Thursday, May 2nd, 2013 at 11:23 am  |  16 responses

Can’t Knock the Hustle

The Allen Iverson cover story from the iconic SLAM 32 (March, ’99).

Here’s what I remember most about writing the Allen Iverson cover story for SLAM 32: The whole interview took place in the back of a limo over the course of a NYC morning, and we made one stop at Jacob the Jeweler on 47th Street so he could get his diamond and platinum cuff fixed. Given the recent stories this plays tragic, but back then it’s just how things were. And besides, this was when Iverson’s prime earning days were still ahead of him—as were the All-Star appearances and scoring titles (he’d win his first that lockout-shortened ’99 season) and his lone Finals appearance and MVP. There was no thought of legacy, of how any of this would seem a decade and a half down the road. In fact, aside from the bling, Iverson was a purer practitioner of Zen than Phil Jackson, forever living in the moment, playing each game like it could be his last. He was also one hell of an interview, even on a sleepy morning. Enjoy.—Russ Bengtson

Originally published in SLAM 32 (March, ’99)

by Russ Bengtson / portraits by Clay Patrick McBride

Shut up.

All of you who have been talking, writing, miming about Allen Iverson’s posse, his hair, his Benz, his jewelry, his clothes, his music. Stop for a minute—just a minute—and listen. (The previous sentence should have read “Stop for a minute—just a minute—and watch,” but since the NBA seems intent on killing itself, listening will have to do.) Listen to the one person who has any real stake in Allen Iverson’s life.

Listen: Anything that has anything negative to do with my name, negative people will bring it back up, and they’ll try to tear me down. But it’s going to be like that for the rest of my life, you know?

Allen Iverson says this from the back of a black stretch Lincoln, slowly rolling through New York City traffic, Primo-blessed All City flowing through the speakers. Draped in his signature Reebok fatigues and enough ice-dipped platinum to ensure Patrick Ewing’s family’s “survival” for countless generations, Allen Iverson sounds like a hypocrite. Just another young superstar with an attitude. Look at the 23-year-old with the jewels and the shady friends and the arms full of new tattoos, worrying about getting torn down. Isn’t he doing that himself?

Listen: I dress the way I want to dress, I look the way I want to look— people don’t understand. “He wanna wear the cornrows, and all that, it’s supposed to be some thug image.” It’s not that. It’s I’m tired of being on the road—I go out and I have a game and I wanna get my hair cut, the barber pushes my hairline all the way to the back of my head. I’m tired of that, so I get my hair braided and I can wear my hair like this for two weeks and play two, three games. I’ll never cut my hair again. My son, I’ll never cut his hair. He’s gonna wear cornrows—is he a thug? You know it’s not about that. I guess I am hip-hop, but I’d rather be like that right now. When I get to 30 or maybe—well, I’m 23, and maybe when I get to 24 I’ll want to change.

Explanations can be awfully simple when you let them come out. Allen Iverson isn’t trying to be a gangster—he just never had the chance to be a kid. He grew up poor, spent his 18th birthday in prison on trumped-up charges that were later dismissed. After that, two years under John Thompson’s lock-and-key at Georgetown, then, at the ripe old age of 21, introduced to Philadelphia as the Savior. Black Jesus, Part II. When your name’s been in the headlines since high school, your life is no longer your own.

Listen: You know, people just make mistakes; everybody makes mistakes. The people that write them negative articles, they make mistakes—if not every day, every other day. The same person that’s bashing you on TV, whether it’s a commentator or reporter, that same person has made mistakes in his life but was never in the spotlight, so people didn’t hear about it, you know what I’m saying?

Allen Iverson spends a lot of time defending his life. Too much time. People forget what it’s like to be 23—and will never understand what it’s like to grow up the child of a 15-year-old mother in a crowded house with raw sewage on the floor, and then be given a ticket out. Not only a ticket out, but the ticket—virtually unlimited riches, millions of adoring fans. Success came quickly. Iverson scored 30 points in his first game on 15-19 from the floor; last year’s stats (22 ppg, 6.7 apg and 3.7 apg) were All-Star numbers on any other team. But for every person who wants to see him succeed, there are two hoping he’ll fail. Charles Barkley, who in his illustrious career has spit on a little girl and thrown a grown man through a plate-glass window, called him “playground Rookie of the Year.” Yet through all of this, AI’s remained the same—true to himself, true to those who’ve stayed true to him. Doesn’t this mean something?

Listen: I’m confident, not cocky.

Over the course of four hours, Allen Iverson repeats this phrase many times in many forms, as something of a mantra. It is unclear who he is trying to convince, me or him. The truth is this—whatever it is he’s got, Allen Iverson has earned the right to it. After all, who else has gone from prison to NBA Rookie of the Year? Who else, once touted as the best football prospect in the land, has emerged instead as one of the best basketball players on the planet? Who else has a crossover that broke off Michael Jordan, not once but twice?

Listen: If I played the two-guard position, I know for a fact—and I put that on everything I love—I would lead the League in scoring every single year. But the picture’s bigger than that. I’m a point guard and I want to be the point guard. I want to learn the point guard position, and that’s more important to me than having the scoring title and all that. I want to be a point guard, and that’s that. You know, I want to score and get assists and and steals rebounds and blocks—I want to do every single thing there is to do on the basketball court.

Confidence—or cockiness? Know where this is coming from: ever since AI was a shorty, his dream was to play in the NFL or the NBA. Everyone told him it was a one-in-a-million, a one-in-a-billion chance. “I always told them, ‘Not me, man. I’m different,’” Iverson says. “I always used to feel like that. I’m not sayin’ it to be big-headed or anything, but I had that much confidence in myself.” He still does. He’s earned it.

Listen: I want to be a Sixer for the rest of my career. I don’t want to play for no other team. I don’t think that’s fair to kids and fans, man, to see a guy be here and then jumpin’ around to different teams. I just don’t.

The cover is no joke. Even though he did roll in seven-plus hours late to the photo shoot, AI’s got a lotta love for Philly—a lotta love for the game. The Sixers went 31-51 last season, and A.I. wants to stay? What kind of modern-day power move is that? We won’t go so far to call him a throwback—Nate Archibald 2000, The Funk Doctor—but he’s got roots. Followed Jordan as a kid. Magic. Bird. Because underneath all the perceptions, all the lies, damn lies and headlines, Allen Iverson is a basketball player. This interview probably won’t change your view of AI—as a matter of fact, it will probably just reinforce whatever way you’re leaning. But still, do yourself a favor. Do Allen one. Listen.

SLAM: What’s your definition of a true point guard?

Allen Iverson: Someone that just understands the game, knows how to get people involved with the game. Knows when to go and when not to go. The leader on the court, the vocal leader, the leader by example. The guy who plays every game like it’s his last.

SLAM: Do you want to meet the definition or redefine the position?

AI: No, I want…I trust my coach to teach me how to be a true point guard, whatever that definition is, the real definition. Not out of my eyes, but John Stockton’s eyes and Magic Johnson’s eyes. You know, guys like that. I think my coach will teach me how to be a true point guard, the best I can be at that position. I might never be a John Stockton or a Magic Johnson, [but] I want to know the point guard from John Stockton’s perspective. I think I have more physical talents then John Stockton, but I think he knows it mentally better then me, so I’m leaving it up to my coach to teach me how to be a true point guard from his perspective and with my ability.

SLAM: I know Coach Brown has a rap for being kind of tough on point guards. Is he?

AI: Yeah he is, he is. I mean it was tough in the beginning with my coach, because I didn’t understand him and he didn’t understand me, but eventually just playing together and learning from him and him learning how I feel about different things, we got tighter. That’s what makes me look forward to this season even more, because me just putting my pride aside and listening to how he wanted me to play and run the team—it worked out. I became a better player by listening to what Larry Brown had to offer.

SLAM: Has part of it been you changing after being in the League for two years?

AI: I haven’t changed. I think my game has changed, because I have learned…you know, my first year at Georgetown, I was just reckless, because I was trying to make a name for myself. I was trying to show myself and everybody else that I could be successful on the college level and that I was a good basketball player, and I went through the same thing as a pro. I was young and I didn’t know the game and I still don’t know it like I want to know it. But I haven’t changed, I’m just learning. I guess I have changed but I’m learning—it’s not because I want to change my image; I want to change my style of play.

SLAM: At Georgetown you were the Big East’s defensive player of the year both years. People don’t really talk about that since you’ve been in the pros. Have you been paying more attention to offense?

AI: Well, they might not notice—I was fifth in steals, but people just talk about my offense. I’m not a great defensive player; I know I have to get better—and Coach Brown lets me know that every chance he gets. I gamble too much, ’cause I’m always trying to get a steal. In this league, if you go for a steal and you don’t get it, nine times out of 10 you get hurt for it, they exploit that. I’m always trying to make something happen on both ends of the court, and you hurt the team gambling a lot on defense, because once you miss a steal, the defense is on their heels.

SLAM: Do you think you can become a great defensive player?

AI: I think so. I think all that is mental. That’s like offense. Once you start believing you can become a great offensive player and you feel that way, then your body and your mind are going to respond. So, that’s that same thing with defense. There’s a lot of people that just concentrate on trying to be a great offensive player when you’re supposed to be concentrating on being a great defensive player, too.

SLAM: It seems the offense wasn’t that big a switch, though. You scored 30 your first game in the League.

AI: Offense just—I mean, whether it is good or bad, offense is just the most exciting part of any game—football, baseball, basketball. Defense, you know, you have to be really talented to be a great defensive player, because there are so many great offensive players. And to be a great defensive player, that’s special because you stopping a great offensive player. That’s like a linebacker—if you a great linebacker, that’s serious, man, to able to get to Barry Sanders every time you want to. That’s crazy, that’s talent.

SLAM: Can anybody stop you one-on-one?

AI: No, I don’t think so. And I really believe this in my heart. I respect Derek Harper, because I think he is the greatest defensive player I ever played against and I ever watched, but I don’t think he can stop me. I don’t think nobody in the League can stop me—and I know that there’s a lot of guys in the League that feel the same way I feel, so I don’t think that’s no big-headed or conceited comment. I don’t really think nobody can stop me. Maybe in college, when they ran box and ones on me, but in the NBA, where it’s just man to man? No one can stop me. A team may be able to do something with me, but no one man can stop me from doing whatever I want to do on the basketball court.

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  • http://slamonline.com/ Ben Osborne

    So great. Thank you Russ and Allen—then and now.

  • ToldUso

    F him. Never liked the guy. Should be the poster boy for a “when keeping it real/hood goes horribly wrong”
    He ain’t talking bout practice, that’s why Kobe is still relevant as a senior citizen and AI, well, isn’t.

  • KevinJohnsonFan

    Easily my favorite issue of SLAM. Favorite player.

  • KevinJohnsonFan

    So angry at a man you don’t know to say “F him”. And who honestly cares about you liking him or not? Hilarious. SLAM has always been good to AI. He’s the poster boy for being authentic when others want you to change so that you’re a better “role model” for their children. He’s a poster boy for being himself when others wanted him to be like Jordan. He’s a man now who needs help with his problems and needs to be a better man and better father more than anything else. Kobe’s relevancy now is about a lot more than practice. AI is 3 years older than Kobe first of all. Second of all, Iverson’s natural gifts were such that he didn’t need to practice to perform which ended up harming him a little bit. He was one of the best athletes the NBA had ever seen. Kobe practiced, worked on his game and turned himself into what he is. AI is a top 50 player and top 10-15 SG of all time because of his talent alone. AI will always be relevant. Very few NBA legends have been loved in the way that AI was/is. Kobe doesn’t generate the same level of interest that Iverson does now and he definitely didn’t while he was trying to be like Jordan and AI was just being himself. SLAM could put AI on the cover next month for no good reason and it would fly off the racks quickly.

  • Rockwell

    This is an entertaining read even after more than a decade passed (damn, can’t believe I’ve been a hoophead for that long). Slam was the best for being able to get candid, insightful answers instead of stock cliches out of the athletes it covered. Just read the Washington Post profile that showed how broke and troubled AI really is. Hopefully he’ll be able to channel the heart and determination he showed on the court to getting his life together.

  • NickDePaula

    One of the my favorite interviews then and just as amazing of a read now. Perfect sense of how great he wanted to be at that stage, but also how much he knew he had to still learn as well.

  • Xena

    LOL. It`s funny how so many people have bought into that bias, one-sided WaPo piece. I guess the saying holds true here: “There`s a sucker born every minute.”

    I understand now more than ever why Iverson has that “Only The Strong Survive, defensive” mentality. He has to protect himself from the ignorance of society.

    Great dig up by SLAM.

  • logues

    so mad that i didn’t get the questions when they released. was being tight with my money at the time but shoulda just got em anyway… hopefully they release again next yr

  • KevinJohnsonFan

    John Thompson, Pat Croce, Larry Brown, Aaron McKie are all in that story. None of those guys would say anything against AI that wasn’t true. Wasn’t a biased one-sided story. I’m a huge Iverson fan and have been since Georgetown. At a certain point, it’s time to stop thinking he’s the victim and start realizing that he has a problem. Iverson doesn’t need to protect himself from an ignorant society. He needs to get help for his alcohol problems. People have tried to help him and he has declined. The problem isn’t society. It’s him.

  • Xena

    Everyone should be required to take a Journalism course in high school because people don`t understand the concept of credibility in terms of sources used to support a claim.

    The article is pure SPECULATION. Why? Because there is no valid to support any of the claims.

    Thompson and McKie didn`t give the interviewer any relevant or recent information about Iverson.

    Thompson: “What I think about Allen Iverson is in my heart.”
    McKie: “For all of the small people, he gave all those people hope.”

    Croce and Brown, by their own admissions, have not even been in contact with Iverson.

    These are the little details that hurts the credibility of sources because if you have not been in RECENT contact with the subject of the piece then all they can do is make assumptions. Assumptions are not facts.

    Other sources that were used to support the article include Roshown McLeod, George Lynch, and “a person close to Iverson, who spoke on condition of anonymity”.

    Are these sources credible?

    McLeod came over to Philadelphia in 2001 in the Mutombo trade and played in one game with Iverson. Now more than a decade later he`s being used as evidence. The second source, Lynch gave his own interpretation of Iverson but he has not seen him in X amount of years since he has not been in contact with him either. And the lack of credibility of the “a person close to Iverson, who spoke on condition of anonymity” source is self-explanatory.

    I would also like to point out a few other noticeable features concerning the piece: (1) Allen and Tawanna were NOT used as sources; they were NOT interviewed (2) the article was not written in an objective manner; it included the writer`s and others` baseless opinions of Iverson (3) SOME of the information in the article can be proven to be inaccurate (4) most of the quotes in the article did not include links to the sources from which they originated nor dates by which the quotes were given and (5) a few of the quotes (ones in which I know the source of origin) were taken out of context in order to paint a picture of Iverson that satisfied the writer`s perception of him.

    The rules of journalism state that articles should be both objective (without bias) and accurate. The credibility of sources is contingent on how RELIABLE the source is, how RELEVANT the information is to the CURRENT situation, and how RECENT the information is relative to the CURRENT situation. The article does NOT follow these regulations.

    I am a student of Communication. This has given me the opportunity to study Journalism which is one reason why I know the article to be at least partially unreliable.

    By my own admission, I am biased in favor of TRUTH and of Iverson. But that is because I am in the know in terms of Iverson`s CURRENT situation (at least more than the average person). I know through personal contacts (including family and friends who have been in RECENT contact with him) that he is in a much better place than some people want the public to believe.

    Another person who is in the know includes Twersky who writes for SLAM and has done the some of the most recent interviews of Iverson. You can follow him on twitter @TTwersky.

    To be clear, I am not trying to be conceited or omniscient by flexing my intellectual muscles. I am just trying to make a point. Iverson has not been open for interviews outside of the ones he does for Reebok yet the media continues to post updates about him. Since Iverson has not been doing interviews it is leaving him vulnerable for inaccurate reports such as these.

    In modern-day society, people are thirsty for information and the media is filling in the blanks that Iverson is leaving available. But the truth is the media is just as much in the dark as the majority of the public. The only difference is the media has the power and means to issue and disseminate their perception of Iverson in the form of writing. But it`s up to the public to differentiate fact from fiction and filter out the inaccuracies so we can arrive some where near the truth.

    Ultimately, no one will know the truth about Iverson until Iverson himself tells his story. So, be patient. And be objective.

  • KevinJohnsonFan

    If it is a biased article, then at some point, Iverson has to come out and dispute these claims. Because he can’t keep sitting back and letting his fans think he’s on his way to destruction. He needs to sit down with Stephen A. Smith, Twersky or someone else he trusts and answer questions. The last time he was seen was at the Bobblehead night in Philly and Dei Lynam interviewed him. He said he just wants to be a good father and he talked a little about a return to the NBA. He tweeted in November that his story would be told. With the amount of loyal fans he has, me being one of them, he needs to let everyone know what’s going on. Because like you said, he doesn’t do much of anything anymore interview-wise outside of Reebok for the release of some of his old shoes, so anything that is written about him at all, we read. We have nothing else to go by.

  • Xena

    I agree. Iverson needs to set the record straight but he`s going to do it when he`s ready and obviously he`s not ready to do so. So, people need to be patient. When he`s ready, the top choices will probably be John Thompson, Twersky or one of the other public figures/media personalities on a short list of people that he trusts. However, I do not believe Stephen A. Smith is someone in which he will confide. We`re not in 2006. We`re in 2013 and Smith will probably not be getting a call from Iverson because Smith likes to act as a double-agent.

    But yes I do understand that most people have nothing else to go by except for what the media feeds them. I am just trying to encourage people to use some common sense and critical thinking of an inquisitive nature when reading current articles about Iverson.

  • http://twitter.com/AjpDos Allen Powell

    I like this person.

  • z

    I think im in love with you lol. Perfectly said. Your intellectual muscles are like Schwarzenegger’s real muscles.

  • ish

    yeah it would be nice if he did speak up, but we all remember what happened he spoke up. nobody even knows what the interview is about but they flipped it and said the guy didnt practice. so whats to stop them from flipping what he has to say now since now it seems that they are even more hell bent on dogging him out as much as possible

  • underdog

    It’s a classic interview. But one of the last questions, where AI said all he wants to do is win titles made me sad. Yet another HOF player retiring without a ring. Man, AI is going to be the definition of heart for a long time.