The Real Allen Iverson

Did we ever understand the sensitive figure who lurked beneath the Hall of Famer’s tough exterior?

Allen Iverson laughs while talking to the media about his election into the Basketball Hall of Fame | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Allen Iverson laughs while talking to the media about his election into the Basketball Hall of Fame | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Things are better now between the two legends, the older one says over the phone, his monotone voice still heavy with the echoes of his native Brooklyn.

The tension that once defined their relationship — that of an unstoppable force colliding with an immovable object  — and threatened to derail one of the most exciting eras in the history of the Philadelphia 76ers has remarkably softened with the passage of time, giving way to a warm, affectionate bond. So when Larry Brown gets a text message from Allen Iverson these days, the Hall of Fame coach pores over every word. He treasures the little digital glimpses into the mind of a complicated figure who captivated basketball fans in Philadelphia and across the country with his otherworldly skills on the court for 14 years.

But the public’s fascination with Iverson always went beyond whatever he accomplished in any individual game or season. Part of the thrill and the anxiety of watching his career unfold was the uncertainty of it all. Could he escape the suspicions and judgments people projected onto him because of the four months he spent behind bars at the age of 18 in Newport News, Virginia? Could he survive and thrive at 6-foot-nothing, 165 pounds, in a league filled with giants? Could he rise above the criticism he faced from NBA bigwigs and the media for the way he dressed, the way he wore his hair, the company he kept? Could he stay one step ahead of his own self-destructive tendencies, or learn to co-exist with authority figures like Brown?

The answers weren’t always easy to come by, but the journey to discovering them has led Iverson to Springfield, Mass., where he will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame on September 9th. Anyone who saw him ever pull the trigger on one of his ankle-breaking crossovers could tell you his enshrinement was a matter of when, not if. But this is more than just another honor for an explosive guard who piled them up seemingly at will during his playing days. Iverson’s joining the ranks of immortals, and it’s rocked him to his core.

“This thing about the Hall of Fame, you wouldn’t believe the text messages I’ve gotten from him,” Brown says. “We knew it was going to happen. Anybody who watched him play realized he was going to get in immediately, as soon as he was eligible. But he’s shown a real different side in terms of this happening. Just knowing that he’s been selected, and hearing the way people talk about his career, I think this means a lot to him at this point in his life.”

Iverson is 41 now, old enough to look back honestly at his triumphs — the MVP award, the 11 All-Star selections, the gutsy, jaw-dropping playoff performances that fueled the Sixers’ run to the NBA Finals in 2001 — and the missteps that sometimes overshadowed everything else.

The conflicting emotions churned inside of Iverson like storm-tossed ocean swells when he met with reporters at a press conference in April, after his election to the Hall of Fame was announced. He spoke candidly about struggling with the weight of his fame, offering a hint of that “different” side Brown described — a raw, vulnerable side. Didn’t the people who scrutinized him all those years ago understand that he was human, too? Couldn’t they see how hard he tried to succeed, on the court and off?

All of a sudden, Allen Iverson was wiping away tears. “I’m so proud when my family, when my friends tell me they proud of me,” he said, his voice trembling like a transmission stuck in between gears. “Shit, I’m proud of myself. I love who I am. I love being me. I love who my mom made me, and who my dad made me. This is who I am. My family and my friends love who I am. That’s the only thing that matters to me.”

He welled up again a few moments later, when he singled out another figure from his past for praise. “I wish Phil Jasner could be here right now. I know he’s looking down on me. I know he’s looking down on me, and I know he’s smiling right now,” Iverson said of the longtime Sixers beat writer for the Daily News, who died in 2010 after a two-year battle with cancer. “We had our ups and downs, like, we had our little rifts or whatever. But now he a Hall of Famer. All of the people that helped me, they should feel good about the accomplishment, because they helped.”

Imagine that, former Sixers president Pat Croce muses during a recent conversation — Iverson, one of the toughest players the NBA ever saw, getting choked up talking about an old, white sportswriter. There was just so much that people never understood about him. “Forget about the tattoos and the cornrows. That’s a shell,” Croce says. “If you really knew Allen, you’d know he has a gigantic heart in there. It really is a heart of love, as well as intensity.”

And somehow, Jasner was one of the few who cracked that once impenetrable armor.

IVERSON’S RELENTLESS DRIVE and battle tank-like toughness began to form at an early age, growing up, as he did, in abject poverty in Hampton, Virginia, the son of a teenage mother, Ann, who nicknamed him Bubba Chuck — a combination of his two uncles’ first names.

The outer shell grew another thick layer when he survived the saga that gave him his first taste of national attention. Iverson was a high school junior when he and a group of his friends got into a brawl with a group of white teens at a local bowling alley. A judge sentenced him in 1993 to 15 years in prison for his role in the melee.

It was a racial Rorschach test for early-90s America; the draconian punishment threatened to crush Iverson’s dreams of playing basketball professionally, his ticket to providing for his family. He was granted clemency by Virginia’s then- Governor Douglas Wilder after serving four months. The case is still a point of fascination and frustration, having been analyzed both in an ESPN “30 For 30” feature and a documentary about Iverson on Showtime.

He spent two years at Georgetown University before the Sixers selected him with the first pick in the 1996 NBA draft. Iverson won the Rookie of the Year award, but what fans probably remember best from that season was the cinematic perfection of seeing their young phenom stun none other than Michael Jordan with his trademark crossover.

Yeah, a star had been born, but it didn’t take long for him to emerge as a lightning rod for controversy. The NBA was thoroughly uncomfortable with Iverson’s look: the tattoos, the gold chains, the du-rags, the throwback jerseys. Then-commissioner David Stern ultimately implemented a strict dress code policy for players in 2005 — jackets and ties were to be worn before and after games, during interviews and while players were on the bench — which many saw as a direct rebuke of Iverson’s style.

“I think that kind of scrutiny made Allen turn it up the other way,” says former Sixers center Matt Geiger, who played alongside Iverson in Philadelphia for four seasons, and served as one of his locker room sounding boards. “He was the kind of guy to say, ‘Who are you to tell me how to live my life? Does it make me a different person because I wear a suit? That’s fake!’ He was standing up for people who don’t want to conform.”

On the court, he was a game-altering force to be reckoned with, size be damned. He led the league in scoring average four times during his career; steals per game three times; minutes per game seven times; and finished with average of 26.7 points and 6.2 assists per game. But there were headaches, too: a suspension in 2000 for missing or showing up late to practices; a poorly received attempt at launching a rap career in 2001;  an arrest in 2002 on trespassing and firearms charges, which were later tossed. And then there was Iverson’s oil-and-vinegar relationship with Brown, which nearly drove both men mad until they agreed to start from scratch, creating the foundation for the Sixers’ run to the finals in ’01.

“You know, the more I got to get away from it, and realized some of the things that went on in my life concerning him, I wish I had it to do all over again. I would have done better,” Brown sighs. “I look back at the fact that I was around him during that period of time, and I realize it made me a much better coach. It made me deal with kids hopefully in a better way. But if you asked me this at that time, I don’t know if I could have said these things.”

Through it all, Jasner was there, documenting every twist and turn, every peak and valley. He joined the staff of the Daily News in 1972, and started covering the Sixers in ’81. You could spot his slender frame and mop of curly hair wherever the team was — on the road, at home, in the locker room. He was a basketball purist who studied the game from every angle, and built his relationships with players methodically. Off-the-record conversations stayed off-the-record.

His professionalism led to his own enshrinement in the NBA Hall of Fame, the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, and several others. “Phil believed in what I believe in, which is acquiring a rapport by getting to know a player little by little, and having him ultimately trust you,” explains Philadelphia Eagles play-by-play announcer Merrill Reese, a lifelong friend of Jasner’s.

“Phil was like Columbo: ‘Ah, just one more thing.’ He’d wait until everyone left the locker room, and that’s when Allen could be himself,” Croce says. “But Allen had a sense of wariness with most people, especially if they weren’t part of his posse. He was not a trusting individual. So for him to put trust in Phil was a monster move on Allen’s part, and it was a monster compliment to Phil.”

None of this is to say that Jasner shied away from challenging Iverson, or peppering him with pointed questions about his performance. “They would butt heads,” says Daily News sports editor Rich Hofmann. “News is news, and when Allen made news, Phil wrote it. And Allen I’m sure didn’t always like reading it.” Iverson’s infamous “We talkin’ ’bout practice” meltdown during a press conference in 2002 included a testy exchange between Iverson and Jasner. “What do you know about basketball? Have you ever played?” the star asked the reporter.   

But if Jasner pressed Iverson, it wasn’t in the name of trying to create a headline. “There was a mutual respect there. Phil was old school, no-nonsense, and I think he got the most out of Allen,” says Aaron McKie, who served as Iverson’s moral compass during the eight years they spent together on the Sixers.

“Allen’s a really perceptive kid,” Brown says. “I think he recognized Phil cared about him and was interested in him, and wanted to see him do well. I think that hits a chord with every athlete, especially the ones who are so special.”

When Iverson announced his retirement in 2013, he again went out of his way to mention Jasner. “I know he’s looking down on this whole event and thinking about the times we laughed with each other, and thinking about the times we fought with each other,” he said. “But he was very inspirational in my career, and he meant a lot to me.”

Maybe Iverson’s melancholy was a reminder of how rare it is for a celebrity of his stature to experience a genuine connection with another person that didn’t hinge on a transaction of some kind — a request for money, or a photo, or an autograph.

“Where he came from, and where I came from, it’s hard to ever show that emotional side. The edge he grew up with helped him become a Hall of Famer,” McKie says.  “In his world, you never want somebody to see you blink. But Allen cares about the people that are around him.”

THE DAYS LEADING up to the Hall of Fame ceremonies will be filled with old highlight reels of the moments that helped to define Iverson’s legacy. How many times will the clip be replayed of Iverson hitting a jumper and then emphatically stepping over Lakers guard Tyronn Lue in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals? Too many to count, probably. And yet you’ll still want to see it again.

It’s nice, looking back and remembering the excitement the city felt when Iverson was at his peak. Andy Reid hadn’t yet turned the Eagles into perennial Super Bowl contenders, and the idea of the Phillies winning a second World Series was a pipe dream, at best.

“I can’t even begin to tell you all of the names I’ve coached,” Brown says. His famously nomadic career included stops in Denver, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Indiana, New York, Charlotte, and Detroit, where he finally won a title with the Pistons in 2004. “You can put him up there with the greatest who ever lived. But I’ve never seen a connection like [what Iverson had] in Philly. And it wasn’t just Philly; it was everywhere we went. Our bus would get into Atlanta or Washington, D.C., late at night, and people would be waiting to see Allen.”

His career sputtered as it neared the finish line, with Iverson injured and seemingly lost after blink-and-you-missed-it stays with the Denver Nuggets, Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies, and an ill-fated reunion with the Sixers.  He talked to Philadelphia magazine back in 2010, when he was playing in Turkey, of all places, trying to rebuild his marriage amid speculation that he was nearly broke.

“I think if he would have ended his career four or five years earlier, it might have been easier,” Geiger says. “It was hard to see him bounced around like that. But I don’t think people should look at that. Just look at his first 10 or 12 years, and see how dominant he was.”

But letting go of the game is incredibly hard, especially for athletes who, for as long as they could remember, easily transcended the physical limits that applied to their peers. McKie, who now works as an assistant basketball coach at Temple University, knows it wasn’t an easy truth for Iverson to accept.

“He’s one of those guys who thought it would never end. You think you can play until you’re 100-years-old, but it’s not reality. Once you sit down, you realize, ‘This is it. It’s over. Everything I know in terms of basketball, and competing, and traveling, the adulation, that’s all done.'”

Most of Iverson’s life is still in front of him. There’s no script for how it will play out — a thought that is both promising and a little scary. “I got so much more to do in my life. I want to accomplish more things in my life,” he said at the presser back in April. “I’m not the best father that I want to be. I want to be a better father. I want to be a better person. So I just hope God bless me with the air to keep going.”

Brown thinks back to the arguments he used to have with Iverson about being a role model. You could have such a positive impact on so many young people, the coach would bark, and his player would push back defiantly, insisting that wasn’t his job. And now Brown finds himself getting stopped in airports and college gyms by teenagers who were babies when Iverson ruled Philadelphia, who want to know if he really used to coach the guy they called The Answer. Some of them have cornrows, or wear a single arm sleeve and a du-rag, and no one is bothered by such a thing anymore.

McKie was with Iverson in early August, when his old friend hosted a celebrity charity basketball game at Temple’s Liacouras Center. They talked about life, about the game, about the surreal specter of Iverson joining the Hall of Fame alongside other generational icons like Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming. “He’s in a good place now,” McKie says.

“I think everybody’s pulling for him. He meant a lot to people in this city, and they want to see the story finish well. We had a conversation a little while ago, and the only thing I said was, ‘Yo, think about this: You come from Newport News. People counted you out from birth. This is a game we all grew up playing on the playground, at the YMCA. And you’re going to the Hall of Fame now. You’re one of the best basketball players of all time.’

“He just couldn’t fathom it. As a kid, you dream about those things. You know how far-fetched it is. And now you’re a part of this exclusive club. You mention anybody in that club, and people’s eyes go wide. He’s a part of that now, and that’s awesome.”

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