There are only a few figures in sports that come to define a generation. These rare athletes enact changes to not only the sport in which he or she plays, but on a grander scale by implementing new behaviors, customs, and ideas into the framework of social order. From humble beginnings in Newport News, Virginia, Allen Iverson, former Georgetown Hoya and Philadelphia 76er, defined what it meant to be a black man in America during the 1990s and 2000s. Iverson’s inconceivable rise to fame amidst countless obstacles and his storybook 2001 professional basketball season are worthy of a paper, but it’s his destructive fall from America’s sporting graces which makes Iverson so interesting and emblematic of how powerful the media is in constructing (or later destroying) the identity, myth, and narrative of an athlete. Iverson became synonymous with hip-hop culture and a representation of the black rebellious image of the early 21st century, clashing with the establishment (the NBA) as well as the fabric of American white culture. Iverson’s impact extends beyond the hardwood, influencing the domains of fashion, music, race relations, and marketing practices. Iverson helped reshape an American identity of non-conformity once displayed in years earlier by athletes like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, and he ultimately changed the sport of basketball forever.
The time and space in which Allen Iverson grew up and began developing his own identity is critical in understanding and decoding his life. Born June 7th, 1975 to a fifteen-year-old single mother in Hampton, Virginia, Iverson was brought into a difficult economic and social situation. Iverson’s biological father, Allen Broughton, left his mother Ann before he was born and she was forced to raise her children without a strong father figure. Ann notoriously enjoyed partying and would do drugs in the presence of her children, partying late into the night with her friends, sometimes forcing her son to pick up “packages” (typically drugs) for her parties. The time period, the eighties, had a very unique impact on the black youth of Newport News. Larry Platt, in his book Only the Strong Survive, recounts the impact of the era on young Iverson, saying, “Iverson’s story contains the four elements that characterize black youth that came of age during the Reagan eighties: basketball, rap, dope dealing, and the ethic of ‘getting paid’” (Platt 7). Iverson was born in Hampton, but grew up in Newport News, which most residents referred to as Newport “Bad News”. Newport News’ economy flourished for a time in the eighties when Reagan’s upsurge in defense spending aided the area’s largest employer, the shipyard, hiring over thirty-two thousand workers during its peak. However, once the Cold War paranoia subsided by the late eighties, massive lay-offs occurred. As the shipyard scaled back its operations and outsourced many of its positions, many locals couldn’t find jobs. Wesley Snipes, in the 1991 movie New Jack City, claimed, “You got to rob to get rich in the Reagan era,” and Newport News embodied this ideology by developing an underground economy which dealt in drugs, violence, and other illicit activity (Platt 15). Kent Babb’s Not A Game examines the excessive violence and extreme poverty that surrounded Iverson during his formative years, recounting how one of his closest mentors, named Tony Clark, who often allowed Iverson to stay over his house when his mother was gone, was brutally stabbed to death by his girlfriend. In one summer, eight of Iverson’s friends were shot to death (Babb 14). Iverson was surrounded constantly by negative influences that gently tried to coax him away from his schooling and sports and into the dark underworld of gangs and drugs. Fortunately, Iverson found an outlet in sports that awarded him the opportunity to escape “Bad News”, but not before one historic night threatened to destroy his entire future.
Race and pop culture define Iverson’s life, both on and off the basketball court, which add a unique narrative to the Iverson saga. Iverson demonstrated extraordinary athleticism from an early age and used sports to escape from the temptations of drugs and crime, or a life on the streets. Exceling as a two-sport athlete at Bethel High School, Iverson won state championships in both football (where he was the star quarterback) and basketball as a junior. Iverson garnered a lot of attention at a young age, rising to the level of being a local celebrity and sporting hero to the impoverished, almost exclusively black neighborhoods of Virginia, like Newport News and Hampton. Jamil Blackmon, a resident of Hampton during Iverson’s rise to fame, said, “Every time he [Iverson] touched a ball, whether at Aberdeen Elementary, Anderson Park, or Bethel, there was a crowd. He had people crowding around him in restaurants like he was Michael Jordan. Guys who are celebrities in the game now, I know they never experienced anything like what he went through at his age (Platt 29). This mythification of Iverson from an early age is quite a burden for a young, impoverished kid to handle. His successes on the field/court became a resource for the local people to commit themselves to, crafting Iverson into a celebrity and the community’s great hope to escape the difficulties of their lives in the ghetto.
As recruiters from big-time college programs from across the country began targeting Iverson during his senior year of high school, race, culture, and politics collided on February 14th, 1993. The media covering the incident on this night demonstrates how the process of decoding and encoding varies depending upon the viewer’s socio-economic status, race, and value system. On Valentine’s Day, Iverson and a few of his friends were bowling at Circle Lanes in Poquoson, a wealthy, white town neighboring the Virginia Peninsula. Although the reports vary about Iverson’s personal involvement, a harsh brawl broke out at the bowling alley late in the evening, primarily between groups of black and white guests. Chairs were thrown, white patrons were injured, and Iverson, with the most recognizable face in the state, became the primary suspect of the investigation. The racial tension of the incident shows how two communities could decode the same event so differently: “African Americans believed Iverson was a target, arrested – along with three other black men – only because he was recognizable. Many whites thought the hot-head from Aberdeen [Iverson], who talked and played with anger and rebelliousness and ruffled feathers in the white community, had finally lost control” (Babb 35). Virginia, an original slave state and a place which unhurriedly desegregated schools in the late sixties only because it was forced to by the federal government, exhibited its share of racial injustices. However, the Iverson trial elevated this racial tension to the national stage. The prosecution tried the juvenile Iverson as an adult and many critics believe that they wanted to make an example of him, the unruly and black star athlete. In September of 1993, the judge delivered his verdict and sentenced Iverson to five years in jail for three felony counts of maiming by mob (the irony is that the ‘maiming by mob’ charge was originally created to protect blacks from lynchings by the Klu Klux Klan and it was now being used to convict a black man in defense of a white ‘victim’). The black community was outraged with the ruling, and the media, including Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Sports Illustrated, USA Today, and the Washington Post all swept in, their cameras capturing the countless African-Americans wearing “Free Iverson” T-shirts and “Justice for Bubbachuck” (Iverson’s childhood nickname) graffiti sprayed all over town (Platt 54). The black community was determined to prove Iverson’s innocence and the unfair “judicial lynching” that occurred to their local hero. Many activists even paralleled Iverson to Rosa Parks as well as other civil rights leaders. Bruce Harper, a Newport News resident, said, “When that judge gave him five years, I’ll tell you what, Joe Louis lost a fight, Martin Luther King Jr. got killed, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his championship. And Allen Iverson was going to jail (Platt 55-56). The eighteen-year-old Iverson meant a great deal to his community and his sentencing to the Newport News City Farm sparked them into a racial march for justice (via clemency) that went all the way up the political hierarchy to the first black governor of Virginia, Douglas Wilder. After four months in jail, Iverson was granted clemency by Governor Wilder and was at last free to try and continue his pursuit of becoming a NBA basketball player. The looming issue now…what university would take on a student-athlete recently jailed and willingly bear the national criticism and media burden?
Georgetown’s John Thompson operated a basketball program that historically possessed a reputation of a coach investing/protecting his players in exchange for hard work, discipline, and commitment. In the eighties, Georgetown’s basketball image was one forged of toughness and rebelliousness, demonstrating an inner city style that certainly appealed to Iverson. As the rest of the nation’s top programs retracted their scholarship offers to Iverson after the bowling alley incident, Ann Iverson personally drove to Washington, D.C. to ask the legendary coach to “save her son”. She was desperate for the cycle of poverty and crime to end in her family. Thompson recalled in a 1996 Washington Post article, “I saw the love of a mother who was afraid for the life of her child” and he offered Iverson a scholarship (Babb 59). Thompson gave Iverson a second chance and the kid from Newport “Bad News” rose to the occasion, winning games for the Hoyas immediately and taking his team to the Elite 8 during his sophomore season. However, what is critical about Iverson’s time at Georgetown was his intimate relationship with his coach. As previously mentioned, Iverson lacked a stable father figure in his life, or a role model who knew of the difficulties of growing up as a black man in America in the nineties and could share it with the burgeoning Iverson. Thompson took on this fatherly role on the court but also in other situations. When Iverson was interviewed by the press during his freshman year, Thompson would stand by his player’s side and deflect any questions he thought weren’t about basketball or would put Iverson in an uncomfortable position regarding his past. As Iverson’s play on the court began to evolve and he developed into the face of Hoya basketball, the media circled, but Thompson guarded his new star’s image with father-like convictions. Thompson dictated his player’s agency, not the media. Even when Iverson did step out of line, Thompson handled discipline privately behind closed-doors, never going to the media to vent issues about his players (something Larry Brown would later not do with Iverson as a 76er) which Iverson truly respected about his coach. Dean Berry, a walk-on guard for Georgetown during Iverson’s years, recalled Thompson and Iverson’s relationship, “He [Iverson] was like the obedient son. Allen was never late for practice, because that would be disrespectful to Coach. I’m not saying they didn’t have blowups. But Coach would never go to the media with that stuff; he’d come directly to us. Things never got out of the gym and that meant everything to Allen” (Platt 89). Due to his success at Georgetown, Iverson announced he was leaving school early, something none of Thompson’s players had done beforehand. Iverson would enter the 1996 NBA draft and begin his professional career so he could financially provide for his family struggling back in Virginia. Thompson understood Iverson’s decision and publicly backed his player’s choice. But, being a veteran of the game, Thompson knew of the emotional and psychological challenges facing young black males in the NBA, saying, “I’m not concerned about the two hours a day Allen will be expressing himself on the basketball court. I’m worried as hell about the other twenty-two hours” (Platt 92).
The changing of the cultural guard of the NBA occurred when Iverson was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the first overall pick in the 1996 Draft. Unbeknownst to David Stern (the NBA Commissioner), owners, fans, and even Iverson himself, the mythification and hip-hop cultural influence of this new player from Virginia, referred to as “The Answer” or simply “AI”, was about to shake up the NBA establishment and revolutionize the American sporting landscape. The new part-owner and president of the 76ers, Pat Croce, wanted to revitalize the organization with the young, innovative phenome from Georgetown who could garner the respect of the hard-to-please Philadelphia fan base that desired attributes in their players such as hard work and an attitude of fearlessness. Croce was impressed by Iverson’s candor and commitment to his hometown and family, selecting him instead of other highly desirable prospects like Kobe Bryant, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, or Marcus Camby. Iverson said in his pre-screening draft interviews, “I’ve heard rumors all my life about my mom and drugs and it hurts me…I liked to hang around with older guys ‘cause guys my age were doing some bad things…If I fuck up, it’s going to be because I fucked up. Not because some guy told me to fuck up” (Platt 98). Iverson took responsibility for his own actions and wasn’t afraid to admit to his past mistakes, which impressed the 76ers organization. Iverson successfully denied a life of drugs and crime in his youth because he was motivated to become a professional basketball player, telling himself he would become the best of all-time, better than even Michael Jordan. Fortunately for the 76ers, they believed in Iverson too and were willing to take a chance on him.
After being selected first overall, sponsorship opportunities arose for the young and rebellious future NBA super-star. Reebok understood the hype surrounding Iverson and the company wanted to channel his hip-hop persona into a shoe brand that could elevate the company past the big market players in the athletic shoe industry, Adidas and Nike, and appeal to a new, rising demographic in America. The nineties were a time where baby boomers aged and a new, vibrant youth culture developed which was raised on MTV and hip-hop. Music inspired by artists like The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, N.W.A, and Ice-T, films like American Beauty and Fight Club, and the gang culture of the Bloods and Crips shaped the American cultural landscape of the nineties and was directly reflected in Iverson’s attitude and physical appearance. Michael Eric Dyson, a cultural critic, equated Iverson to “Tupac with a jumpshot”, defying the sports punditocracy and NBA old guard with tattoos, cornrows, and baggy clothes (Platt 6-7). Reebok pursued an endorsement deal with Iverson and his agent David Falk, the same agent of Michael Jordan. However, Iverson did not want to be marketed like Jordan. Brad Greenberg of Reebok explains that, “Iverson’s appeal was going to be more of a hip-hop theme, geared to younger kids and urban kids. Reebok will endorse him [Iverson] being this sort of anti-corporate guy.” Reminiscent of the ghetto fabulous icon named Dr. J who came in the league during the seventies sporting an afro, big chains, and high-flying dunking style of play which revolutionized the game, Reebok hoped Iverson would garner the same popularity and cultural impact. Reebok inked Iverson to a $50 million endorsement deal (Platt 124).
Reebok’s positioning of Iverson, as compared to Michael Jordan, is emblematic of the cultural shift in the NBA during the late 20th century as well representative of the nation as a whole. The previous generation of ballplayers, like Jordan, embodied the integrationist vision found in the politics of their day and were made over for the comfort of white America, even while Madison Avenue marketed the likes of Joe Namath and John McEnroe as other rebels of tradition like James Dean and Elvis (Platt 7). Iverson was to become the new face of the NBA but also transform into a fashion and marketing icon. Henry “Que” Gaskins of Reebok identified Iverson’s unique crossover appeal and wanted to use “fusion marketing” to disseminate his image across the country. Gaskins believed Iverson’s attitude, style, persona, and way of playing the game appealed across traditional lines of geography and demography (Platt 131). Jordan was the hooped earing, clean-cut, and well-dressed face of the league that appealed to white audiences and matched the unchanging traditions and generally accepted customs of the NBA which was run primarily by old white guys in suits. Jordan had been the face of David Stern’s NBA, saying and doing the right things and keeping everyone from worrying too much. “Jordan was a gentle, approachable, suburb-friendly superstar; he liked golf and cigars, the same as any corporate fat cat and weekend warrior. Iverson wore oversized T-shirts and held up sagging pants, just like they did on the streets of every city in America” (Babb 109). Reebok didn’t want to make Iverson into another Jordan, instead they would re-position him to appeal to the new, burgeoning hip-hop segment of American youth. Iverson’s tattoos, do-rag, and cornrows made waves in the organization and demonstrated a change in the culture of the NBA, even if the league strongly resisted these deviations.
The NBA as well as many of its former players had qualms about the image Iverson was presenting to its fans during his young professional career. At the annual Rookie of the Year ceremony, Iverson wore a white Reebok skullcap when accepting his award. The league would not publicize photos of Iverson’s award ceremony because of his appearance. Russ Granik, the NBA’s deputy commissioner, told Pat Croce, “It [the skullcap] looks like something people wear in prison” (Platt 122). Unfazed by the criticism, Iverson decided to grow out his hair during his rookie season and reveal his new look, cornrows, at the beginning of his second season. “Que” Gaskins told Iverson, “You do that, and they gonna eat you alive” (Platt 135). But Iverson wasn’t afraid to rebel against the NBA’s status quo and he continued to not conform to what the NBA told or threatened him to do about his appearance or attitude throughout his career. In January of 2000, Iverson was featured on the cover of Hoop magazine, which is an official publication of the NBA. However, the league airbrushed away Iverson’s tattoos, presenting him in a way in which the league believed was more palatable by white America. Iverson’s response to the adulteration of his image was, “They [the NBA] could have used someone else if they didn’t want to accept me as whole. This is who I am. It kind of hurts, because I’ve got my mom’s name on my body, my grandmother’s name, my kids, my fiancée. That means something to me. Airbrushing them, that’s a slap in my face” (Babb 110). Iverson continued his generational clashing when he released his rap single “40 Bars” from his album Misunderstood. Some of the lyrics of Iverson’s song include, “Man enough to pull a gun, be man enough to use it. Come to me with faggot tendencies, you be sleeping where the maggots be. Get money, kill and fuck bitches. I’m hitting anything and planning on using my riches” (Platt 197). The rap lyrics were leaked to Pat Croce pre-release and he was extremely concerned about the public reception of the graphic and offensive word usage. Iverson defended his rap, claiming this was how hardcore gangster rap sounded and Croce could not understand it because he didn’t grow up in the Virginia Peninsula and he couldn’t identity with the lives or struggles of African Americans. David Stern and the league received a copy of the single and called it, “Coarse, offensive, and anti-social”, threatening to suspend and fine Iverson if he released the song or a complete album to the public (Babb 120). Iverson, traditionally unfazed by league mandates, folded under the pressure from his own team and the league, ultimately apologizing for the song’s lyrics and ending his rap career for good.
However, the most infamous NBA action directed at Iverson was the implementation of a compulsory dress code in the 2005 season. Larry Brown, Iverson’s coach with the 76ers, tried to implement his own team dress code years before the league mandated measure, but the players, especially Iverson, paid little attention to the new rule. However, Stern, effective November 1st, 2005, adopted a mandatory business casual dress code for all NBA players whenever they participated in team or league activities. If the players failed to oblige, the player would face stiff financial penalties for each infraction. Players were banned from wearing sleeveless shirts, shorts, T-shirts, chains/pendants, sunglasses while indoors, baseball caps, and baggy pants. Many players referred to the Commissioner’s mandatory policy as the “AI rule”, believing it was created to restrict Iverson’s hip-hop fashion sense. Some argue the new dress code was the league’s response to fix up its image after the “Malice at the Palace” brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons in 2004, when the league suffered serious reputational damage. Steve Kerr, former Bulls shooting guard and current coach of the Golden State Warriors, said in regards to the dress code, “It was weird. A predominantly black league with a white Commissioner telling everybody what they had to wear. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that” (Spears 2). Iverson believed Stern’s dress code was targeting him directly as well as the new hip-hop culture taking over the NBA in the early 21st century. Iverson did change his wardrobe slightly, but to circumvent the rules, he purchased baggy suits.
Iverson’s cultural persona was transforming into something bigger than simply a sports icon. In fact, he was beginning to influence the entire realm of fashion. This trend is reflected in Reebok’s explosive sales growth during their wildly successful Iverson marketing campaigns. These campaigns ingeniously captured Iverson, hip-hop, and basketball in one powerful message that possessed great appeal to the American youth of this era who sought something different and defiant. By the 2001 season, Iverson’s jersey and shoe line (called “The Answer”) was outselling every other player in the league. The sales of Sixer related memorabilia significantly dwarfed the larger markets, the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks. Reebok even made an announcement that Iverson helped push sales growth over 20% in the first half of 2001 (Platt 215). Iverson became a fashion icon and his “swagger” and style shifted from a periphery, counter-culture crusade to a mainstream, widely acknowledged movement.
However, unlike many fans, some of the media and many former players, accustomed to the commercialized, clean-cut NBA of old, openly voiced their negative opinions about Iverson’s trailblazing fashion sense, rebellious attitude, and unique approach to the game. In the late nineties, Iverson was pulled over by police for speeding. In the car were two of Iverson’s friends from Virginia and the officer claimed he smelled marijuana. The officer found a concealed weapon in the car and Iverson went to jail (eventually released on bail and sentenced to three years’ probation). The media went on a frenzy about Iverson’s arrest and took this opportunity to criticize his up-bringing, image, and attitude. Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post wrote, “There’s no sense in preaching to Iverson anymore, because all the indications are he ain’t listening. Entourages didn’t do a lot for rappers like Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, did they?” Tim Dwyer of the Philadelphia Inquirer picked up on the same sentiment, writing, “The hood and the arena don’t always mix. Iverson may be suffering from a blind loyalty to the hood” (Platt 134). Individuals within the 76ers organization encouraged Larry Brown to bench Iverson, perhaps even trade him if his “antics” persisted and he continued to damage the team’s name.
When Iverson arrived at the Rookie All-Star Game in Cleveland with his new style (e.g. baggy clothes and tattoos) and “I don’t give a damn about the rules” attitude during his first year in the league, the media and old players responded critically. The New York Times hinted that Iverson’s appearance was “too black” and “too in-your-face”, claiming, “Rookies making fashion statements do not often sit well with veteran players, who mocked Iverson’s hairdo behind his back”. The players followed. Elvin Hayes said, “Iverson plays the game like a runaway train”. Jerry Lucas said, “Iverson shows how we’re [the NBA] going in the wrong direction”. Isiah Thomas got in on the generational critique, exclaiming, “Somehow blackness became equated with how thuggish you look and how tough you act. When we were growing up, it was okay to wear a suit and tie and to respect people” (Platt 115-116). Race and culture of a previous era and the race and culture of the nineties were in a deadlock, both confused with the other’s customs and unsure of how to receive one another. The establishment, the league, traditionalist media writers, and many former players, publicly voiced their disdain with Iverson’s “new” way of doing things. However, Iverson, true to his upbringing in the ghetto, let the critics talk and he continued to pursue things unmistakably his own unique way, fearlessly and defiantly. It seems that the media’s “advice” fell silent on the youth of America because Iverson continued to climb rapidly in popularity, reaching historic levels in 2001.
Despite the criticism, the 2000-01 season solidified Iverson’s impact on the NBA and the American sporting landscape forever. Regardless of his incredible achievements in high-school and college, his success was limited in the NBA up to this point. Iverson was consistently associated with the sub-average 76ers who struggled to make the playoffs each year due to a weak roster and a coaching staff that failed to support Iverson in making a playoff run. However, this would change when Larry Brown was hired as head coach and upper-management made a few critical off-season trades/changes to the team which effectively re-built the roster with valuable, selfless role players that stressed defense and would complement Iverson’s free-flowing, fast-paced style of play. Players like Dikembe Mutombo (another former Hoya), Eric Snow, Tyrone Hill, and Aaron McKie formed the 76ers supporting cast which helped elevate Iverson’s game to iconic levels. The 76ers started the season red hot, winning their first ten games and finishing the season with the Eastern Conference’s best record, 56-26. Iverson averaged a career high 31.1 points in the regular season, winning his second scoring title and the league’s most cherished award, Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors. In fact, the 76ers swept the award ceremonies with Brown winning Coach of the Year, McKie winning 6th Man of the Year, and Mutombo winning Defensive Player of the Year (Platt 208). The city of Philadelphia fell in love with their anti-Jordan star and adamantly supported their team as they set themselves up for a title run. The 76ers defeated the Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors, and Milwaukee Bucks in their playoff series and made it to the NBA Finals against the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers with their three-headed Cerberus (Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Phil Jackson). The Lakers dismantled their prior opposition, not losing a single playoff game entering the Finals and having nine days to rest up before the tip-off of Finals Game 1 in Los Angeles. But AI, one of the most clutch players in 76ers history, rose to the occasion and defeated the Lakers (almost single-handedly) in Game 1, scoring 48 points and winning in thrilling overtime fashion. As the clock ticked down, Iverson hit one of the most memorable three-pointers in NBA history. With 1:19 left, Iverson, guarded by cornrowed Tyronn Lue, was isolated in the corner, crossed-over, faded away, and sunk a 3-point dagger. However, it wasn’t the making of the shot that transformed the moment into mythic proportions, just as Babe Ruth hitting a home run wasn’t the mythical aspect of the play, but the fact that he called his shot. Iverson, as the 76ers’ bench exploded as the shot swished in, boldly stepped over Lue, who was lying on the ground, after he was tripped up during the crossed over. This infamous “Step-Over” of Lue (not to be confused with AI’s 1997 “Cross-Over” of Michael Jordan) was a crowning moment of Iverson’s season and professional career. Iverson, with that simple but defiant step-over, showed everyone that he was the real deal. Although the 76ers would end up losing the series to the Lakers, the city of Philadelphia and the entire NBA community finally committed themselves to the new face of the league and American basketball…that is for a short while at least.
After the 2001 season, Iverson rose to epic proportions. Combined with his flashy endorsements, trendy hip-hop appearance, and legendary on the court performances, Iverson became a household name. At an early age, Iverson called his shot, like Babe Ruth and Joe Namath before him, guaranteeing that Bethel High would win both a football and basketball championship in the same year. Iverson delivered. When Iverson sought a nickname, his childhood friend suggested, “You’re ‘The Answer’. ‘Cause you’re the answer to all the NBA’s woes. I mean everybody’s in love with Mike [Jordan], everybody wants to be Mike. But Mike [who left for a baseball career when this discussion occurred) ain’t around anymore. So you’re the answer now” (Platt 68). What did Iverson do as a rookie when he faced Jordan one-on-one for the first time on March 12th, 1997? He crossed him over and drained a 15-foot jumper in his face, stunning fans, the league, and even Jordan himself. This infamous “Cross-Over” is significant because it initiated the dawn of a new age for the NBA and for African American athletes who could be unapologetically black. Iverson delivered. Even with his career finished, the Philadelphia 76ers in 2013 held a ceremony to retire Iverson’s #3 jersey. The arena was electric, the lights bright, the fans chanting “MVP! MVP!” and the Jumbotron replaying all of Iverson’s most iconic moments in a continuous loop. The fans loved the narrative that Iverson embodied and it will now live on forever due to his jersey retirement and creation into a Philadelphia myth, like Rocky. In 2016, Iverson was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame. The league, despite all of the trouble and public criticism it threw at him over his career, finally acknowledged the impact Iverson had on the game and how he transformed the social, cultural, and racial facets of basketball. Again, Iverson delivered.
Unfortunately, the life of Iverson does not continue to go completely as hoped. The Iverson narrative falls short of the story-book ending with a championship ring, a stable family life, and a comfortable financial future to enjoy during retirement. Throughout sports history, the tale of the sports legend who achieves great success and then slowly declines and fades into obscurity is an unfortunate but real aspect of professional sports and celebrity status. As much as the rise to fame can be lauded by the media, fans, and the league, these same entities also possess short-term memories and will turn their backs on the athlete when he or she is no longer “valuable” to them. The media, capable of praising the athlete and elevating him/her to godly status, can switch gears in an instant and viciously chronicle the athlete/celebrity’s struggles and plight. For example, take a look at the lives of other prominent athletes/celebrities who experienced the joys of stardom and later, the pains of poverty and obscurity, such as Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Mike Tyson, Lawrence Taylor, Scottie Pippen, and Evander Holyfield. History does unfortunately repeat itself and Iverson became yet another victim to suffer the same brutal cycle of stardom that ends with incredible personal loss and pain.
I believe Iverson’s decline began during the end of 2001, shortly after his most magnificent season as a pro and his wedding to his longtime girlfriend, Tawanna. Iverson’s childhood friend group, called Cru Thik, from his hometown in Virginia was an important aspect of his psyche which maintained the ethos of supporting those Iverson grew up with and trying to help them escape the dangerous ghetto lifestyle. If Iverson made it out, he could help his friends do the same. However, in October of 2001, one of Iverson’s closest friends, Rashaan “Ra” Langford, was murdered outside a bar in Newport News. Iverson did not handle the news well, refusing to talk about his friend’s death and seeking the solace of alcohol to numb the hurt and paranoia. Iverson, notorious for being late to practice in the past, skipped practice even more frequently, argued more often with his coaches (primarily Brown), stayed out late drinking at bars and clubs, and spent less time with his family. The team’s performance ultimately suffered, ending the 2001-02 season with a 43-39 record and a first round playoff elimination to the Boston Celtics. Pat Croce, Iverson’s strongest proponent during his career, resigned after the 2001 season and the 76ers management considered trading Iverson who they thought was becoming more trouble than the organization could handle. Iverson, in regards to Ra’s death, said in an interview, “I think about all the good times we had, the things we went through. Most of all, I keep telling myself that he did his job with helping somebody – me. He helped me so much just by being a real friend and always telling me when he thought I was wrong. And I needed that in a friend, instead of a bunch of people telling me everything I want to hear…But losing Ra has helped me realize a lot of other things that I wouldn’t have paid attention to, so I use that as a positive” (McGeachy 2). Even though Iverson claims Ra’s death helped him stay positive, the trauma from this incident deeply bothered him, perhaps even more than he realized, and made him turn away from those who loved him: his team, coaches, fans, and family.
The Grantland Rice era of sports journalism which captured epic moments in sports history with flowery, poetic language and lofty idealism of the athlete is sadly gone. Instead, the media turned Iverson into a one-dimensional caricature after the infamous “We’re talking about practice” press conference rant at the end of the 2002 season. As Iverson struggled with trade rumors and Ra’s death, the press pushed him hard about his historically poor practice attendance. Iverson, using the word “practice” over 20 times, growled at the press, “We sitting in here – I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we in here talking about practice. I mean, listen: We are talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We talking about practice” (Babb 208). This “practice” sound bite is what the media presented to the American public over and over again, crucifying him in the press for being selfish, egotistical, and an uneducated ‘thug”. However, this incident shows the encoding power of the media to feed the public the message they want to disseminate. The media conveniently leaves out the section of the press conference where Iverson is quite obviously in emotional pain, saying, “I know that I don’t do everything right. I do a lot of shit that ain’t right. I know I do. I’m just like y’all, though. I’m just like you. I might be better or I might not be, but I am human just like you”. Croce, watching live on his television from home, was repulsed by the interview. Croce said, “Someone grab him [Iverson] off there. He’s obviously fueled by irritation and alcohol. This is the stream-of-consciousness rambling of a man in pain” (Babb 209-10). The media demonized the press conference, portraying Iverson as a rambling hoodlum whose selfishness finally caught up with him and convinced many fans, NBA officials, and even the 76ers organization to reconsider their perspective and decoding of Iverson. From the bright lights of the NBA Finals less than a year ago, the fall of Iverson’s playing career began rapidly thereafter, heading towards a tragic crash and burn.
After three more seasons with the 76ers and only a handful of playoff victories, Iverson was traded to the Denver Nuggets. This trade began the revolving team carousel for Iverson, who was unable to find a stable team or a permanent home after his 10 year, star-studded career in Philadelphia. As Iverson’s game began to diminish due to injury and age, he endured short-lived stints with Denver, Detroit, Memphis, and even a team in Turkey. Iverson’s old coach, Larry Brown, said in regards to Iverson trade as a “big ass mistake”, believing the trade from the 76ers played a major role in Iverson’s downfall and later derailment (Babb 242). As Iverson spent less and less time on the court, he failed to find constructive ways to fills the hours off the court. As John Thompson alluded to during his college career, trouble found Iverson when he spent too much time away from basketball. No longer receiving a multi-million dollar salary and other lucrative endorsements, paired with his irresponsible financial spending and lavish lifestyle, the Iversons were hit with hard times. As the family struggled financially, Iverson shirked his fatherly responsibilities and gave his wife, Tawanna, the burden of raising their three children by herself. To make matters worse, Iverson drank excessively, staying out late with his friends and acting aggressively towards his wife, both verbally and physically, for years leading up to his official retirement from basketball in 2013. Tawanna filed for a divorce and in 2013, she won sole legal custody of their children. Iverson, now broke, divorced, and a borderline alcoholic, was validating the media’s biased depiction of him via his fall from his once culturally iconic, gold-trimmed NBA pedestal to the pits of isolation, misery, and impoverishment.
Despite his recent personal struggles, the cultural impact Allen Iverson had on the American sporting landscape is similar to other monumental African American sport trailblazers before him, such as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Iverson’s staunch stance as a non-conformist, doing things his way and remaining loyal to his up-bringing in Virginia, even if he suffered pecuniary fines, public criticism, or negative attention for that loyalty, showed his commitment to being a revolutionary social character. Platt voices a similar belief about Iverson’s social impact, saying, “Sports’ groundbreaking social characters, after all, always engender backlash: Jackie Robinson, Joe Namath, and Muhammad Ali. Iverson burst onto the scene as the first athlete to wear cornrows, the first to wield tattoos on his body, the first to fire David Falk, the first to record gangster rap, the first to cross over Michael Jordan. He instantly supplanted the likes of Mike Tyson as public enemy number one; to some he represented the worst fears of white America, the latest and maybe best embodiment of what poet Amiri Baraka wrote over thirty years ago about boxer Sonny Liston: ‘[Liston is] the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world’” (Platt 252). Regardless who you choose, be it Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball or Ali fearlessly proclaiming himself as a strong, black Muslim and denouncing the Vietnam War or Iverson rebuking the NBA white hierarchy with his “in-your-face” blackness and hip-hop attitude, all three athletes broke communal and racial barriers during their respective eras in American history and spurred pivotal social changes to the nation. When asked what he was most proud of in his career, Iverson answered, “What makes me proudest is that I did this my way. I never changed who I was” (Platt 5). It wasn’t the money, the fame, or even the basketball accolades that Iverson was most proud of during his Hall of Fame career. Instead, like any truly innovative figure, Iverson was most proud of his cultural influence on the sport of basketball, the African American community, and the United States of America.
Babb, Kent. Not A Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson. New
York: Atria, 2015. Print.
Platt, Larry. Only the Strong Survive: The Odyssey of Allen Iverson. New York:
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McGeachy, Ashley. “Iverson Haunted by Death of Friend.” Philly-Archives.
Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 Jan. 2002. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.
Spears, Marc. “How the NBA’s Fashion Game Has Evolved in the 10 Years since the 2005
Dress Code.” Yahoo Sports. Yahoo, 17 Oct. 2015. Web. 03 May 2016.
Iverson – Directed by Zatella Beatty (Showtime production)
No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson – ESPN 30 for 30; Directed by Steve James
Allen Iverson: The Answer – Produced by Steve Michaud