Allen Iverson Biographer Kent Babb on “Tipsy” Practice Rant, Stephen A. Smith, Why A.I. Thrived in Philly
Kent Babb wants to thank Stephen A. Smith.
“Whether he meant to or not,” says Babb, the author of Not a Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson, “he steered thousands of people toward my book.”
Last Friday, Smith used his clout as an ESPN pundit to criticize Babb, a sports features writer at The Washington Post, for his book’s claim that Iverson was “tipsy” during 2002’s “We’re talking about practice” rant.
“It’s a flat-out lie,” Smith, a former Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist, proclaimed on First Take, also boasting that he had known Iverson for 19 years and had spoken to him that day. “This is an exercise in cruelty. Allen Iverson is retired,” he added. “Allen Iverson is not playing anymore. And you’re gonna literally sit there and talk about something that you believe happened over 12 years ago?”
Babb’s page-turning, heart-wrenching biography is about more than Iverson’s beloved (and possibly besotted) press conference monologue. It’s the sad story of a star now adrift, broke and alone. Babb recently shared his thoughts with Philadelphia on Smith’s take, what he wishes readers would focus on, and why Philly adored A.I. — with reservations.
On Stephen A. Smith:
This is one person defending his very good friend. To that end, I appreciate that. That’s cool. I think there’s kind of a line there, and I think he came even very close to crossing the line — or did cross the line — in questioning credibility in reporting. That’s a little much because this is a guy, who at least at one time, was a reporter who actually cared about facts and not shouting. I would hope that he still maintains an appreciation for that.
There are several facts that get lost in the noise that I’d like to point out. Neither Stephen A. nor I were in the room that day. Neither one of us was in attendance to give Allen Iverson a blood test, so we can’t say whether he was or was not drunk. But unlike Stephen A., I talked to more than just one person who was in the room. I would say the 13, I believe, people I spoke with who were in the room that day, the mildest one said, “I wouldn’t doubt it” and the strongest was, “Yeah, he was drunk. He had something in his system that day, presumably alcohol.”
For one, I wish Iverson had spoken to me. Especially on the heels of Friday’s fun, I wish Stephen A. had directed these thoughts to me himself when I asked for an interview with him last July, instead of declining it through ESPN. Not only did I offer him a chance to talk, I wish that before he went crazy on TV the other day and on the radio, I wish he had either called me or at the very least read the book. If you read that chapter, I think it makes a lot of sense. Nobody is saying, “By God and amen, Allen Iverson was drunk that day!” It says they were suspecting he was drinking. And, oh by the way, who cares? To most fans who know that press conference, it sort of grows the legend.
On the aftermath of Smith’s rant:
[Last] Friday was a complicated day, just because I think writers are naturally insecure about everything or at least in terms of writing stuff. Larry Brown called me Friday night and said, “Holy shit, I’m getting all these calls about this drunk practice rant. What do I say?” I just said, “Larry, tell them the truth. Tell them exactly what you told me, and then that’s fine. Tell them the absolute truth, and what you told me is that you believe he went to the bar that day.” I went back and re-listened to my audio and re-read my notes and I was like, “Yeah, I got it right. I didn’t foul anything up.” But there was so much attention that you start to second-guess. For young reporters out there, for God’s sake, record everything, because that’s the only medicine for things like that.
On the root of Iverson’s post-NBA struggles:
Iverson has never been able to say no to his friends. I understand that’s probably hard, especially when you grew up in the circumstances that he did, and they made a promise, “If I make it out, we all make it out.” That’s a wonderful story. The problem is, I think Iverson never said no and never identified it when people took advantage of him and never stopped and said, “Hey, man, I’m the only one ever paying for anything and I’m also bankrolling living expenses and cars and insurance and college funds and things like that.” It’s all very generous, but at one point the pit is not bottomless anymore. It’s cheesy to say it, denial made and broke Allen Iverson. Denial created him and allowed him to reach the NBA and the MVP and all that because he never listened to anyone say that a 6-foot, 160-pound basketball player would never make it. He also never paid any attention to anyone saying, “Hey, you shouldn’t drink 30 beers” or “you shouldn’t spend $30,000 in a day.”
On the part of the book he feels is overlooked:
[Iverson’s] got a real mean streak that I think is kind of scary. I think his wife [Tawanna] saw that really up close. I’ve had some people on Twitter act like the wife is not a legitimate source. For one, come on! Nobody one else lived with Iverson during this time. Nobody else knew him from high school to Georgetown to the pros to retirement. Nobody else was saying these things as a sworn statement in court. This isn’t somebody who told an interviewer the things they were mad about with their ex-husband. This was told to a judge. There are some really dark and pretty serious things there. Most of it is alcohol-fueled. One of the things that really struck me is that Tawanna really seemed, like a lot of people, to try to fixate on the good stuff.
On whether he treated Iverson fairly:
I had this giant stack of court records, and they’re very one-sided. Part of it is Iverson’s testimony was sealed. The very little bit that he actually did testify, he didn’t testify in the actual divorce trial. He didn’t talk to me. There was literally no defense. It was all Tawanna and investigators. I used to search his name every few days to see what people were saying about him. It’s almost all, “Check out this crossover” or “RT for Kobe and favorite for Iverson as the best player in the last 20 years.” I remember last July when I thought, “I’m really being an asshole with this guy.” That’s when I happened upon this one guy in Georgia just bitching directly at Iverson. And I tracked this guy down, and he told me about this youth camp in Georgia [with] Iverson. The counselors everyday are like, “Bring your stuff for Iverson to autograph tomorrow, he will be here. Everybody get excited.” And then every day, these 12- and 13-year-old kids showed up, and [Iverson] never showed. He never showed in four days, and it turns out he was sitting in a bar somewhere. So that was the tipping point for me. You want him to be a good guy. You want him to be the hero that he used to be on a basketball court. And in his personal life, up until now, that has not been the reality.
On why Iverson thrived in Philadelphia:
In the late 1990s, there was a huge pop culture movement on the anti-hero. Two of the biggest movies of that decade were Fight Club and American Beauty, which were both about regular guys tired of being marginalized. And Tony Soprano ushered in the generation of the antihero as lead character. Iverson was the perfect person at the perfect time at the perfect place. The only difference was he was real. He was the guy that everyone could identify with. He wanted to kick authority in the teeth, and often did. He saw himself as the “lunch pail guy,” and Philadelphia people just friggin’ love that. They just completely bonded with him because he was one of them.
On the book’s reception there:
For the most part, I think the people in Philadelphia have been very open-minded to it. I think Philadelphians realize that he is complex and is very complicated. That’s the thing about people in Philadelphia is they really don’t let people off the hook that easily. Though I think people loved watching him play, I think people in that city also understand it had a shelf life to it. We were all on borrowed time with Allen Iverson. The way he played wasn’t going to be forever. The way he lived probably couldn’t be forever.
On Allen Iverson:
It was such a good feeling to watch Allen Iverson. I know, because was I one of them cheering when he stepped over Tyronn Lue. That was so cool. It was the most bad-ass thing in a career of bad-assery. But it was very short-lived with Allen Iverson. The downfall has been a lot more stunning, at least to me, than the rise. And, to me, that’s disappointing.