He’s been back and we’ve been there for both of them, against the Nuggets and the Pistons. We were also there at the beginning, way back in ’96-97, when Iverson exploded onto the scene, with that same cross-over and never-say-die attitude. Whatever you think of him, you can’t deny the struggles he initially encountered before he got into the L. He was never understood by main stream media, at least initially, and now that he’s back, everybody’s quick to write “the comeback-this is why we love Allen Iverson-story.” A.I.’s never changed who he was, and that’s what we respect about him. Burgess caught up with A.I. after his rookie season, after the infamous Michael Jordan cross-over, and gave him the opportunity to try and explain who Allen Iverson really is. Guess what? It’s the same person he is today.–Matt Lawyue
by Zach Burgess
The Question: Why is America afraid of Allen Iverson?
Could it be because he wears braids? Is it his jewelry? Or is it because his friends don’t look like fellas from the WB Network?
When I first met Allen, I couldn’t help but look at him and see myself. He is the product of a 15-year-old mother, and so am I. He has lived at times without heat and electricity, and so have I. He was raised poor, and so was I. And despite the hardship, both of us went to college and got great jobs in corporate America.
It’s unfortunate that every person who looks at Allen Iverson does not see themselves, because Iverson embodies the strength of our ancestors, the foundation that made this country great. This country’s ancestors made their way with hard work, blood, sweat and tears. And if you take a good look at what Iverson has had to overcome, you won’t castigate him. You’ll be proud of him, for his plight has been arduous.
During Iverson’s junior year at Bethel High in Hampton, VA, he was the star quarterback of the state championship football team and star point guard of the state championship basketball team. Then, one afternoon at a bowling alley, a life that had already “been no crystal stair” became even bleaker. A brawl ensued, and Iverson was left standing in the middle of it-alone.
Iverson was incarcerated at age 17 for “maiming by mob”-although the most serious injuries sustained in the brawl were a concussion and some broken bones. For what it’s worth, none of the white participants in the fight were even charged.
“I have been through a lot. I have seen it all,” says Iverson. “Going on lockdown, man, I can’t even describe what I’ve been through. Let’s just say it’s some shit. I found out how people really were at that time in my life. Who really cared about what happened to me and who didn’t. There were people who made promises and never came through.
“It pushed me, though,” he continues. “I wanted to prove all those people who said I wasn’t going to be shit, wrong. They wanted me to fold. I know there were people out there saying that, or I would not have ever gotten into the predicament that I got into. I want them to eat their words. It motivates me to work that much harder. I live every day like it is my last. That is why I play every game the way I do, because it might be my last.”
Prison. For four-plus months, Iverson experienced the dehumanization of chains and bars until then-Governor of Virginia Douglas Wilder granted Iverson clemency. Eventually, the Virginia Court of Appeals threw out Iverson’s conviction, citing the misapplication of the anti-lynching statue. It’s a period in his life he’d soon forget-which isn’t easy in a world where folks keep bringing it up.
I can remember going into corporate America right out of college and dealing with the rigidity that existed-a young brother out of the projects of Detroit who didn’t know the dress code of white shirts and dark suits. I had to learn fast to survive. Just like any corporation, it demanded that you play the game-of wearing the right suit, having the right haircut, saying the right things. Unfortunately, I had to conform. Fortunately, Allen Iverson does not. For many that look at him, he stands for all prosperous men of color who will not conform in a white man’s world. He gives us hope that at least one will overcome.
So here it is. Of all the names linked to the history of the NBA-Mikan, Chamberlain, Russell, West, Johnson, Bird and Jordan-the league is left in the hands of one Allen Iverson, and they are scared straight.
While Jordan is as close to superhero status as any man of our time, it is unfair to say that, in 20 years, Iverson will not reach the same level. Just as Jordan is the quintessential image of the bourgeois ’80s, Allen represents the hip-hop ’90s. Iverson represents the have-nots and the downtrodden; he represents hope. Unfortunately for America, he also reminds us of our dirty laundry. The unresolved past. That we have not taken care of or provided a way for everybody-as was promised. That we do forget about our own.
Now, imagine living in Iverson’s shoes. Would you care how people perceived you? Anyone who has gone through what he has would be scarred. And Allen’s wounds are visible. They are worn by many who have endured or are currently enduring his former plight; every day we walk our city streets, we see and hear his pain echoed in others.
Allen Iverson neither knows nor cares about Bob Dole’s America. He is driven by something even more American: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Put away your neighborhood biases and Nightline stereotypes, and you’ll see that all Iverson is concerned with is the American Dream: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We gave Allen Iverson a chance to clear the air. Not because he asked for it, but because we see what’s going on here-the focus on his boys, his jewelry, his braids, his incarceration-and we think it should stop.
Whether it will stop, however, is another matter entirely.
SLAM: For starters, a lot of people thought Glenn Robinson should have won Rookie of the Year the year that Grant Hill and Jason Kidd won. He didn’t win it for a lot of the same reasons you might not win it-he quote-unquote rubbed the voters the wrong way. Do you care if you win Rookie of the Year?
Allen Iverson: I’m not gonna put myself in a predicament so as I’m gonna feel torn down and frustrated, hurt. I’m not gonna do that to myself. If I win it, I win it. If I don’t, then I don’t. In college, I felt that I was the Player of the Year [last year]. I didn’t get it, I didn’t win it, so that’s something I had to deal with. I felt that I shoulda been an All-Star [instead of being in the rookie game]. In my heart, I felt I shoulda gone to the All-Star game. You know, that hurt me. But Coach Thompson didn’t make the Hall of Fame. So if he could deal with not making the Hall of Fame, I could definitely deal with not making the All-Star team. After everything he’s done for the game of basketball in 25 years at Georgetown, I could deal with not going to the All-Star game.
SLAM: Talk about your rookie season.
AI: It’s been fun. A lot of fun. Even with the losses. You know, that hurts. But it’s been fun. Every game. Because I’m here, in the NBA. That’s all that matters. It’s a dream come true for me.
SLAM: What kind of reception are you getting down in Philly?
AI: I don’t know how the people feel. I know when we play, when we do something out there, they cheer. I’ve heard ‘em boo because of our performance, but they’re still coming in there to see the games. I can’t speak for all of Philadelphia, ’cause I know we have some loyal fans, and there are some people that are not loyal. That’s the case with every team, I think.
SLAM: What do you think most people’s perception of you is?
AI: Different people think different things, so I don’t know. I mean, they write so many negative things about me in the papers, with so many things that are not true.
SLAM: Give us an example…
AI: That I don’t respect the NBA. That I told Michael Jordan, “Get the hell out of my way.” All kinds of things…That I trash-talk everybody every time I play. And people read that. So I don’t know what they think.
SLAM: What went on with that whole Jordan thing? Folks said you disrespected him. Do you think that maybe you coulda gone a different way with that?
AI: No, I would never change the way I said it. Because that’s me, that’s how I feel. That’s everything I believe in. I mean, I have a lot of respect for Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley and what they’ve done for themselves and what they’ve done in this league. I have respect for a lot of the other veteran players. You know, they paved the way for me. They made me want to be an NBA player. But I mean, once I step on the hardwood, if you over-respect somebody, that battle is already lost.
SLAM: Why are you hounded with negative press?
AI: I don’t know. I have no idea. Because none of those guys [critics] really know me. I don’t understand how somebody could say something negative about me like that if they don’t know me. All they know is what they hear and read. They don’t even know me.
SLAM: But why you?
AI: That’s what I ask myself. I would think that somebody that’s been through what I’ve been through in my life-not just the incident; I’m talkin about where I came from and what I had to overcome-I don’t see why people would be on me so hard. I mean, I would be happy for-I’m happy for anyone who makes it. Like some of the people that I know in the League, like Joe Smith, people I know from my area, guys like that, I give ‘em the utmost respect for overcoming everything that I know that I had to overcome.
SLAM: Are you too honest?
AI: I tell people what I believe when they ask me. I just tell people what I believe, what I feel.
SLAM: Do you think in some way the NBA is hanging you out to dry? Should they put a stop to this?
AI: I think they should. Like they have all these different shows, NBA shows and all that; I mean, they just play everything up. That whole Jordan situation, all of that; to me, it didn’t make any sense. And that respect thing, I don’t respect-they coulda easily put an end to it. Ask me. The NBA coulda asked me themselves, “Do you have respect for the NBA?” I woulda told ‘em, “Definitely.” How wouldn’t I have respect for the NBA? I don’t understand-those guys in the NBA made me wanna-I mean, this is a dream, this is my dream to be here. So how wouldn’t I respect it? I can’t not respect the NBA. I feel they coulda cleared all that up. [Pause] Like I said, it’s just somethin’ else I have to overcome.
SLAM: Whatever went on between you and Mike, do you think that that has a lot do with it?
AI: I have no idea. I’ve seen a lot of guys riff on Michael Jordan-during a game. I mean, get into it with Michael Jordan…
SLAM: How many rookies, though, have you seen…
AI: So, because you’re a rookie, [voice rising] ’cause you’re a rookie, you just come into the league and just, like bow down to everyone? …Naw, not me, I’m not gonna be that way. I’d rather take the negative publicity than come into the league and just feel like I’m a rookie and I don’t really belong there yet. Yeah, I gotta pay my dues first-I’m payin’ my dues when I’m on the court. I’m on the same court that they’re on, the same court.
SLAM: Do you ever get sick of defending yourself?
AI: Definitely. I don’t feel I have to defend myself, but, I mean, I want people to know, if they can, if someone lied about somethin’ I said or somethin’. I just want ‘em to know that they lied. That’s all. It may reach some kid that looked up to me. It might reach him. And he’ll find out that it’s all right to follow what Allen Iverson is tryin’ to do with his life-you know, about me bein’ locked up. There’s a lot of kids that have been locked up, but now they know they can still do whatever they want to do to be successful. And somebody like that might read it. And that’s good enough for me.
SLAM: With all the stories and all the perception of you as a bad guy, do you find yourself having to grow up real, real fast?
AI: Oh man…I think I’ve been grown up. Man, I was 18 years old in jail. I was 17 years old and a minor and having to worry about newspapers writing different negative things about me, all on the front page, my name-my full name-and I’m a minor. I had to deal with that, I had to deal with goin’ to jail, and comin’ out, and going to school and havin’ to graduate over a summer. And then go right to college and handle all that. I mean, I grew up fast.
SLAM: And then you get to the NBA, and there’s even more expected of you, right? You have to be the role model, the perfect citizen…
AI: This is why I feel like it’s just another obstacle in my life. I mean, it’s just something else to try and overcome. If people don’t understand me, if people have a negative feeling about me and they don’t even know me, so be it, but I mean, I’m not that way-I wish people wouldn’t think of me as some type of bad person, ’cause I’m not. But I mean, if they choose to feel that way about me ’cause of what they read and what they hear, there’s nothing I can do about that.
AI: It might be that. It might be that. But even when I look at that, I say to myself, I got locked up for a lot of people lyin’ on me, and the witnesses that they had against me lied in the stand and it was in the file…and I got locked up. And I just say to myself, I got off the whole thing; it was overturned. I shoulda never went to jail in the first place, but people still look at that and think that I’m a bad person. The whole thing was overturned, and they always still bring that up. The bowling alley brawl incident. All that…it’s gone. I mean, it’s somethin’ that should have never happened. I beat the case in an appeals court, but that’s the thing they talk about the most. And I dealt with all that and got to where I am right now.
SLAM: So you got to start over…
AI: Definitely. I got another chance. The chance that I had was almost snatched away from me. I think everything happens for a reason. You know, maybe if all that never happened to me, I wouldn’t be in the NBA. Because God has ways of doing everything. He just put me in different situations in my life. That was one of ‘em. And now, all this negative publicity-that’s another one, that’s another obstacle I have to overcome.
SLAM: I don’t know if you saw the Sports Illustrated poll of the point guards, ranking them. It had you behind Marbury-you were 16, he was 15-and it had Terrell Brandon first. What did you think about that?
AI: I love bein’ motivated by things like that. I love that. For a magazine like Sports Illustrated-I didn’t look at who rated that. I would love to hear the guy’s name or names who wrote it-I just remember things like that, so I can remember those people once I’m done with my career. But that’s their opinion. This is my first year. I’m not gonna let something like that distract me, but it’s gonna motivate me a lot, it’s gonna motivate me a lot.
SLAM: You miss football?
AI: I miss football a lot. I never expected to be playin’ basketball. I never expected to be in the NBA playin’ basketball. I always felt that it was gonna be football. Then I started to just have love for both of ‘em, you know, I just had a lot of love for basketball. So I said to myself, I’m gonna play football and basketball in college. I always wanted to go to Maryland, ’cause Joe Smith was there, and we always talked about goin’ to the same college. And Maryland had a good football team as well. I would have tried.
But the timing was bad. When that happened to me-when I got incarcerated-I knew when I came out, if I went to college, I had to be with a strong coach, somebody who wanted me and somebody was willing to look out for me. And it couldn’t have been no other better person than Coach Thompson. And that football program…[laughter].
SLAM: What’s the one thing you’ve read or heard so far that’s made you the maddest?
AI: I don’t let none of it get me mad. I just use it to motivate me to do better.
SLAM: Does praise or negative shit inspire you more to play better?
AI: Both. I mean, when guys tell me that I can get better, and I can end up being a great player in this league, you know, that inspires me, that makes me wanna work harder as well. But then when I hear the negative things, I try to use them as something positive too. I just try to feed off of it; I just try to play that much harder.
SLAM: We read the same shit you read about you, and we’re tryin’ to find out what’s up with you. What’s everyone afraid of? Do you think everything comes back to that bowling alley incident? Do you think they’ll ever let you live it down?
AI: It might. I don’t think they will. I don’t know if it’s that. I hope it’s not that.
SLAM: Allen, are you “too black”? Is that what this is about?
AI: I hope not. I don’t know. We all dress hip-hop. Like Steph. We dress hip-hop, we love hip-hop; I mean, that’s just our generation right now. We love bein’ flashy, have flashy jewelry-my friends got jewelry, you know, they wear baggy pants, [have] nice cars. I mean, that’s everything you strive for in life, for me. It’s all I wanted to be able to do, to be able to take care of my mom, and my little sisters, and my family. And once I did that, once I got to the point where I knew that my family was gonna be taken care of, and they’re good for the rest of their life, then I’d be able to leave this planet.
SLAM: You have no intention of changing to suit them, to make it easier on you? You’re not gonna stop going in public with your boys…
AI: No. Those are my friends. Those are guys who were with me since day one. They’re the guys that believed in me-they’ve believed in me since day one. Man, these guys are the ones I trust. Out of all these people, and bein’ where I’m at right now, it’s hard to trust people. And those are the guys I trust. When I said I’d be ready to leave here, I’m talkin’ about I could go to…I could die. I wanna feel that, if I’m goin’ away from my family, I feel real good if they’re takin’ care of ‘em. I mean, when my family’s taken care of, and I know that they’re gonna be straight forever, I’m satisfied. That’s the only thing that matters to me.
SLAM: What’s the thing that a kid has come up and said to you that’s meant the most to you?
AI: I remember this kid told me, “Don’t worry about”-I think he was like nine or 10 years old-and he said, “Don’t worry about the negative things that people say to you, just keep workin’, keep workin’ hard.” And he said something about if I am good, if I am a good person, then my family and friends will know that I’m a good person, and that’s enough. He said somethin’ like that. This is a kid that’s like 10 years old, and I was like, “Man…”
SLAM: Is there anything else you feel like sayin’, just whatever, to the kids out there or the people out there?
AI: Just to the people that have been in situations similar to mine, like bein’ locked up or havin’ someone be against you: just don’t give up, man. No matter what. Always believe that your dream can come true and just keep workin’ for what you want to achieve. If you put that effort to it, nine times out of 10, it’s gonna happen.