It seemed so long ago when Allen Iverson came from the South to save my racially polarized hometown from basketball ruin. But how could this barely six foot, barely 165-pound phenom be entrusted with such responsibility? He was racial polarization incarnate. At 17, he was involved in a brawl in a bowling alley that allegedly began when a group of white teenagers hurled a racial slur in the direction of Iverson and his boys. It ended with an old white lady being hit in the head with a chair. Iverson, who was considered a top quarterback prospect on top of being one of the most sought-after basketball recruits in the country, was arrested along with three of his friends. None of the white kids were.
He was charged as an adult with maiming-by-mob — ironically a Virginia law created to protect black people from lynch mobs — convicted, and sentenced to 15 years in prison (ten years suspended). Until Doug Wilder, the first black elected governor in the history of the United States* pardoned Allen Iverson after Iverson’s mother pleaded with legendary Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson to intervene. Controversy.
But Allen Iverson, the petulant kid born to a 15-year-old mother, the runt who grew up in the projects and whose house would flood with shit when the sewage pipes would occasionally burst, the teenager whose only father figure was gunned down a few years prior, was suddenly — improbably — the big man on campus at one of America’s most elite universities, the alma mater of the country’s sitting president who popped up at home games.** They mad.
This is when Iverson landed on my radar. Georgetown played in the Big East, the same conference as the Villanova Wildcats, the team I rooted for.*** He was mercilessly taunted on the road by fans who called him a criminal from the stands (at Villanova students at the game dressed up in black and white prison stripes). But Iverson was a maelstrom, dunking on people and rebounding as if tiny, rail-thin point guards were supposed to do such things. He was a Liliputian with a Brobdingnagian chip on his shoulder. A swaggering public school kid wrecking shop at a bastion of blue-bloods. He was good. Very good. Scary good.
Two years later after his college career began, he opted to go pro, with Coach Thompson’s blessing.**** And my Sixers had the first pick in that draft. They went with the maelstrom, and proclaimed him The Answer.
He immediately pissed people off and electrified them in equal measure. People thought him a thug, a childish gangbanger with bad manners. There was an unmissable racial subtext to the criticism, but there was a generational gap too. Michael Jordan, Mr. Soulless Global Shill himself, said Iverson wasn’t sufficiently deferential. So The Answer proceeded to disrespect him, leaving him grasping at air.
What Iverson critics in Philadelphia never stopped long enough to realize was that Iverson was the kind of sports hero they’d always rallied around. Intense. Gritty. Tough as nails. People didn’t like him, and he took it personally. He was knocked around by giants every night, and he kept popping back up. He didn’t back down,which was his greatest asset and maybe his biggest weakness. Over the course of a tempestuous tenure that included an amazing run to the NBA Finals, I’d gone from considering him a necessary evil to an unabashed Iverson partisan (his critics call us apologists). His teams sucked but he made them contenders anyway. His front office was mind-bendingly inept, but his team won, anyway. When they came up short, it wasn’t his fault. (That so few of the players on his team that made it to the Finals could even start on most NBA teams speaks volumes.)
You could look at his basketball stats — which are damn impressive — to gauge his greatness. But that metric doesn’t tell the whole story. Iverson should be measured in the number of heads in the late 90’s that were suddenly adorned with cornrows. Or the little kids with headbands shooting jumpers on dilapidated courts. Or exorbitantly wealthy athletes and rappers covered in tattoos from head to toe. Or the the thousands of blacktop dreamers who want nothing more than to be lightning and feel the momentary sublimity of breaking some poor defender’s ankles.
Tonight, Allen Iverson returns to the
CoreStates FirstUnion Wachovia Center, 12 years after starting the Revolution that was supposed to bring a teetering city the sports championship that its residents naively thought would be the balm to its countless wounds. He came closer to that quixotic goal than anyone has or maybe even could, given what he had to work with and what he was up against. And he did so on his terms — playing through bruises and pain, cussing up a storm, and wanting it even more than we wanted it for ourselves.
Welcome back, Bubba Chuck.
* The Bradley Effect is alternately referred to as the Wilder Effect. In his gubernatorial race, Wilder had been leading by as much as nine points in some polls, only to squeak through in the actual election, winning by less than half a percentage point.
** In a weird twist, Georgetown basketball became a point of pride among black sports fans, largely thanks to John Thompson. Thompson regularly fielded all-black teams and became the first African-American head coach to win a national championship. (It also helped that he was huge — 6-foot-10, 270 lbs. — and made white people uncomfortable.) But just as significantly, “Big John” was known for his dogged mentoring of his players, whom he made sure graduated and who saw him as a father figure. He once bought a one-way ticket back to the then-Zaire for the superhumanly decent Dikembe Mutombo after Mutombo missed a class. It was the only class Mutombo would ever miss.
*** Villanova had a Big Brother/Big Sister program for inner-city kids, and during a visit to their campus I met Kerry Kittles, their star player, who was chilling in their student center. I was a fan from that point forward. (Or at least until Kittles went pro).
****Iverson was the first player to leave Georgetown early; he had an ailing sister who needed an operation that she couldn’t afford, but that he could easily cover with an NBA salary.
****** Practice. Just because.