by Ben Collins
Allen Iverson is not supposed to be enjoying himself right now.
This does not fit whatever character he is supposed to have created or the one that was supposed to have been created for him. He’s not supposed to be this funny. He’s not supposed to be bouncing around, smiling, talking about how the weather isn’t supposed to be this nice in September. This was not the AI that Reebok is throwing a party for because of his decade-long, revolutionary service with the company.
But here we are, ten years later, watching the basketball player who was supposed to be the iconoclast of James Naismith and the prototype of rap culture in the NBA, and he’s at shortstop in a field in the backyard of a major corporation in the suburbs of Massachusetts, waiting for a turn from a Reebok marketing exec to hit him a groundball. Directly behind him, there’s a girls private high school soccer game going on about 200 yards away.
This is neither a knock nor a compliment; it’s not a statement about growing up nor selling out. But — right here, right now — Allen Iverson looks like he’s having the time of his life. Everything should be that simple.
I’m in a car headed from Boston to Canton, Mass., home of Reebok headquarters, and I’m thinking about Allen Iverson for two reasons:
1) Reebok is paying for the gas and the fine, young 76-year-old driver necessary to drive me to play softball against basketball players for a day, so I might as well at least think about the guy. It’s only polite. You don’t borrow someone’s hovercraft and then ask them how to ride it.
2) It really has been ten years, hasn’t it? Ten years since Reebok decided to brand AI (or was it the other way around?) and put a name to a face to a shoe with the Question.
You remember: AI became the tipping point of how the NBA was becoming “too hip-hop.” He was humble about his upbringing, which included a criminal record, and didn’t much care about hiding from it. Iverson embraced rap and recorded his own single (one that didn’t end up getting released for content matter). Hoop Magazine started airbrushing his tattoos.
Then the NBA imposed a dress code that looked like a direct backlash on Iverson, but AI and Reebok held firm and Reebok won out.
This Reebok Family Reunion was a celebration of ten years of innovating and fighting through thinly veiled racism and winning. Oh, that and tons of sales. But mostly the whole “innovating” part.
Reebok decided to have a media vs. NBA softball game to show off the Answer 10 (and Answer 11, but that’s too far away). There would be interviews and food everywhere and an award ceremony for AI’s charity Crossover Enterprises and swag and more food everywhere and the opportunity to catch Marvin Williams in a pickle and embarrass the living hell out of him. They would fly media members in from as far away as Oregon. They were wooing us and it was working.
I arrive at this complex and I’m ushered into this room where people are bagging on Eli Manning. Konate is here. This is my kind of room.
They’re all media people, from the Boston Globe, ESPN.Com, Rise, Sole Collector and, yes, Dime. We’re all teammates for this one day. (This is the plot to the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I know.)
As such, we have decided to agree on the following as we plow down pastries: the Knicks suck; Tractor Traylor is in prison; looking back, that whole Palace Brawl thing was kind of hilarious; everyone except Peter May thinks Red Sox fans should panic; the Knicks still suck; and that is, in fact, Dee Brown who just walked into the room. That must mean they’re going to show us something.
They do. A couple developers show us the new Answers, which are fancy and light. They show us some Gerald Green team shoes, tell us what he’s going to do at the dunk contest and show us a shoe related to it, but we’re sworn not to say (it is, though, spectacular). Yao’s kicks are intricate and have more character than Yao himself. The sneakerheads are salivating as they lead us downstairs for interviews.
The Reebok facility is so enormous it’s daunting. The Reebok people call it a “campus.” There’s a track outside and a gym big enough for three or four football teams.
You know those campy kids movies – like “Heavyweights” or any show on Nickelodeon from the early ‘90s – where kids abduct the counselors and run a vile, prank-filled summer camp, but then Parents Weekend comes and they brilliantly pretend like the place is a well-run Utopia?
The Reebok campus is always Parents Weekend. Employees run on the track and play basketball at lunch. They heave Reebok medicine balls (which apparently exist) to each other while they do sit-ups in the gym.
They also have this place called the Player Lounge. The setting is completely fictitious: we walk in and five NBA players are sitting on horseshoe-shaped, zerba-skin couches watching an NBATV documentary. This is like an NBA hamster cage. When we enter, Shaun Livingston is sleeping under a blanket. Do they all sleep here? This is Heavyweights! I knew it!
Shaun Livingston’s left leg, by the way, is weirdly tiny from months of shifting his weight to his other leg. But its not sideways and, miraculously, he’s walking on it. He looks fantastic and we’re all amazed by the progress he’s made.
We head down to the indoor court, this full-sized behemoth that is doubling as an interview area today. There are basketballs in the corners and we confirm our immaturity by eyeing them like water in the desert.
Konate and I talk to Gerald Green about having to buy new coats and new beginnings and movies that Konate calls “hood classics.” Eerily quiet in that part of the interview for some reason, don’t know why.
While waiting for Baron Davis to finish up with the Globe people, Konate pours his heart out about how B-Diddy’s 2002 cover is the reason he works for SLAM. He seems embarrassed about it, but the guy from Sole Collector and I think it’s remarkable, so we convince him to tell Baron or we will “forget” him on our joint-ride back to Logan Airport.
He does. Baron seems genuinely giddy about the whole thing. He’s in an infectiously good mood and tells me that he likes my LeBron tee shirt. We talk about all of the weight that he’s lost — “more than 20 pounds” – and how he’s “ready to put on his dancin’ shoes this year.” He’ll be down to 210 by training camp, he swears.
We then talk about that dunk in last year’s playoffs on Andrei Kirilenko because AK-47 had demanded a trade this morning. You know the one: Baron hesitates and then lifts off like he has moonshoes on, next thing you know he’s hanging on AK like a kid in a tree. We ask him what he said when he got down. “Probably something like, ‘thanks for the poster.’”
“That’s how I get people, I practice on the 8-foot courts and save the dunking for the playoffs,” Baron says, brutally honest or kidding, I’m not sure.
I then blow the proverbial romantic candles out and thank him for ruining my last spring, being a Mavs fan. But he laughs and apologizes. Hey! He gets the sarcasm and he likes my tee shirt! I like this guy.
I’m wondering, now, if AI is going to be this personable. He’s late, for one reason or another, and he’s being escorted around the facility like he’s above Baron, Gerald, Marvin and Shaun. Is this Reebok’s doing? Is this his doing? Is it just for today or is this everyday? Just because he’s an icon doesn’t mean he should be treated like one, if that makes any sense.
There’s a ceremony for him next and every employee on the complex is to attend. I can see it in my head: he will be brought in via Popemobile. He will speak through a microphone fashioned through a hole in the side of it. Employees will be allowed to touch the glass with one hand, once, and then move on. Anything else could be dangerous.
This is not what happens. Allen Iverson is late because someone at Reebok was apparently human. Assumptions.
The mini-ceremony is – to put it in a word that every parent would say after a graduation – nice. Not extravagant, but effective. It had its tacky moments – like trying to get the entire Reebok staff to say “Good luck, Yao Ming” in Chinese for his National Team’s Olympic bid, but having to shoot three retakes because it consistently sounded like the staff was saying “G.I. Joe, Yao Ming” – but it was well-intentioned and everyone recognized the thought.
AI’s charity received a hefty wad of cash from RBK and he was presented with a plaque of bronze Questions. (If Erick Dampier has been wearing those all these years, it would explain a lot of things.) AI is thankful and takes employee Q&A questions playfully. When asked who he thinks will win the NBA Championship, he says the 76ers. For those stuck in 2006, he’s on the Nuggets.
It’s becoming apparent that his image is no fit, even under the umbrella that helped create it. Or it no longer fits like it used to. But the shoes still fit, so we wear it. And that’s the only thing that matters.
We shootaround a little (ESPN.Com’s Chris Palmer can knock down corner threes like Bruce Bowen) and head downstairs with our softball uniforms. We are the “Finishers,” the players are the “Creators.” I get it.
My uniform and shorts are an XL. This works for some people. The big dude from Rise – our informal team captain, a position he claimed since he was born outgoing and telling jokes about 50 Cent – is probably close to filling this thing out.
I look silly. I’m 6-feet tall and need to borrow at least six inches of Marvin Williams’ legs to make this work. In this uniform, I am nine-years-old, tops. So I decide to go all-out ridiculous. I add a wristband and throw my hat on backwards until I leave it in my locker. Where’s the eyeblack? Is there Reebok eyeblack? Give me some eyeblack!
I go 1-for-3, my baseknock being an infield single off of Baron Davis, but my fielding made Konate look like Derek Jeter. We lose 15-6 because people like Gerald Green and AI, who claim to have never played softball in their lives, beat the seam off the ball. Gerald hit a 300-foot home run to dead center in batting practice. The guy from Dime says, “if you’re an athlete, you adjust.” These guys are either liars or walking examples of that.
Everyone has fun. Everyone. People in the stands. The Media team, who was losing 15-1 at one point. These players, who could be doing anything they want to right now, but are being waved home by a woman from accounts payable who won a raffle. That’s not even a joke.
On the way out, we have to walk by the basketball court and there’s an employee pickup game going on. This seems like something that goes on all day at Camp Reebok, so I’m unphased. That is until I see a guy in a white doorag and blue teeshirt, no taller than anyone else, blazing by all these Reebok employees in the open court.
Allen Iverson is playing pickup hoop with nine nobodies.
Konate and I try to find out a way to be one of those nobodies. “If we can change, right here right now,” I say, “I’ll take the indecent exposure charges. I want to run with AI.”
But there are flights to catch for Konate and cars to catch for me. And, as envious as I was of those nine rec-league role players, as much as I’ve been beating myself up for – honestly – not changing fast enough, I’m still glad I saw that. Because now I know these things about Allen Iverson.
It doesn’t matter who he was ten years ago and what he is now. It doesn’t matter how much he’s changed or if that change is a good or a bad thing.
This is what matters: he’s one of the best basketball players you’ll ever see and he loves the game so much he’ll play for your team. No matter who you are. Everything should be that simple.