As those who’ve picked up SLAM 150 at a local newsstand or received it in the mail already know, Allen Iverson graces the cover of our newest issue. Everyone even lightly familiar with SLAM should be aware that AI has held down that cover spot many times, but few probably remember his first, when we put him on the front of SLAM 9 (January ’96) as a freshman at Georgetown. Below is the feature that accompanied that cover, penned by the one and only Scoop Jackson.—Ed.
by Scoop Jackson
Protective custody. That’s what most sons want from the men in a position to protect, direct and raise them. From their fathers. Not to get all the African-American males running scared, but Allen Iverson—America’s most gifted, special, in-demand basketball player—is lucky. He has what most of us lack. A pops. A father figure. An institution of learning and direction. A man in his life to help him deal with the realty of being a man. Most brothas can’t even go there, can’t comprehend. In Georgetown coach John Thompson, Iverson has the one-man protection plan many of us would turn over our lives for. Unless you’ve grown up fatherless, you don’t understand.
Escape to anywhere, but never run. Allen Iverson needs an answer, no questions asked, and Georgetown University has one. Depending on the direction, Washington, DC, is either heaven or hell, Dark Country or Chocolate City. Georgetown is neither; it is simply the answer. Iverson did not run here, understand this. He simply took advantage of the best situation life ever offered him. He finished high school as the best ball player (including football, where he was AP Player of the Year in Virginia) in the country easily, with abilities Charlie Ward could only write home about. Iverson still an icon in Hampton, VA—he left there as America’s most wanted hoop dream, with the possible exception of Felipe Lopez.
How nice WAS Ive? Back in high school, Kansas University coach Roy Williams, formerly Michael Jordan’s NC assistant coach, said Iverson “might be the best guard I’ve ever seen.”
How nice IS Ive? Right about now, Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson says, “I’ve been to three calf shows, nine horse ropings and seen Elvis once. But I ain’t never seen anything like it in my life.”
Neither has Georgetown.
Walk around most urban areas, and you’ll see Georgetown University represented strong. Block to block, city to city, chain net to no net, a society of urbanites front. Triple goose down jackets and Starter caps, Nike replicas and Champion sweats. Georgetown. Everyone wants to be down, but nobody can be. One of America’s most prestigious, private Catholic institutions has found a place in the hood. Ever since it introduced the world to Patrick Ewing and Martha Graham, Georgetown has been the black school of choice for every shorty with poor grades, little money, no desire for higher learning, and a need for John Thompson as father. Allen Iverson grew up as one of those brothas. He just got lucky.
Stuart gardens, baby: low-income housing in VA. Nothin’ but love. Allen Iverson was raised one deep with his two sisters there, Ma Dukes-style. His moms Ann began, at the tender age of 16, to take care of what is rightfully hers for life. Her son’s life has run the cycle from his best friend’s murder to visits with former NAACP national chairman Ben Chavis. The true gamut from heaven to hell. He’s forever been his family’s promise, their escape. Being so talented and so young, Allen has had the unreal responsibility of doing what keeps many of us down—raising a family and being raised at the same time. In most cases this would be a Black thing, but Allen beat the odds and made it to G’Town (instead of walkin’ around the neighborhood, frontin’, wantin’ to be a superstar in a Hoya t-shirt), so it’s an Allen thing. You wouldn’t understand.
November ’96. Things aren’t the same. Walk into the lobby of Georgetown’s McDonough gymnasium and notice the difference. The enormous, ever-so-deep framed photograph of Fred Brown and Gene Smith with the ’83 NCAA National Championship trophy remains the center piece, and Ewing, Mourning and Mutumbo still tower over all the rest, but on the floor, in the glass-enclosed trophy case, the change is manifest. Two solid gold basketballs chill. Trophies that read, “Allen Iverson. 1994-95 Big East Rookie-of-the-Year” and, “Allen Iverson. 1994-95 Big East Defensive Player-of-the-Year.” Between them lies a letter from President Clinton.
Daddy’s home. His voice echoes inside the gym. It’s year two of John Thompson’s new life. Papa’s got a brand new bag. A bag of tricks. In baggy shorts. See, Allen Iverson is not the same player that walked into this gym 12 months ago. He’s controlled, confident and well-coached. Like son, like father. John Thompson learned as much last year about Allen Iverson as Ive learned about coach. Defeating the norm as the first truly celebrated player under 6-12 in contemporary Thompson history, Iverson is the solution to his pops’ problems.
“Coach [Thompson] was like a father figure to me right off hand… We just clicked.” Allen Iverson’s words are soft, but they run deep. He understands that not only is he getting one of life’s greatest educations, he’s filling a void in the career of a man who knows more than Michael Bivins about turning boys into men.
“Ninety percent of having a relationship with him is things that occur off the court. He helped me though last year. I didn’t want to come here and just do anything. Any problems that I have, I can go to him and he’ll sit down and listen. It is a lot more than player-coach between is. I don’t think I could’ve made it (through last year) without him.”
Thompson takes the yellow brick road with Allen. He knows he has someone special, a gift, but it’s not about hoops.
“If you’ve been in this business for a while,” Thompson says when asked about his prodigal son, “You know you’re not supposed to be impressed with people. You’re here to attempt to mold and get (students) prepared for their next stage of life. That’s what education is all about. Allen has done just that. He has done what I’ve asked him to do, and when he has not done it, we’ve sat down and talked.”
“He wants to educate himself. So it’s not a problem. It’s almost amusing to me sometimes to hear the questions I’m asked about him in relation to the person that I have to deal with.” It’s always that way. Nobody understands true talent. Especially those talents deemed sons of John.