I’m operating on extreme hope. I am in Instanbul. All I know is that Allen Iverson is here — in this city of 13 million, with one foot in Asia and one in Europe — to play basketball. His manager keeps saying no, that Allen won’t talk to me. So I ask the concierge in my hotel: If you’re Allen Iverson — the greatest thing to ever hit Turkish basketball — where do you go to meet women?
“Reina,” he tells me. “Yes, Club Reina — on the Bosphorus.”
Reina is a place with a metal detector at the entrance, and chandeliers and fireplaces and lighted floors and a DJ and lovely people on the inside. You can walk out onto a pier to check out the lapping Bosphorus River, which connects the Black and Mediterranean seas, and gaze up at the Asian moon, and sip drinks for 20 lira.
I go up to a young woman in a tank top and impossibly tight jeans and three-inch shiny black heels, who’s having a drink with another woman and a man. She is dark and beautiful. I ask her if she speaks English. Yes. I tell her I’m in Istanbul to write about Allen Iverson. She smiles a bit of a devilish smile.
“I met him last night.”
The hottest girl in the hottest club, 24 years old. Allen Iverson has already met her. She’s a dead ringer for the character Sloan in Entourage — the same prettiness and almost over-the-top sexiness coupled with sweetness and, I quickly find out, smarts.
Along with her friend, the silent Turk to my right, she went to Iverson’s first game in Istanbul the night before, in a home arena so tiny — it seats 3,200 — she could easily find Iverson’s manager, Gary Moore, and tell him how she studied at Georgetown. Iverson’s school! So Moore naturally invited her to join Iverson and his crew at their post-game haunt, the place where he’s been hanging out with his slightly downsized America-to-Istanbul posse, in this lovely ancient city:
That’s where Iverson lands every night, for all of his first week in Istanbul.
Of course she went, and spent a couple of hours. She found Iverson kind of cold. He said hello, but that was about it. He played cards. He drank Corona. She ended up talking to Moore. Clearly she wanted a little more than that.
I tell her about Iverson’s nightlife in America — how he used to go to a Friday’s on City Avenue all the time, and when things got a little chaotic there, when it was no longer so cool for Iverson to drink 40s out of a bag, leaning against his Bentley parked in a handicapped spot, he slipped across the street to Houlihan’s. He would show up with two or three or five guys, sometimes popping in around midnight after a game, drink Coronas, play poker with his boys at the bar. And the women would show up. They would line a low wall behind him. A half-dozen. Ten. Twelve. Fifteen. They would preen and wait. Finally, Iverson would nod to one of his posse, and his guy would go over to the one in the line he wanted and tell her to join them. She’d have a drink with Iverson. In a little while, he would leave. And then she would, a moment later.
I tell the woman at Club Reina all this because I’m wondering if Iverson might have women at his beck and call here. Would they be so aggressive?
She smiles. “We would be … what is the word? … more discreet.”
“Turkish women wouldn’t line up like that?”
“But sex is … ”
She smiles again — a different smile — the prettiest girl in the hottest club. Istanbul is a big, busy, cosmopolitan city, and Allen Iverson won’t be merely playing cards and drinking Coronas at the Istanbul Friday’s while trying to resurrect his basketball career. Unless he’s a changed man.
IVERSON IS AT A CROSSROADS IN HIS LIFE. There is no going off into the sunset for him, no taking his vast millions and his fame and finishing off the job of raising his five kids in splendor and ease. Nothing works that way for him.
In fact, last spring — just after Iverson abandoned the Sixers following a short second stint with the team — Gary Moore said publicly that things were very bad for Iverson. His young daughter Messiah was quite sick with an undisclosed illness. His wife had filed for divorce. There were stories that he was gambling and drinking himself into oblivion. At one point, Moore beseeched a reporter with a chilling request:
“Please pray for us. We need all the prayers we can get.”
Iverson had hit rock bottom. At 34—having nearly exhausted his athletic gifts — he’d washed out of the NBA, largely seen as too troubled and demanding to finish his career with some team needing to get a few more fannies in the seats. That failed last year in Philly, after Iverson had already been pushed out of Detroit and bolted from Memphis. His career seemed done, and maybe he was, too.
So he has come to Turkey to resurrect not only his basketball career, but his life. In … Istanbul? How is he going to survive camped out in a Friday’s in Istanbul?
As one NBA official put it, the guy spent the past five years pretty much living in either bars or casinos. But word has it that his family is coming, that he and Tawanna have reconciled and she’s about to arrive with all five kids, ranging in age from two to 16. The team has checked out schools and is finding the family a villa to live in. It’s a new beginning.
On this night, after my conversation at Reina, I head to Friday’s, which even in Istanbul looks like Friday’s everywhere, with stained-glass lamps, and TVs viewable from every angle (soccer!), and signs on the wall for the Farmers’ Almanac 1879 and Frank’s Cattle Manure.
Iverson was in earlier, a waiter tells me, he and his boys, drinking Corona and playing cards. “He’s a nice guy, Allen Iverson!”
But now, 11 at night in Istanbul, he has slipped away.
HE IS EXTREME. HE ALWAYS HAS BEEN. His beginnings might be familiar to us, but require understanding to fathom him now. Iverson comes from nothing — he’s said that himself — or, more precisely, from Hampton, Virginia, born of a single mother, Ann, who had him at 15 and supported herself however she could. Cousins and uncles piled into one tiny house. Sometimes there was raw sewage on the floors. He was called Bubbachuck, and Ann believed he had something special — something extreme — from day one. She marveled at his long arms and his long fingers even while he was an infant. He was going to be a ball player. A great ball player.
And he was — in football, baseball and basketball. He was lightning-quick and fast and fearless. Men around him — uncles, coaches — saw what he had. Their Hampton neighborhood was violent, riddled with drugs. He was too good to let slide away. They protected Bubbachuck, a star from the time he was a child. School — well, school didn’t matter. Often, he didn’t go. Often, he had to stay home to take care of his younger sister when Ann wasn’t up to it.
Then he became even more famous, at 18, way beyond Hampton.
There was a fight in a bowling alley. Accounts still differ. Bubbachuck and some black friends from the basketball team got into a melee with white kids. Punches were thrown, a chair was cracked over someone’s head. And Iverson, at 18, was sentenced to five years in prison. There were racially charged JUSTICE FOR BUBBACHUCK rallies. The story hit the national press.
Prison at a Newport News, Virginia, work farm pushed him deeper into his own world. His friends would appear outside the prison yard, as a show of support. Bubbachuck never made eye contact with them, but he knew they were there. His girlfriend, Tawanna, would come, too, to show him she still believed. But as far as he knew, there was nothing to believe. His God-given dream of the NBA, his ticket out, his family’s ticket out, had been snatched away.
And then it was given back in late 1993, when governor Doug Wilder, just before leaving office, granted Iverson clemency after he had served less than six months.
“I learned a lot about people from that experience,” Iverson would say later. “I really didn’t know how people were, or how they could be. I feel no pressure anymore. About anything. I know what time it is.”
Those half-dozen friends who came to see him at prison — his posse — Iverson would keep tight. He and Tawanna started having babies. He played two years at Georgetown, lighting up the Big East with his free-flow game, then joined the Sixers.
He was an electric player, one of the smallest and fastest, fearless in charging to the basket, smacked to the floor again and again by players who weighed almost twice as much as his buck-65. He never got angry at opponents. He simply kept attacking. He hogged the ball, often ignoring his teammates, but the speed and relentlessness made him impossible to stop, by either an opponent or his own coaches. He was going to do it his way, and we had never seen anything quite like it.
The NBA would not publish the photo of Allen Iverson being named rookie of the year: He showed up at the award ceremony in a white skullcap. Then it was cornrows. And heavy jewelry. And tattoos that crept all over his body.
In Philly, we ate it up. It was his defiance, and skill, and something even better: He was incapable of hiding, of not being himself. No other athlete is like that. He became infamous for a press conference where he defended himself for skipping and showing up late for practice (and, occasionally, hungover). It was a press conference in which he uttered the word “practice” 26 times dismissively, as in “We’re talking about practice,” and at the same time, with each of those 26 “practice”-es, his wide child’s eyes showed just how bewildered he was to be judged in a way he couldn’t quite fathom. In his world, practice didn’t count. But even in defiance he looked wounded. That, too, was riveting.
Other stories hit the press. He was stopped by cops in Virginia while riding in a car’s passenger seat with a registered gun on the floor and in possession of marijuana. He was sued by a guy who wouldn’t leave a VIP area in a lounge and was beaten up by Iverson’s bodyguard as Iverson impassively watched. (The guy won $260,000.) He got into a scrape with Tawanna in which he supposedly threw her, naked, out of their house in Gladwyne — then showed up at a cousin’s place in West Philly looking for her, allegedly with a gun in his pants. (The allegation fell apart in court.) All of this was momentarily shocking, but not surprising; the only issue was whether he’d tumble into a scrape he couldn’t roll out of. Whether he was a heart-on-his-sleeve man-child or a thug, either way, we couldn’t get enough of him.
He thrived on movement and chaos, on testing the limits. Close observers noticed that he seemed to play better the night after staying out until all hours or gambling huge amounts down at the Taj. A very mediocre Sixers team would ride him all the way to the finals in 2001, the tiniest guy with the biggest will.
His way: When the team was on the road, Iverson and his posse would move the mattresses off their beds to the floor in their hotel rooms. Because it helped them feel comfortable. Because that’s how they’d grown up.
ISTANBUL DOESN’T FEEL LIKE AN ANCIENT CITY, just that it’s 1974 in some ways: Laundry dries from apartment balconies; nobody wears seat belts; the men smoke; older women, especially, wear head scarves. It is pretty and hilly and crowded and very friendly. The men have a hard look, as if they just might pull out a sword and give you a hack, but a mere hello on the street stops all the locals — they smile, they’ll break out their English for a little chat. It is a city, and country, moving westward.
But Allen Iverson — at least, the one who once got so drunk at Bally’s that he pissed in a potted plant for all the gambling world to see, and who was lovingly written up in a Power 99 DJ’s memoir for having sex in the front seat of his Bentley while he drove — seems way too West.
Gambling is illegal in Turkey; Iverson would have to hop a plane for an hour to Bulgaria or Cyprus to throw dice. Worse, his team, Besiktas, often practices twice a day, there’s no break for Christmas, and the off-season escape back to America lasts all of two months. Training camp features early-morning team-spirit-building runs through the woods.
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.
I kid him about going to Friday’s in Istanbul, though he doesn’t seem to see it as teasing:
“Man, listen,” he says. “I didn’t know that the Philly cheesesteak wrap was that good when I was in Philly. I tried them when I got out here and every day since then. Every day since then!”
Iverson is startling, both handsome and almost cherubic. His eyes, the irises and pupils very nearly the same color, are vast. He laughs easily. What was for a decade a hopeful wisp of a mustache on a boy is now several days’ growth in full Fu Manchu mode. I’m talking to somebody I don’t recognize: a 35-year-old man, calm and measured. And he really is willing to talk.
“Everybody is making a big deal out of the money and making $2 million — what do people want me to do? Sit at home and just watch basketball, or play at the YMCA? I had to do what I had to do to continue playing basketball.”
Ah, yes, two big issues there. First, whether he is broke — a guy who has pocketed some $200 million in salary and endorsements over the past 15 years. It would emerge a week or so later that Iverson- is selling some of his collected memorabilia on eBay, and a lot of people are saying he’s gambled and partied and supported hangers-on to the point of going through all that cash. But Iverson laughs softly, high up in the Besiktas stands:
“I would be a damn fool to blow that much money and have five kids to take care of. One thing I do have, and I can say, is that I do have money. A lot.”
But on the matter of what he had to do to keep playing basketball, that’s a little more complicated. It really begins with Iverson washing out of Philly in late 2006. The previous spring, the team tried to trade him, but a deal fell through. Yet the specter of a trade could never be, for Iverson, merely about changing his city of employment. It would be about control, and loyalty, and love.
Which is why, in very short order, he verbally lashed coach Mo Cheeks at a practice and walked out, blew off a mandatory team function, and pulled himself from a game in Chicago complaining of back spasms.
The team told him to stay home. A week later, he was playing for Denver.
But something funny happened in Denver, in the soft mountain air. Iverson was ready to start over. He listened to coach George Karl (and still hoisted a lot of shots). He went to practice. He was out and about, but kept his late-night high jinks under wraps. He liked the schools in Denver for his kids. And he liked the possibility that he and fellow star Carmelo Anthony could make a run at a championship.
It was all good except for the last part. The Nuggets washed out of the playoffs in the first round two years running, and at the beginning of the third year, Iverson was traded to Detroit, because the Nuggets believed that at 33, he was slowing down.
With that, it all came crashing down, very fast. Detroit wanted Iverson to be a substitute, to not even freakin’ start.
The problem, Iverson says, was that he was lied to by rookie coach Michael Curry, who told him he’d never ask him to come off the bench. Then, not even a week later, he was no longer a starter. He was a role player. He was ordinary. And from the time he was an infant, from the time his mother Ann saw his arms and hands and knew what he was going to be, Iverson had never been ordinary.
It was the moment almost all pro athletes, especially big-time pro athletes, can’t come to grips with when it hits: Their bodies are winding down. To Iverson, a tiny man in a big man’s world, his game built not just on speed but on a survivor’s arrogance that he must be the very best — this was not something he’d stomach.
I can feel it now, talking to him, his pain and arrogance both: Still in his practice uniform, he pulls his sweatband over his eyes, cradles his head in his hands. This moment for him came on so fast.
What was Iverson without his athletic superiority? He sulked and fought with Curry. The Detroit Free Press blogged that he was banned from two Detroit casinos for throwing chips at dealers and spitting at them and even trying to cheat. (The casinos, ever concerned about PR, deny that he was banned, and the Free Press took down the blog post, but the reporter who broke the story says now that he was privy to at least 15 people regaling him with stories of Iverson drunk and unbearable in casinos.) Iverson believes no NBA team wants him for a simple reason: Detroit general manager Joe Dumars put the word out that he was too much trouble. “I think that situation basically destroyed my NBA career,” he says. “I honestly believe that.”
I ask Iverson if he has a gambling problem. From his days with the Sixers, there are myriad stories of him dropping big money in A.C. at the Taj and Bally’s, getting drunk and being rude to dealers. The stories smack of him throwing his money around recklessly, even dangerously.
“You find out when dealing with people that doesn’t have nowhere near as much money as you,” Iverson says, “that a lot of people who don’t have that money and can’t fathom it, would never understand. If I had that much to lose and I know it, then it’s not a problem for me.”
How about drinking? “Everybody I know, damn near, drinks. How is it a problem for me? I don’t remember getting any DUIs or going to jail for getting drunk in public.” Iverson laughs, because, really, are we talking about drinking? “I’ve never been reprimanded or anything, with any team or anything like that, because of any drinking.”
In late 2009, he tried to resume his NBA career in Memphis. Just as the season was starting, the team was practicing in L.A., and coach Lionel Hollins cleared the gym of onlookers so he could address his players. And then he lit into Iverson for caring only about himself — the player famous for playing his heart out, admonished for not giving enough. Iverson was out of there after the next game. He signed back here, and played 25 games with the Sixers. But he’d not only lost a step; worse, his mind was no longer in the game, and that had always been one of his gifts: using the gym to escape from his life.
Iverson’s daughter Messiah was sick. There was another, even graver problem: Tawanna had filed for divorce.
They have been together, Iverson says, for more than half his life. An old family friend from Hampton, who has known him since he was eight years old, understands what Tawanna saw in him before he had two nickels to rub together: “She was a sweet girl — she didn’t know anything of the streets. Bubbachuck was an athlete, a humble sweet little kid, and she saw an innocent boy who was gifted and had nothing but wanted something. She saw that, and fell in love with that dream. It’s a hell of a love story. And she didn’t leave the dream — she kept dreamin’, like Hollywood. Some dreams happen, some don’t. She kept dreamin’ one day, somehow, Allen would be the innocent boy she met when she was very young.”
When the Sixers let Iverson go home last February, it was to sit down with Tawanna, to see if they could, somehow, get back on track. For Iverson, his marriage — maybe more than anything else — is paramount to his survival.
“I’d die for her,” he once said about Tawanna. “I’d die without her.”
Sitting up in the stands in Istanbul, Iverson tells me, “It’s 360 degrees better now,” and this is the effect he has, despite all his excesses, or maybe because of them: I really hope, for his sake, that it is better.
I ask him how Tawanna feels about making the move from Atlanta with five kids. (Messiah is well now.)
Iverson smiles ruefully. They are a work in progress.
ON THE DAY I TALKED TO IVERSON, I’d gone for a long, winding walk. Far above a four-lane highway, a hard-sounding Turkish voice blared. I walked up the hill to the voice and found a mosque, the imam’s incantations broadcast from speakers.
I peered in an open door. Shoes were lined in a vestibule. I took mine off, and slipped to the entrance of the main room, where 15 men in robes knelt in a row and touched their foreheads to the floor, as the imam chanted and imprecated.
Suddenly, a cell phone rang. I panicked, reached down — but it wasn’t mine. A man in the middle of the row of worshippers got up, turned, came toward me, reached into his white robe, and answered his phone.
I went back out into the sun, laughing, and watched women go in their own separate entrance. One second I was taking a peek into the Ottoman Empire, the next — well, it’s a rapidly shifting world.
Does Allen Iverson have a prayer of making it here? People who know him in America, or think they do, seem to find the idea laughable. How do you go from practically living in casinos and drinking heavily to Istanbul?
“I’m not like I was when I was in Philly,” Iverson says, “when I was 21. I didn’t have five kids. I didn’t have the responsibilities I have now.”
His old teammate Eric Snow tells me he knows Iverson wants to get back to the NBA. But Iverson says no. He’s done that, had his career there. He’s in a new place now, a city and country that have embraced him. There are millions more fans out there, all over Europe, that he can play for. And that’s what he intends to do, because the truth is, Allen Iverson has nowhere else to go.