All this seems antithetical to the Iverson mode of living, yet as I finally get within shouting distance of him during his Besiktas practices, he’s the most spirited teammate. During a scrimmage he claps and laughs and encourages across the language barrier and breaks into a Marvin Gaye falsetto for a moment; after one missed fast-break pass, he leaps onto the back of a teammate in a rousing we’re-all-in-this-together show.
His first game in Turkey, played in the Besiktas home arena that is smaller than Iverson’s high-school gym, features the loudest crowd I’ve ever sat among, with stomping and clapping and hooting. It’s an indoor soccer match.
Iverson’s scaled-down posse is easy to spot in the stands: two large black guys, one with a big diamond earring, one with a deeply lined face and a baseball cap pulled low, with a gorgeous, eye-blinking bi- racial woman in tow, and a mixed-race buddy with a red ponytail, diamond-shaped earrings and heavy silver chains. I point out these particulars because it is impossible not to stare at them, which seems like a dangerous thing to do even in Turkey. Their standout presence is so at odds with both Iverson’s careful, controlled first game and the crowd’s careful, nervous solicitation of him. He is clearly rusty; when he drops a little stop-and-go move into the basket, scoring his first points, the crowd goes berserk and then shh-shh-shh’s itself to give Iverson complete quietude while he contemplates the ensuing free throw. When he makes it, everyone goes berserk again.
Basketball, though, is still a niche sport in Turkey, and the skill level of Iverson’s team, I’m judging, is on the level of a middling Division I college program here; Besiktas plays in the Turkish league, not in the superior Euroleague. I ask people on the street, in hotels, in cabs, what Iverson’s coming means to Turkey; a lot have no idea who he is. One cabbie says, “Iverson! Yes!” and then turns up the radio he turned down when he picked me up — a game blared. “This is the sport here,” he says. “Football!” Soccer, in other words. Allen Iverson, basketball star, is in a foreign place.
THE THIRD DAY I GO TO PRACTICE, Iverson is sitting alone on the bench, and it’s time to desist with managers and handlers. I go up to him and ask if we can talk.
“About what?” he says, his voice deep and terse, his arms on the back of the bench. He tells me to talk to his manager about it.
But the next day, Iverson agrees to talk, and he surprises me. After practice, I follow him up into the empty stands. Later, people who know him well tell me that once he believes somebody is okay and not out to hurt him, the wall comes down, and that’s what I discover: a friendly guy.
He’s touched, he says, by how nice everyone has been in Turkey. “That was one of the biggest things coming to Istanbul,” he says. “Somebody wanted you.” When nobody in the NBA did. When it was the only overseas offer made in writing, $2 million a year for two years.