Maybe you’re tired of reading Allen Iverson’s name, I don’t know. He signed to play in Turkey last week (not the first four-time scoring champ to head overseas, just so you know), and the consensus was that it’s a sad way for him to exit the game–and our conscience. In reality, it’s a backlash that has been brewing for some time. Backlash and Allen Iverson, hand in hand since 1993. As his career was winding down, I was constantly hit by the thought of how history would remember Iverson. I was curious as to how he was marketed, how he’d been written about, about how great he really was as a player, and what type of guy he was. Last May, I decided to at least try to find out. Unlike perhaps some who’d written about him, I wanted to try to understand. I spoke with people from Newport News, Georgetown, Reebok, Philly, you know, people who actually knew him. What Iverson evokes in those close to him is the loyalty that he was famous for; the amount of people who returned my emails, who readily agreed to talk, who defended him as a man like family and as a player like a teammate—they provided the Answer. This is part one of two.
by Todd Spehr
“Allen was one of the great marketers of the game to young people because of the counterculture personality that he had.”
—Harvey Araton, NBA writer for the New York Times
Que Gaskins vividly remembers the moment he fell in love. He was the business unit manager of basketball for Reebok in 1994, a slowly growing division of the shoe company that was, like all others, fighting for a piece of whatever Nike didn’t have. Gaskins was watching Georgetown’s freshman, Allen Iverson, on television, this navy blur on his screen taking and holding his attention. Then it happened. Gaskins was, like all future Iverson devotees, seduced by a move of quickness and uncommon athleticism: Iverson evading a defender at midcourt before accelerating to the paint, taking off to dunk, the sight of this player of ordinary height doing extraordinary things appealed to Gaskins. “Woah,” he thought. “I have to find a way in on this.”
Gaskins, intrigued, started networking, making calls, speaking to those he knew first at Georgetown and then to newly acquainted people in Virginia. The feedback was consistent: Freak of nature on the court, and off it, someone who was very personable, very funny, real, and likeable. There was appeal—both a genuine appeal and a unique demographic appeal—that sold Gaskins on Iverson. There was Iverson’s play, a potent mix of dare and desperation, an unbridled nature; no one was ever ridiculed for playing too hard, Gaskins figured. There was also that realness to his personality, the uncompromising attitude, the aura Iverson permeated that could potentially allow him to be influential in a different way. His background and experiences were consistent with things that were being articulated in a rapidly growing genre known as hip hop, a type of music that enjoyed growth in the 80s and broke into the mainstream in the 90s, coinciding with its followers’ entrance into adulthood.
Iverson represented the evolution of hip hop as much as the culture itself. Like an increasing number of professional athletes, there were inconsistent living conditions as a youth, the frequent presence of drugs and death, but unlike most athletes, there was a famous stint in jail, a lasting brush with the so-called system. There was no family member of noted achievement, no suburban upbringing or private school education, no real reason to think he’d be any different to other talented athletes gone wayward. Yet despite those plights, Iverson had somehow risen and achieved a small measure of (and was destined for more) greatness, and thus symbolized the capabilities of outlasting and perseverance. He was, above all else, to be admired, not for what he wasn’t but for what he was; things were achieved that, taken to logical conclusions, carried value greater than championship rings or dollar signs.
To Reebok, Iverson was this contrasting figure. He was a player with the ability and credibility to represent a culture in a relevant manner, who openly loved who he was and what he was about. And yet because Iverson was never one for narcissistic introspection he was therefore unaware of this ability to be a torchbearer, disinterested in projecting what other athletes projected and holding no regard for the opinions others held of him. The latter, some felt, the epitome of the hip hop in Iverson.
Reebok loved Iverson, even had a shoe design readymade for him during his sophomore year in college with his future still undecided. Ironically, Reebok felt that if anyone was destined for Nike, it was Iverson: He wore Nike’s growing up, John Thompson, his college coach, at one time was on Nike’s board of directors and always had his team outfitted by the brand, his agent David Falk had obvious ties, and, perhaps most importantly, it was thought Nike could best capture Iverson’s unique essence—his background, his story—in the form of advertising. Reebok approached Iverson with three basic questions: Who are you? What do you represent? What do you want to be about? Reebok soon found out. “It was family, loyalty, honor, about being a man’s man,” said Gaskins. “Not someone who was soft, scared, or easily intimidated. He was confident, he believed in his abilities over everyone else’s. And we loved that.” Iverson signed with Reebok—there would be freedom, a spotlight, and a signature shoe ready for opening night.
The early advertising was grassroots, filmed in Philadelphia’s streets and playgrounds like semi-documentaries. What’s more real than a documentary? It was, felt some Reebok employees, the best advertising the company had done in quite some time. There was a feeling of arrival attached to Iverson’s signature, a chance for new opportunities, a fresh start for a brand that had prior success in female fitness but little else. The company introduced Iverson by mixing his performance-based elements—his speed, his creativity, his innovation—with a personal, real touch. It wasn’t overwhelming, but it was effective. Clearly, Reebok didn’t only embrace the best of Iverson, but the core of Iverson. That, in itself, was a mixed bag. He was not only a talented and good looking young man, but one unchanged by fame or fortune, who exhibited a youthful defiance, and who had, as noted by longtime observer Dr. Todd Boyd, a cultivated indifference to the opinions of society. This wasn’t a man chasing endorsements or commercials, but one who was satisfied providing for family and immersing himself with a familiar circle of friends.
The culture of the game was slowly altering: Music was blared in arenas, rappers were referencing players in their songs, players were dressing like rappers, and writers were referencing rap lyrics in their work. Iverson wasn’t just a basketball player—he was the central figure of a larger community, an athlete who looked like a rapper yet who wasn’t a rapper. His rise to prominence as a marketing tool, not without its challenges (mostly from an older audience) had opened doors; brands were suddenly leveraged within the company, mixing entertainers and musicians with clothing and shoe lines, fusing together the desires of the young male—sports, music, technology, entertainment. Something was discovered.
And so on a November morning in 2001, with Michael Jordan, himself the gold standard for marketing, in town to play his Sixers, Iverson was offered something by Reebok that they’d never offered another athlete of theirs: A lifetime contract. Reebok, Gaskins thought, was saying three things to Iverson: He made the right decision [choosing Reebok], they made the right decision, and with loyalty being at the core of Iverson’s values, this gesture showed that they were shaped in some way in his image.