As it turns out, the way you stop Allen Iverson is with cheap domestic beer and a good divorce lawyer. Journalist Kent Babb published a biography of the former superstar this week (I recommend it), and there are stories in it about Iverson being, at times, a complete shitbag. To wit:
- Iverson once threatened his wife, Tawanna, that he would pay a man $5,000 to have her killed.
- Iverson also told Tawanna that he would pay someone a million dollars to testify in divorce court that they had an affair with her. (Side note: His price scale for nefarious deeds strikes me as poorly thought out)
- Tawanna has also accused Allen of numerous instances of spousal abuse, including stepping on her bare foot and grinding his boot heel into it, and punching her in the back while laughing out loud. “That’s a kidney shot,” he told her.
- Iverson was an absentee father who once left his young kids alone in a hotel room for a whole night to go get hammered. He also once told one of his sons, “You ain’t no real nigga. You a white boy, you preppy, you rich boy.”
- Iverson was and perhaps still is an incorrigible drunk. He showed up to his infamous “PRACTICE?!” press conference shitfaced.
- Iverson never bothered to work out as a pro and sometimes ate four hot dogs in a row before taking the court. (Actually, I kind of like him for this.)
You get the idea. This is all shit that has been in the ether for a while, and has now coalesced into a single, damning indictment. If you’re a big Iverson fan, you’ll read it and then probably then wish that you hadn’t.
There is more than enough ammunition here to prove anyone who ever found Iverson’s routine distasteful or an affront to professionalism correct. Regardless of his brilliance on the court, the adult Iverson is now defined by his tragic descent into alcoholism and the number of despicable acts he’s committed, perhaps as a result of that alcoholism. He has become, in his sure-to-be-lengthy twilight, a sad husk—a man beyond redemption, surrounded by a dwindling cadre of yes-men, deluded into thinking he can still play professional basketball and keep his family together without putting any of the necessary work into either endeavor.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end. Back in the late ’90s and early aughts, Iverson became a legend in part because of his fierce determination to—cue the groaning—be true to himself. Entire marketing campaigns were built around this concept:
Allen Iverson hated practice, distrusted coaches, wore baggy clothes, had tats running down his arms, and had no problem throwing up 35 shots a game, and if you didn’t like it, that was your problem. He wasn’t going to change who he was just to make other assholes happy.
That was a big fucking deal back in the late ’90s. Iverson came up when the NBA was still dominated by Michael Jordan, a cutthroat man who cleverly masked his most cutthroat tendencies behind a veneer of brand-friendliness, making himself the perfect black basketball player for white consumers. By contrast, Iverson never bothered to hide who he was, and in the process, whether by design or not, he leveraged his qualities—his realness, to borrow the emptiest of phrases. He leveraged the cornrows. He leveraged the tats. He leveraged his open distaste for passing. He became a superstar in part because of all this, turning every bad thing people ever said about him into an asset, and inspiring a lot of young fans (black fans in particular) in the process.
Iverson refused to change how he looked or acted. He refused to conform. And for that, he sparked arguments about athlete comportment that persist—God, do they persist—to this day. People inferred terrible things from his look and manner. I will refer you to reliable idiot Jason Whitlock for one such example:
No one wants to watch Delonte West or Larry Hughes play basketball. It’s uncomfortable and disconcerting. You don’t want your kids to see it. You don’t want your kids to think they should decorate their neck, arms, hands, chest and legs in paint. You don’t want to waste time explaining to your kids that some millionaire athletes have so little genuine self-confidence that they find it necessary to cover themselves in tattoos as a way to mask their insecurities […] If I was David Stern, I’d commission Nike and/or Under Armor to create a basketball jersey with long sleeves, all the way down to the wrists. I’d make Iverson wear a turtleneck jersey with sleeves. I’d cover the tats.
This was a standard take on Iverson back in his playing days. People like Whitlock found him threatening for his look and his attitude. (This sort of thing led to a dumb panic over whether the NBA was becoming too “urban,” culminating in the installation of a formal dress code.) In turn, other people found people like Whitlock racist for finding those qualities threatening to begin with. And we’ve been having the same argument ever since. Iverson, unwittingly, spent most of his career as a partisan issue, a litmus test for how people view black American culture. Whitlock was basically saying, Hey, it’s black people’s fault that they dress like thugs and are somehow surprised when people think of them as thugs, whereas the opposing view is, Hey, assuming a dude is a thug just because he has cornrows is the kind of shit that’s holding down black Americans and keeping them from having a fighting chance in society.
You can take the arguments about Iverson all the way out to the outer reaches. Is he naturally a shitty guy, or is he a shitty guy because his upbringing—as a child, Iverson would often roam the streets of Hampton, Va. until 2 a.m. because he grew up with virtually no parental supervision—never gave him a chance to be anything other than a shitty guy? Either way, he ended up crafting a legacy that encompassed far more than just his dazzling on-the-court play. His style and bravado made it more it easier for his peers to be individualistic, even defiant. Because of him, I’d argue, a lot of players now feel more free to express themselves (vocally and sartorially), and to defy authority when they think that authority is being unreasonable. Does anyone have an issue with LeBron’s tattoos these days? I doubt it. Iverson opened a pressure valve that needed to be opened, and the NBA has been remade in the process.
Now, though, that legacy is all but divorced from the man himself. Babb’s book reveals the ugly flipside of all that stay-true-to-yourself horseshit, which is that Iverson was (and is) an unreliable and stubborn man who has consistently refused any attempt at self-improvement. It’s a grand irony that he made it okay to be yourself while, at the same time, falling so far because he refused to change. I asked Babb if, after writing about Iverson so extensively, he thought Iverson was a bad man. Here is what he emailed back:
Yeah, I kind of do, and I wish that weren’t the case. Like a lot of people, I grew up watching Iverson and really loved it. He’s small. He’s awesome. He doesn’t give a shit. I wanted to be just like that. Even when I was researching and writing this book, I couldn’t figure out a lot of times if I loved or hated him. Like, last summer I was really worried that I wasn’t being fair to him. He spent too much money, treated his ex-wife badly, and ignored his kids while he got hammered by himself at P.F. Chang’s. It was coping, I thought, but did all that really make him a bad guy? He really did love his family, and maybe his biggest fault was his loyalty.
One weekend last July, during a time I was trying to identify with Iverson and was worried I was being unfair, I searched and found several people bitching directly at him on Twitter. One was a dad in Georgia whose son had begged to attend Iverson’s youth camp, this thing Iverson himself had promoted for weeks to go and play and talk hoop with middle-school kids. I tracked the dad down and asked him about it. Every day, he told me, the counselors promised that Iverson would be there the next day, so bring their gear for him to autograph. And every day, Iverson blew it off; come to find out, even the counselors hadn’t spoken to him in weeks. They were just hoping he would show up to get the parents off their backs. The same weekend he skipped an appearance at LeSean McCoy’s foundation so he could sit at a hotel bar by himself and get drunk.
I’m not sure why that tipped the balance for me, but it did. Throughout this entire process, I wanted Iverson to be a good guy who sometimes did bad stuff. But I don’t think that’s true. In fact, it’s probably the opposite.
And that’s the tragedy of Allen Iverson, who is probably cooped up in some chain restaurant somewhere right now, drinking beer and watching old highlights of himself on his phone. He’s a man who created a more accepting sports environment while never doing anything useful with it. He opened the door and never went through it.