By Bomani Jones
Special to Page 3
Allen Iverson is so much of what hip-hop is supposed to be at its heart.
The business of hip-hop has become enormous, and big business is designed to be just that, a way to rake in dollars. Rappers -- and most stars, for that matter -- are good at making cinematic characters seem natural. They often make rough edges more jagged, smooth themselves to stop us from getting splinters when we touch them, or even throw dashikis over their starched shirts to reach the "bohemian" crowd.
If being "real" won't sell, acting the part is the next best thing.
But AI appears to do no such thing.
He is the closest thing sports has to being a prototypical example of what hip-hop culture is. While most of us know little about who Michael Jordan really is (and who, it must be said, hasn't represented hip-hop since he traded in his gold rope chain for fancy suits when the money started rolling in), Allen Iverson is unapologetically Allen Iverson. He wears do-rags to press conferences. His arms are tattooed to a point that blurs the line between artistry and graffiti. He's unavoidably passionate and effortlessly unique. He's the kind of star that could not be created. Stars like that are born and/or raised to be that way.
And he doesn't give a damn whether we like it or not.
Being natural is deeper than being urban or possessing "street cred." It's more about his lack of pretense. His emotional outbursts -- practice?!? -- are impossible to rehearse or script.
Were he an actor, he would be much simpler to dissect, and analyses of him would be the same across the board. That he's so compelling and generates so much discussion shows how genuine is. It's the same way an incredible biography can capture the imagination in ways a work of fiction couldn't begin to approach.
But that's only one view of AI.
And thugs are so easy to hate.
Perspective is something else, ain't it?
It would be easy to see Iverson as a Rudy-like figure, the little guy that has worked harder than anyone else to get where he is. There are two obvious differences, though. First, AI's got more than a tiny shred of talent. Small as he is, his gangly arms and quick first step make him a natural for hoop.
And Rudy's white.
But everything else is there. Literally and figuratively, he's the little guy that keeps on trucking. He's overcome circumstances that many can't fathom. He went to a grown man's jail before the end of his childhood. He was expected to take care of his family years before he was drafted, and he went on to handle that business.
Like so much hip-hop, Iverson's story is about overcoming. Stories of athletes using their talents to escape abject poverty are common, but that they aren't rare does not make them any less remarkable. As long as SportsCenter's on the air, we'll see tours of cats' old neighborhoods and marvel at their achievements. Even the most cold-hearted can appreciate those that made opportunities for themselves, kicking doors down when knocking on them wouldn't get them open.
But appreciation for that tends to depend on which side of the door you're on. Those on the outside tend to see that as being nobler than those inside.
In its purest form, hip-hop is about kicking down those doors. Rap music was revolutionary because it made music from music, making chicken salad with turntables because instruments can't be purchased with chickens -- paychecks. If you can't work with what you want, you work with what you've got.
And if you're barely six feet, "listed" at 165 lbs., you've got to be as quick as the smallest man and as tough as the largest.
That relentlessness makes Iverson akin to hip-hop. It's deeper than the braids and tats. With AI's wardrobe, Shane Battier would be Shane Battier. With braids, Richard Hamilton is Rip, but he's not The Answer. And while Sonny Vaccaro of adidas has a lot riding on Sebastian Telfair being a lot like AI, it's not likely he'll be the icon Iverson is.
He's surely not a plaster saint. He was pardoned by the governor after doing time for his high school conviction, and charges related to a domestic disturbance two years ago were dropped, but he had fault in both incidents. His decision-making has been suspect, leading to a heap of guilt by association. The problem wasn't his friends as much as it was not telling his friends to leave the contraband at home before driving his car. With the value hip-hop - and most decent people -- place on loyalty, asking Iverson to discard his friends was silly, especially those that looked out for his mother when he was in the joint.
But the Answer is not hip-hop. No one person is hip-hop (even though KRS-ONE has said that he is the culture's living embodiment).
In fact, make him a few inches taller, and he'd be a lot like Dan Majerle.
Except Dan Majerle's white, and rarely do folks see white and hip-hop in the same place.
Iverson is a wonderfully talented evolution of the gritty hustle machines that are called "fan favorites" in many cities. There's a lot of Thunder Dan in his game. If tough upbringings imply some commonality, there's been a lot of
The closest most get to connecting Larry Bird to hip-hop usually involves the disses he's received in Spike Lee flicks. But from their pasts to the floor burns they've gotten on the grandest of stages, they're not polar opposites.
When people talk about Iverson and hip-hop, it's struggle that seems to be forgotten. In struggle, though, is where it's easy to see how closely most people are related. Even those who've never wanted for anything can appreciate those that have to fight for most of what they have.
It's laughable to hear discussions about the invasion of hip-hop because so much of hip-hop has been around forever, just with different clothes and haircuts.
Hip-hop is a relatively new expression of old emotions, but never have black folks packaged that attitude so unrepentantly. The obstacles that black folks face are unique, but struggle is universal to most.
Which means most aren't too far removed from hip-hop, a phenomenon they many consider foreign.
And that means they're not much different than Allen Iverson.
AI is usually the first image to come to mind when people think of hip-hop and basketball. He conjures superficial visions of the good and bad. On the surface, he's young, black, and brash. Get rid of the exterior, and he's similar to a lot of folks that don't associate themselves with hip-hop.
He's simply Allen Iverson, just like all of us are who we are. But he seems more comfortable being himself than so many folks are with him being Allen Iverson, more at ease with being himself than too many are with being themselves.
Like it or not, that's what hip-hop is about.