suit.

Throughout his youth, facing obstacles and situations most can't imagine, Iverson remained a loyal, caring friend, a dedicated student, a good son and a decent man. In college he was taunted so maliciously that John Thompson had to ask other colleges to reign in their students, who were prone to racist chants and offensive signs.

As a NBA player he was the first to act authentically, and I mean that completely sincerely. Jordan spent his life as a blank slate so white people would buy Hanes underwear from him, AI tatted up his whole arms and put his hair in cornrows. He became a lightning rod, getting the absolute worst from everyone who didn't take the time to understand him a little better. Some fans, offended at his very existence , continued the racist taunts during his road games.

Think about that for a second. Imagine being incredibly good at basketball. Now imagine playing in an arena where 20,000 people are angrily taunting you because you grew up in a poor town and dress and act differently than they do. Imagine Salt Lake City Jazz fans yelling "GO BACK HOME, MONKEY!" at you while you played basketball. How would you react?

Allen Iverson reacted as best as anyone could. He played harder. He smiled at those college kids after he hit free throws. He thanks God almost every press conference, talks about being blessed. He wishes his enemies well. He's made mistakes. He's messed up, but in the grand scheme of things, they've been tiny little nothings.

He's blamed for the 2004 Olympic Bronze, but he was the only player who gave an interview after every game, who talked about what an honor it was to be on the team, how it was a dream come true. He played his guts out.


Bron and Wade only said they were happy to be on the Olympic team after they won a Gold Medal 4 years later. He's a person who asks forgiveness and grants it when asked. Do unto others.

Iverson is someone I admire, someone I look up to, and someone who shows me that obstacles are there to be overcome. That inner strength is stronger than anything else. I hope I can become a man like him one day, and about that I'm utterly sincere.

I haven't even started talking about AI the player. I know he's been put down a lot throughout his career as someone who shoots too much, who dominates the ball too much on offense to ever be part of a Championship team. I've heard it all.

It's wrong. It's completely wrong. Iverson is a spectacular, otherworldy athlete, and he does things on the basketball floor that boggle the mind.

In person it's even more impressive, but on TV you can see it: Blindingly fast, quick beyond all comprehension, he drives from and into angles that are basically invisible, finishing impossibly at the rim while clobbered by men twice his size, playing the most minutes in the league basically the first ten years of his career.

Watching AI play is a sight to behold. Watching the Sixers waste his prime years as a player was heartbreaking.

To the charge that AI doesn't pass enough—yeah he does. Go watch an All-Star game, where AI throws passes fellow All-Stars can't believe got to them, where he's won two MVP awards.

You can even go find his career stats: An average of 6.3 assists per game. You know the amazing thing about that? The scrubs he was throwing the ball to. After the 2005-2006 season the Sixers had enough of AI and shopped him around, they wanted to focus on their young players.... young players like Iguodala, or Korver, or Zendon Hamilton, or Willie Green, or Deng Gai.

Do you know any of these players? Probably not, (except for maybe Korver, famous for looking like a terrible actor) because none of them are All-Stars.

Withholding Iguodala, most of them are pretty terrible. Fitting, because Iverson has been on, almost without exception, terrible teams his whole career. The 2001 team he brought to the Finals against the Lakers probably wouldn't have been starters on the Lakers.

Allen made them great, put them on his back and carried them up the mountain. You can't win it all by yourself in pro basketball, it's true. Yeah, but holy shit, no one's tried as valiantly as he has to do it anyway.

After a short stint in Denver, he's traded for Chauncey, who immediately gels with the team and propels them to better play. The story becomes Iverson the Selfish Player, the shoot-first point guard. It's never really discussed that Iverson plays best on a defense-focused, fast team and the Nuggets, with Karl at the helm, are a half court team with no defensive strategy.

Last year, Nash struggled with a different offense and a slower team. The consensus among sports heads was that he just needed to play his style of basketball and this year he's flourishing with his rhythm and his system.

Where was this conversation with AI? Instead, he's called names, maladjusted, someone who should accept a bench role, past his prime, on and on. Iverson is a genetic freak, he's almost as fast now in his mid thirties as he was when he was young, and he's only gotten smarter as a player.

Was there a single article or segment you watched in the last few years about how Iverson needs to play his game or that he should get a coach with the right system for him?

I'll go ahead and say not once.

It's not surprising. The League never had anyone who could work Iverson into their offense or build one around him. Larry Brown came close, but Larry Brown is too much of a dick to stick around and make anything last. The same League that airbrushed off his tattoos for an official magazine cover a few years back, by the way. Shocking, I know, that a group of older white people who never understood Iverson the man or Iverson the player all passed on him recently before the Sixers picked him back up.

You'd hear quotes about how they wanted to develop their young talent or that'd he'd be a disruption. You know who said that? The same guys who passed on Jennings, the guys in Atlanta who needed a point guard and didn't draft Chris Paul. You know what team has a lot of young talent developing? The 1-18, historically bad Jersey Nets. You know how the Grizzlies or Pistons are doing? They're 8-12 and 7-12, respectively. I'm taking their opinions with a fairly large grain of salt.

So what does this all mean? It means AI will perform at an All-Star level the rest of this season. Believe it. It means the 76ers, attracting new fans and finding their games televised, will resign him for a few more years, where he'll continue to play at an elite level. It means AI will retire in Philly, surrounded by adoring fans.

It means that while there are (very few) players better than Iverson, or players that have had more success in basketball, there's no one more important as a man.

Proof? Easy: Find an old picture of Jordan while he was playing. Now take a look at Melo and Wade and Bron. Look at the sleeves they wear, the arms full of tattoos, the headbands and the black socks.

Now you tell me, who are they really emulating? The bald man with the shorts above the knees who won it all? Or the man who stayed true to himself?

That's why Iverson's my favorite player, in any sport. That's why I say the man is more than the accomplishment. Iverson may not get his chip, that doesn't matter. A Championship Ring only validates those who need validation.


Starting next week, Allen Iverson gets to start his fairy tale ending. And that's worth celebrating.

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