Iverson Answers the Call
"I'm not sure if he's grown and matured. I don't know if he's ever gotten the full impact of his celebrity and stardom," says Charles Barkley about Allen Iverson on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Few professional basketball players absorb the physical punishment Iverson absorbs each night -- throwing his 6-foot, 165-pound body into the lane, challenging the giants in the paint and being knocked to the floor by them, bouncing off the floor with a bruised elbow and a gashed forehead. And while it is indeed "dog-bites-man stuff," as one writer put it, to remark that a marvelous athlete sprung from a less-than-marvelous childhood environment, the story of Iverson's rise to basketball excellence is still remarkable.
He has gone from living in a home where he walked on a floor covered in sewage, to spending four months in jail, to leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the 2001 NBA Finals, winning four scoring titles and being voted the NBA's MVP. Perhaps more than any coach or basketball idol, his background has shaped the way he plays.
"I believe in my heart I'm the best player in the world," Iverson said on Jan. 15, 2002, after scoring 58 points against Houston. "I'm just a scorer. I try to put the ball in the basket for my team. I'm just confident in my ability to play ball."
After a decade as a Philadelphia icon, Iverson wore out his welcome. Delighted for the opportunity to start fresh, he was traded to the Denver Nuggets in December 2006. Few players in Philly's rich sports history were as controversial or talented as the seven-time All-Star who poked fun of practice.
On June 7, 1975, in Hampton, Va., Iverson was born into circumstances few would envy. His mother, Ann, was 15 and unmarried when she gave birth. His biological father, Allen Broughton, was not involved in his upbringing at all.
After graduating from high school, Ann held a multitude of jobs -- she worked on an Avon Fashions assembly line and at a clothes packaging and distribution factory -- but was unemployed sometimes as well. Ann and Allen's apartment in the Hampton projects had been built on top of the city's sewage system, and whenever the pipes burst, the home's floor would flood with sewage and stench.
As a boy, Iverson played basketball for money. Sometimes, if he didn't win, he didn't eat. "There were times when Allen never knew where his next meal was going to be," said Mike Bailey, Iverson's basketball coach at Bethel High School in Hampton. "Here's a kid who couldn't take a bath because he had no running water because it had been turned off."
The man Iverson called "Dad" was Michael Freeman, Ann's boyfriend, who ricocheted in and out of prison during Allen's adolescence. From 1991-96, Freeman was twice convicted -- and twice paroled -- for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
"I feel all the jail time he did was for us," Allen said. "He couldn't stand to look at us (living) like that. So he went out and did what he had to do."
At Bethel High, Iverson quarterbacked the football team to a state championship his
Iverson said the brawl was triggered by racial slurs, and although the level of his involvement remains unclear -- he has maintained his innocence -- Iverson was alleged to have hit a woman in the head with a chair. He and three other African-American youths were arrested.
At 17, Iverson was convicted on a felony charge of "maiming-by-mob" and drew a 15-year prison sentence, with 10 years suspended. He spent four months at the Newport News City Farm before Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder granted him a pardon. In 1995, the Virginia Court of Appeals overturned the conviction, citing insufficient evidence of his guilt.
"I had to use the whole jail situation as something positive," Iverson said. "Going to jail, someone sees something weak in you, they'll exploit it. I never showed any weakness. I just kept going strong until I came out."
While Iverson was in prison, his mother visited Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson in December 1993. "She was the reason why I helped her child," Thompson said.
In spring 1994, he visited Iverson at Hampton's Richard Milburn High, a school that catered to at-risk students or students who already had dropped out of high school. The visit was enough to persuade Iverson to come to Georgetown on a scholarship.
All Iverson did in his two seasons as the Hoyas' point guard was average 23 points, twice be named Big East Defensive Player of the Year, and set and re-set the conference's single-season record for steals. An All-American as a sophomore, he led the Hoyas to the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament.
Then, on May 1, 1996, he became the first player to leave Georgetown early and declare himself eligible for the NBA. Philadelphia made him the draft's No. 1 pick.
Although the Sixers won only 22 games in his rookie season, Iverson was named the Rookie of the Year, averaging 23.5 points to lead all first-year players. Soon after the season ended in 1997, Iverson was arrested for possession of a gun and two marijuana cigarettes when he was a passenger in a car cited for speeding in Richmond. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of carrying a concealed weapon in a plea agreement under which the drug charge was dropped. He performed 100 hours of community service and received three years' probation, after which his record was expunged.
Before Iverson's second season, Larry Brown was named the Sixers coach. The team improved to 31-51 as Iverson averaged 22 points and upped his shooting percentage from 42 percent as a rookie to 46 percent.
In 1999, a season shortened to 48 games by the players' lockout, Iverson was freed to shoot even more after Brown shifted him to shooting guard. He responded by winning his first scoring title, with a 26.8 average, and leading the Sixers into the playoffs for the first time since 1991.
Jolted by how close he came to playing for an NBA bottom-feeder, Iverson mended his relationship with Brown and wove a dream season -- leading the league in points (31.1) and steals (2.51), winning the league's season and All-Star Game MVP awards, and carrying the Sixers to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1983.
In 2002, Iverson missed the last 14 games of the regular season with a broken bone in his left hand. While he retained his scoring title by averaging 31.4 points, his field-goal percentage was an abysmal 39.8 percent.
The following season, Iverson averaged 27.6 points and 5.5 assists. After the campaign, Brown quit as coach and went to Detroit. Playing for two coaches in 2003-04, Iverson averaged 26.4 points and 6.8 assists, but he was limited to 48 games, mostly because of an injury to his right knee. There were sparks behind the scenes in March, when he refused to come off the bench after being told by coach Chris Ford that he wasn't starting. "I'm not a sixth man," Iverson said.
He stayed healthy in 2004-05 and averaged 30.7 points for his fourth scoring title. Iverson also averaged a career-high 7.9 assists. The following year he averaged 33 points, but finished second to Kobe Bryant in the scoring race. This marked the first time since Elgin Baylor in 1963 that a player averaged at least that many points but didn't lead the league in scoring.
After joining the Nuggets in December 2006, Iverson's scoring went down although he still finished sixth in the league with a 26.3 average. He also averaged 7.2 assists for the season.
In 2000, Iverson cut a rap album titled "Non-Fiction" under the pseudonym "Jewelz." He was criticized for lyrics that members of the media called pro-violence, vulgar and anti-homosexual. Under threat of penalty by Commission David Stern, Iverson was told to change the lyrics. The album was never released.
Iverson married Tawanna Turner on Aug. 3, 2001. They have two children, Tiaura and Allen II, whom his father simply calls "Deuce." In the summer of 2002, Iverson became national news when it was reported that while looking for Tawanna, who left their home after a domestic dispute, he threatened two men with a gun. Philadelphia police hit Iverson with 14 charges, including 12 felony. All were dropped when his accusers' testimony didn't hold up in court.