Tuesday , Mar , 01 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

Allen Iverson, Act II

Words by Jordan R.

Life in pro sports, the NBA especially, is tough. To the uninitiated it can seem like no more than a multi-million dollar exercise session; you get paid to play a game. But for those like Allen Iverson it can be a constant struggle against every conceivable negative force that tries to derail your path. However, it’s through adversity that one develops character, leadership, poise, and heart. Allen Iverson has had to deal with adversity long before he ever had his name called on draft night, but it just so happens he’s finally starting to get a hand up on his opponents. AI has been dealing with adversity since his humble beginnings in Hampton, VA. From his five-month prison sentence garnered when he was just seventeen for a fight outside a bowling alley, to growing up without a father. But that kind of misfortune is the obvious kind, contrasted by the subtle pitfalls of the league. Like when you’re hated on for tats, braids, jewelry, and juvenile past; things that, last time I checked, didn’t have a damn thing to do with basketball.

Over Iverson’s eight-year career he has had to deal with the media’s scrutiny of his appearance, to Sixers’ management incompetence, to coaches who should be running a high school lay-up line (Chris Ford), and his share of off-court problems (some of which were his fault). He hasn’t been perfect through it, if there is a way to deal with those things I’m sure the NBA would have found it and shoved it down the players’ throats a long time ago. All he’s done is gotten through it. I doubt anyone reading this could know what it’s like to grow up dirt poor in a gang invested neighborhood, then make it to the league as a 6’0 (make that 5’10) 160 pound guard, and deal with relentless tribulation while carrying an enormous cultural weight. When you stop and think how much Iverson means, not only to the game but to society in general, then you begin to understand why he gets the praise and following he does.

One who can get through rough times like AI has is impressive enough, but leadership, even when success isn’t there and isn’t coming, is an even more daunting task. Picture this one, you’re ridiculously talented and possess the ability to be the game’s next great one. One problem: your teammates, for the most part, suck. What is one to do? Play basketball. Play as hard and as with much resilience as is takes to get the job done.

What has become a general consensus among Iverson’s haters is that he isn’t a leader. Yet, when asked what it is they know Iverson for best, most would answer with AI’s most quoted slogan – “Play every game like it’s your last.” They know it because they hear it in his post game interviews and they see it in his hustle and determination on the court. His words hang in the Sixers’ locker room. He’s in instilled this principle of heart and effort into his teammates, fans, and to the kids on the playground. Each person who prides themselves on making a jump shot or performing a crossover has adopted this phrase as their own personal motto of exhortation. Why? Because it makes sense to the everyday person, and because it comes from a man who has proven that such a mentality yields positive results regardless of size or stature. That sounds like leadership to me, by example and otherwise. And it’s a type of leadership that extends beyond a basketball court, one that stretches to the kid who needs a reason to keep trying to beat his older brother at one-on-one, to keep going, to keep trying. That’s an effect most people will never have on others. That type of leadership is priceless.

Allen Iverson, Act II

In the Beginning. there was AI

He hit the general basketball public’s consciousness when SLAM magazine put him on the cover along with UCLA star and later NBA bust Ed O’Bannon in 1995. After just a year under John Thompson at Georgetown, AI was began his reign in the league. An NBA rookie record five consecutive 40-point games, rookie-sophomore game MVP, a rookie of the year trophy, and countless opposing defenders’ ankles broken. Iverson has gone through the league like a damn broom and has changed the game. He is, and has been since he entered the league, the biggest little man scoring threat to ever play the game.

But we’ve all seen the highlights and know the history. What’s the point? Maybe it’s just worth recapping, just a necessary prelude to the incidents that always have to be mentioned along side any of Iverson’s basketball accomplishments. For every 40 point game there’s always been some columnist in some southern news paper writing about how Iverson is bad for the game. How his image is teaching kids not to go to practice and that shooting should be an after thought to fancy ball handling. It seems any time an issue of bad pro athlete image is brought up, Allen Iverson is first on the watch list.

If you’re reading this, my words won’t sway your opinion either way; if you know who Allen Iverson is, then you’ve made up your mind about him. Just know this in addition: he doesn’t deserve the amount of blame he gets. However much of the game’s image and fundamentals peril is his fault (if any), it can’t be logical to shove the state of the game on one man. AI has never gone looking for trouble. He is who he is. And if you’re an ultra-conservative right-wing fundie living in Texas, chances are you probably don’t like him for it. Granted AI isn’t “squeaky clean”, he’s said this personally. Thing is, he wouldn’t be the success story he is if he was blemish free. He’s made mistakes, taken the heat from them (fair or otherwise), and come out a stronger person for it. It’s something people can relate to, those who want to.

The sad truth is some people will always see Iverson as a thug, a rebel without a cause. But this doesn’t bother AI. Why should it now? He’s seen it get about as bad as it can get – a league gag order in the early years, trade rumors—including almost being dealt to the Clippers—not to long after, and racism from local authorities. He’s got his family, his franchise, respect from his teammates, and his place as the greatest scoring little man in the history of the game. At this point the only image of Iverson should be him facing his critics, chest puffed out and arms spread open as if to say, “is that all ya’ll got?” He’s seen, we’ve all seen, everything they can throw at him, and it should be obvious none of it is going to slow him down.

Iverson, Act II

Eight years in and it’s just beginning. The second act, the one that features Iverson as a husband, father, leader of a franchise, and as an ambassador for the game. Now nearing thirty years of age, the shift is self-evident. Take Iverson’s performance at the Olympics, a team that at one point never would have considered having Iverson along to represent our country. Yet in the midst of a USA basketball debacle, Iverson remained the perfect diplomat, saying the right things and giving props to the world’s up and coming teams. Even when the end result was a disappointing bronze medal Iverson was there, smiling bigger and brighter than anyone. He was happy to have the opportunity to represent his country and he loves to play the game. Why shouldn’t he be considered one of the game’s ambassadors? “He came into the league and everybody discriminated against him, hated on him, talking about how he had a thug image,” said fellow Olympian Carmelo Anthony, who happens to sport cornrows and tats himself. “Now you’re cool if you’ve got tattoos now. Times have changed.”

Iverson, too, sees it. How his once taboo style is now the epitome for originality in pro sports. “Before, I was the young guy coming in. Everybody talked about how I came in with the jewelry and the sweatsuits and my own style with tattoos and the way I dressed. Everybody made a big deal out of it.

“Now I look around and see LeBron and Carmelo, everybody looks like I looked when I came in, but it’s not a problem, so that makes me feel good about what I did for the image of this league. Guys can come in and be themselves and I feel good about that. I feel good about trendsetting the whole thing.” Iverson has gone beyond just expanding the league’s image in this nation, now he’s diversified the game in both style and image abroad.

The Olympics started this, the opening to Act II. After the rap album, the arrests, and “practice”, this was Iverson saying he wanted to shed the thug image. AI will always be true to AI, but in Act II he sees why his actions and image are so crucial. “We’re under a microscope. People are going to pay extra attention to everything we do,” Iverson says, referring to pro athletes. “When I was younger, I was bitter about that. It took me a while to understand that I’m somebody in this world. Kids watch everything I do. Parents get upset at mistakes that I make because they know how much their kids follow me.”

So AI went to Athens, hoping to show the world a side of Allen Iverson they’d yet to see. And what we saw in Athens was a leader, an ambassador, a man showing what he’s made of without a boisterous word or flagrant actions; we saw the opening scene to Act II.

And the second act continues. All-Star Sunday, in one of the most balanced team efforts seen in an All-Star Game, Iverson distributed (10 assists), scored (15 points), and defended (5 steals) in perfect point-guard fashion. All to an All-Star Game MVP end. This year’s All-Star exhibition was yet another example of Iverson’s next stage, a balanced effort and leadership exemplified. “I thought he was great because more than anything, he was the guy that just kept pushing other guys verbally with his energy,” said East coach Stan Van Gundy. “His intensity got everybody else going tonight and our energy picked up, and I attribute that to Allen. I thought he was great tonight.”

That night and many like them have comprised what may be Allen’s best season yet. Though some questioned his ability to make the switch from the off guard to point, the transition seems to have been seamless. Iverson is currently averaging 7.8 dimes, good for 5th in the league. And Iverson remains atop, or near the top, of league standings in points(1st), steals(4th), and free-throws(1st). He poured in 54 against the Bucks and a career-best 60 on Orlando. Aside from his usual scoring outbursts, AI’s improved distribution is what may be most impressive this season. In 49 games this year, Iverson has twenty-eight outings with eight or more assists.

Through troubles and adversity, the goal, the only ending Iverson wants, is one that includes a championship. That’s why Iverson was made the way he is, why adversity has found him so many times, why God placed a heart that won’t stop in this one. Because if anyone can over come all that Allen Iverson has been through to win a championship, it’s Allen Iverson.

He’s been close once before, so he knows the steps that need to be taken in order to make that final push into the promise land. “I know we have so much talent in this league right now.” he says, “That’s why I don’t never sleep.” With the east’s upper echelon including Shaq and Dwyane Wade in Miami, JO in Indy, and the defending champion Pistons, the odds are stacked heavily against the Sixers. Thing is, Iverson doesn’t care. Odds have been stacked against him his whole life. Truth be told, if odds and even logic had prevailed Iverson wouldn’t even be in the league. Odds and logic say a frail, undersized, minus six foot guard from the ghetto shouldn’t make it to the league. AI knows the odds, he just chooses to place more importance in belief in himself and those around him. “I always feel like, even in a room with all these giants, I’m the best.” Iverson says confidently. “If I don’t feel like that, I might as well not even lace my sneakers up. I might as well not even look my coaching staff, my teammates and the city if Philadelphia in the eye because that’s what they think. They think I’m the best. Why shouldn’t I think that.”

Jordan R(Jet211408) can be reached by email at [email protected]. NBAline is copyright(2004) to Jordan R(Jet211408), all rights reserved.