Only a Game

How can anybody hope to tell the story of Allen Iverson, a man whose life was all style, a man whose performances were indelible and whose failures are forgettable? There have been some strong efforts, some “college tries” (Iverson’s own college try ended with him as the leading scorer in Georgetown Hoyas history, at 22.9 points per game). Kent Babb’s new biography, Not a Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson, is as nuanced and penetrating a study of AI as we’re ever likely to get. That’s the whole point of the book, really: Iverson is complicated and his later life has been tragic.

It’s a sad ending to a story first documented in Larry Platt’s excellent Only the Strong Survive: The Odyssey of Allen Iverson, which tried to make sense of Iverson’s defiant nature and his “bad boy” appeal during his early 2000s heyday. But neither book really succeeds in explaining to us who the man was, because understanding Allen Iverson was all about watching him. Here the letter kills; it was AI’s spirit that gave him life.

We’ve all watched Iverson’s rant about practice. “I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re in here talking about practice,” he told an assemblage of reporters after his Sixers lost in the first round of 2001-2002 playoffs to the Boston Celtics. Never mind, of course, that Iverson averaged 31.4 points per game that season and won another scoring title. Never mind that he played through numerous nagging injuries while leading an untalented squad of role players and scrubs back to the postseason. Alas, the way Iverson acts in this short clip is how many will choose to remember him—as a petulant, mercurial player who “turned it on” only when the mood struck him.

Biographer Babb leaves him this way, too: sitting alone at an Embassy Suites bar in Virginia, missing out on a charity basketball event in Philadelphia that he had been scheduled to attend. But what about AI’s way of being, his sense of where he was on the court? You can’t wrap your arms around a memory, so what does that mean for an athlete whose aggressive, passionate style amounted to three hundred years of cultural history in action coming to life? The wild syncopated crossovers, the ankle-breaking drives to the basket, the absurd three-point shots taken only because the game doesn’t recognize a four-pointer? Iverson was poetry in motion.

Alas, the way Iverson acts in this short clip is how many will choose to remember him—as a petulant, mercurial player who “turned it on” only when the mood struck him.

I’m a historian by trade, and in this capacity I’m occasionally asked to make sweeping generalizations about all sorts of things. Whether I know anything about the subject in question or not, the answer I almost always give is that “it’s complicated.” What’s complicated? Everything, everything is so goddamn complicated. And few athletes outside of Mike Tyson and Ricky Williams were as complicated as Allen Iverson.

At his peak, AI represented the apotheosis of what some careless commentators referred to as the “street” athlete: a low-efficiency, high-usage, and heavily-tattooed ball hog who played with a permanent scowl. Many viewed his Sixers’ brand of basketball as ugly and unwatchable, the opposite of the kind played by the well-oiled 1985-1986 Celtics and the high-scoring 2004-2005 Suns. Yet he was every bit as ferocious a competitor as Larry Bird or Steve Nash, perhaps even more so given that he never had the privilege of working in tandem with a player of Robert Parish or Shawn Marion’s caliber.

Of course, there remains the whole question of whether he could have ever coexisted in such a situation. After his trade to Denver, where he was forced to play alongside the younger but equally low-efficiency and high-usage ball hog Carmelo Anthony, he continued to score his points but did little to improve the overall quality of the Nuggets. He collapsed in Detroit and gave up on the Grizzlies, and as of three years ago, he was reportedly in dire financial straits, a claim he recently called “a myth.”

Iverson’s various peaks and valleys have remained of great interest to a certain breed of “fundamentals”-oriented fan that scorned him and other players like him. His career nearly ended before it began, after his run as a stellar two-sport athlete at Bethel High School in Hampton, Virginia culminated in a 15-year prison sentence for his role in a fight that occurred at a local bowling alley. Although he was granted clemency several months later by then-governor Douglas Wilder, Iverson, hot on the heels of leading both his school’s football and basketball teams to state championships, was forced to miss his senior year at Bethel. This constituted Iverson’s “incredible rise,” according to Babb, and he and fellow biographer Platt and even an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary all do a good job of capturing this particular moment in time.

Georgetown coach John Thompson—who, owing to his confrontational nature and willingness to recruit talented but unorthodox inner-city players, had drawn the ire of that same breed of fan adverted to earlier—recruited Iverson and was rewarded with two straight Sweet Sixteen appearances and two years of stellar play. The Philadelphia 76ers selected Iverson first overall in the 1996 NBA Draft, whereupon he proceeded to make 11 All-Star teams, win four scoring titles, and appear on the All-NBA first or second team a combined six times.

He collapsed in Detroit and gave up on the Grizzlies, and as of three years ago, he was reportedly in dire financial straits, a claim he recently called “a myth.”

By a lot of advanced metrics, Iverson wasn’t a great player. He was a good player, certainly, and a tremendous volume scorer for someone who was barely 6′ tall. He was, at a minimum, his generation’s Tiny Archibald—although Archibald, surrounded by better talent on 1980-1981 Celtics, managed to win a title.

But Iverson was also, in one very specific sense of the term, a role model. His life experiences and attitude were shared by a generation of NBA players from its Junkball Era, a period of low shooting percentages, over-abundant three-point attempts, and brutal defense that lasted until D’Antoni’s Suns began lighting up the scoreboards in 2004-2005. Derrick Coleman, Latrell Sprewell, Isaiah “J.R.” Rider, Stephon “Starbury” Marbury, and numerous others were cut from similar cloth. They had tremendous talent but wouldn’t be brought to heel by their coaches or made subservient to their fans.

The institutional history of the NBA appears likely to omit these men and their unlovely contributions. It will discard Coleman’s once-in-a-generation inside-out game. It will neglect to mention Sprewell’s legendary defensive intensity. Rider’s extraordinary dunks, which make coddled postmodern dunk artist’s Blake Griffin’s in-your-face slams look tame by comparison, will rarely be shown on the official highlight reels. And what of Iverson’s artistry in the face of adversity, his unparalleled will to score?

Folk memories will, I suppose, persist for a little while, a sort of “Legend of the Baggy Pants” that’s passed via word of mouth from one thirtysomething hoops aficionado to another. Bits and pieces of the Iverson mythos may re-emerge from time to time, as in the case of Reebok’s reissue of his signature “The Question” shoe or Babb’s definitive biography. And of course we’ll keep hearing about Iverson’s money troubles and drug problems, because that’s what that aforementioned breed of not-so-subtly racist fan wants to hear about all of these players–what he or she will want to be hearing about, say, DeMarcus Cousins in a decade or so.

So yes, Iverson was truculent and difficult to manage. Sure, he made a mediocre rap album that contained some homophobic content. Certainly he’s finished, as washed-up as washed-up can be: a man on a barstool in Hampton, Virginia, right back where he started. Perhaps that has made the game more palatable for author Buzz Bissinger, who argued that the NBA doesn’t have enough star white players to attract white fans.

However, as Iverson himself noted during that infamous “practice” interview, nobody worked harder once the game began. Mind you, he wasn’t a hero in the strictest sense, and the most fulsome chronicler could not make him one. Yet during his prime, even as he alienated a certain breed of fan, he managed to be relatable, warts and all, to a subset of NBA spectators who recognized where he was coming from. As Larry Platt noted in his earlier biography, Iverson angered a lot of people, but that wasn’t AI’s problem. He had swagger to spare, he was tough as nails, he left his heart on the court, and he will be missed. He played to play, not to spend hours running wind sprints or to stockpile enough money from endorsement deals to buy an NBA team, and for a little while he was unbelievable. The story of Iverson can’t ever be retold, because he already wrote it in blood, sweat, and tears.

By Oliver Lee Bateman

Oliver Lee Bateman is a lawyer and a professor of history. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, Mic, Al Jazeera America, and VICE.