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Wednesday, November 20, 2002
Introduction: Tupac with a jumpshot

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The foregoing is excerpted from "Only the Strong Survive" by Larry Platt with permission from HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

 
Bubbachuck was looking like a damned Ethiopian bodybuilder. That's what he likes to call himself when he's shirtless, the bones of his wispy upper body jutting out at sharp angles. Allen Iverson without a shirt is a striking sight; he does not have the physical presence one would expect from a man who regularly challenges NBA behemoths under the boards and in the lane, men a foot taller and in some cases nearly twice as heavy. He's listed at 6 feet, 165 pounds, but on this May 2001 morning, in the bowels of his team's practice facility, he appeared willowy thin. A buck-fifty and maybe 5-11, tops -- somebody who could easily be mistaken for a rambunctious ballboy, rather than a man who was about to be named the National Basketball Association's Most Valuable Player.

On this day that would name him, in his words, "the best in the world at what I do," Iverson knew how the accolade would be spun in the media. He was having none of it. He knew it would be presented as his redemption, even though he saw it as just another moment of vindication, another in a series of "I told you so" moments.

That is why his thoughts were strictly on those whom he never felt the need to prove anything to: the crew from back home. Iverson was raised on the rough streets of Newport News, Va., a small Southern city with a strong migratory connection to New York City. On those streets throughout the 1980s and early '90s, he'd brashly tell whoever would listen that he'd one day star in the NBA or NFL. Older guys, guys with rap sheets and shady connections, would shake their heads and laugh, but they'd look out for him, too -- because they saw a prodigy in the making, someone they could help make it out.

Still bare-chested, Iverson eyed two outfits laid out before him. His business adviser, Que Gaskins, awaited his verdict. Gaskins had received a phone call the night before from Gary Moore, Iverson's personal assistant. Moore was the grade-school football coach who took in a 12-year-old Bubbachuck -- an amalgam of two uncles' nicknames -- when things got crazy at home; Ann, Allen's single mother, all of 15 years his senior, couldn't care for him. Now Moore couldn't make it back to Philly from Virginia in time for the press conference; could Que find Allen something to wear in front of the cameras?

"I just want him looking fresh and clean," Moore said.

"Well, we know he ain't wearing no suit," Gaskins said, prompting both men to laugh. Iverson's disdain for business suits was well known. "If he's going to go urban, it should be sophisticated urban."

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So Gaskins laid out in front of Iverson a baby-blue velour Pelle Pelle sweatsuit and a black sleeveless Sean John ensemble. "These are phat," Iverson said, looking them over. "And I will wear them, but I ain't wearing 'em today."

Bending over and rummaging through his locker, Iverson extracted a black T-shirt recently given to him by one of his friends from back home. BAD NEWS HOOD CHECK, the T-shirt boldly read in front; a list of street corners adorned the back -- the toughest spots in Newport News, the very corners where Iverson came up. There was 16th Street, where the troubled Ridley Circle housing projects were located, just blocks from the Stuart Gardens Apartments, where Allen lived for a time. There was Jefferson Avenue, where the hustlers hawked their illicit wares a chest pass down from the Boys and Girls Club.

"I want all my niggas back home to see this," Iverson said, pulling the shirt on. If hip-hop culture is all about carving self-identity while maintaining your roots, then Iverson is all hip-hop culture; its defiance fuels his demeanor, both on court and off, and its music was the sound track of his turbulent upbringing, from the very first time he heard Kool Moe Dee and Biggie Smalls flow about their lives as though they'd been living his. Of the 21 tattoos that adorn his body, two pay homage to Newport News and four salute Cru Thik -- his crew from back there, many of whom stay with him in Philadelphia during the basketball season.

When Iverson, wearing the Hood Check T-shirt, Timberlands, a scarf encircling his braided hair, and some $300,000 worth of ice dangling from his earlobes and around his neck, took the podium that day on May 15, 2001, it was much more than just another press conference to name a league's MVP. It was, in a sense, the end of an era, nothing short of a generational handoff. Suddenly gone were the days when a black athlete had to be deferential and nonthreatening in order to be loved. Iverson's team was winning and his name had just surpassed Anna Kournikova's as the most searched on the Internet, in or outside of sports. Of course, the talking heads would go on to paint a portrait of Iverson as a man who had undergone an epiphany. They'd give us a New and Improved Iverson: one-time bad boy morphed into heroic moral exemplar. But the press accounts said more about those who wrote them than about Iverson. The new conventional wisdom revealed a hunger to squeeze Iverson into a safe, familiar narrative. Which is a pastime made particularly hard by Iverson, because as well as he plays, he just refuses to play along.

For Iverson is neither hero nor villain, and he knew it that day. Instead, he is what the artwork burned into his skin shows him to be, a product of hip-hop culture never before seen in the "crossover"-oriented world of sports. The sound bites of his MVP press conference would focus on Iverson making nice with his old-school coach, Larry Brown, with whom he had feuded in the past -- and would again in the not-so-distant future. But a widely ignored part of his remarks that day spoke to the singularity of the event. Iverson looked to the back of the room, squinting, until his eyes settled upon his beaming, high-fiving friends -- his once much-derided "posse." They were dressed like him: baggy-jeaned, tattooed. These are the guys who took care of his mama and baby sister when he was in jail, the guys who kept a vigil for him on the other side of the prison's fence for five months, even though, not wanting to be seen in his county jumpsuit, he refused to make eye contact with them.

Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson won the MVP his way.
But on this day of his vindication, Iverson searched them out and his gaze never wavered. There was Ra, his eyes, as always, visibly red-rimmed. There was Eric Jackson or, as Iverson called him, "E." There was Marlon Moore and there was Andre "Arnie" Steele, who was busted in 1998 behind the wheel of Iverson's Benz CL 600 V-12 after allegedly taking part in a drug deal, and who was convicted in 1990 of cocaine possession with intent to distribute.

"What makes me proudest is that I did this my way," Iverson said, still looking straight at his boys, echoing the refrain long crooned by a previous generation's entertainer who was seen by some to have similarly remained loyal to gangsta roots. "I never changed who I was."

Months later, Iverson came face to face with the dark side of his "keeping it real" ethic. How real, after all, is too real? On the eve of the 2001-02 season, five months after being named MVP, four months after winning over fans with his hustle and determination against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 NBA Finals, and just two months after marrying his high-school sweetheart, Tawanna Turner, the mother of his two children, Iverson learned that his best friend, Ra, had been murdered in Newport News. Shot eight times. Killed after arguing with a guy over who could rap better.

"I don't want to die in no projects, man, laying in the grass, people walking by, and be bleeding to death," a crushed Iverson whispered to his former bodyguard Terry Royster when he called to tell him the news. They talked about a supposed friend of Ra's -- and theirs -- who goes by the name of Fiend. He was there and could probably have prevented the altercation from escalating -- but didn't. Now Fiend was nowhere to be found. "It just don't seem real, you know what I'm saying?" And then he paused. "But it's also too real. I don't want nobody telling Tawanna and the kids I died like that, over something so stupid."

He donned a black elbow pad with Ra's name on it. From then on, he'd tap it before every foul shot. "Some people see too much too soon," Gary Moore had once said of Iverson, who witnessed his first murder at 8 years old. In one summer alone, eight of his friends were felled by gunshot wounds. With Ra's death, Allen Iverson would once again take his pain and use it as fuel to excel on the basketball court, the one constant sanctuary of emotional escape he had found in his 27 years on this Earth.

Whether he is proclaiming to the media throng that he's "maintained who he is," privately agonizing over the cost of keeping things too real, or, most recently, staring down felony weapon charges, Allen Iverson has left an indelible cultural mark. More than any other athlete on the public stage, he is, by virtue of his groundbreaking game and his unwillingness to sanitize his ghettocentric style, at once a product and a shaper of his times.

Since 1993, Iverson has heard himself described as a thug and a drug dealer and an ex-con. His response? To simply represent. After years of hearing himself judged, he made of his body his own personal billboard and advertised his ethic on his very own skin. (Not surprisingly, Iverson had all but two of his tattoos etched onto his body only after he became a multimillion-dollar basketball star.) White men in suits -- like the white men in suits who sent him to jail at 17 -- lectured him about what he'd have to do to "cross over," to garner mainstream acceptance as a modern-day "role model" sports star. Instead, he defied the sports punditocracy and NBA old guard with the tattoos and by catalyzing a youth culture trend as the first basketball star to braid his hair in cornrows, a style prevalent among black prison inmates.

  The sportswriters and league elders alike were used to athletes, from Julius Erving to Michael Jordan, who subscribed to their middle-class "role model" mores; they were mystified by Iverson's in-your-face persona. It was a classic culture clash; they saw Iverson as a basketball player, when, in fact, he had already transcended his sport and become a hip-hop icon. 
  

The sportswriters and league elders alike were used to athletes, from Julius Erving to Michael Jordan, who subscribed to their middle-class "role model" mores; they were mystified by Iverson's in-your-face persona. It was a classic culture clash; they saw Iverson as a basketball player, when, in fact, he had already transcended his sport and become a hip-hop icon.

"In a sense, Allen Iverson is Tupac with a jumpshot," says cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson. "Like Tupac, he carries his history with him. Usually, America says to somebody, If you want to be successful, you gotta be blanched, you gotta be whitewashed. This is the United States of Amnesia -- we want to distance ourselves from everything. Get over your blackness. Now here comes this basketball player who understands that the ghetto is a portable metaphor for how he has faced odds and won. Like Tupac, he says to America, It's not that I've transformed -- you have changed your understanding of what is capable of coming out of a black body from the ghetto with writing all over it and cornrows, the very things that once signified the worst elements of blackness to you.' "

Indeed, cared for by drug dealers, abandoned by his biological father, raised by another man who was constantly in and out of prison for dealing crack cocaine, Iverson often seems to be living a rap lyric. When he first heard Biggie Smalls, it was as if the Notorious B.I.G. were speaking directly to him: "Either you slinging crack rock/Or you got a wicked jumpshot ..." The previous generation of ballplayers, from Erving to Jordan, embodied the integrationist vision found in the politics of their day and were made over for the comfort of white America, even while Madison Avenue marketed the likes of Joe Namath and John McEnroe as rebels in the tradition of James Dean and Elvis. They had to make concessions Iverson would never consider. Erving, for instance, cut his trademark Afro in 1979 when he decided he wanted to be a businessman. Jordan, early in his career, spelled out his marketing strategy: "I smile a lot and I get along with everybody. People understand me as much as I want them to."

Now comes Iverson's story, containing the four elements that characterize the generation of black youth that came of age during the Reagan '80s: basketball, rap, dope dealing, and the ethic of "getting paid." He is known for basketball's crossover move, having done for dribbling what Erving did for the dunk: turn it into a weapon of intimidation. But he has also garnered cultural crossover acceptance -- without compromising. Like rap mogul Master P, who has gone from (reputed) drug dealer to music impresario to tryouts with the NBA's Charlotte Hornets and Toronto Raptors, Iverson embodies the New Crossover, where (seeming) street-level authenticity trumps Madison Avenue glitz. It's no accident, after all, that some 70 percent of hard-core rap CDs are bought by white kids in the suburbs, or that Iverson's sneaker and jersey sales at malls across America dwarf the numbers racked up by Kobe Bryant, dubbed "Karaoke Jordan" by USC cultural studies professor Dr. Todd Boyd.

Allen Iverson
Iverson refused to be whitewashed.
As the baby boomers age, a vibrant, even dominant youth culture is up for grabs. Kids raised on MTV and hip-hop are eager to embrace sports stars who have what marketers call "edge," who reflect antiestablishment mores. "Madison Avenue has seen how powerful the urban consumer is," says Gaskins, Iverson's cornrowed, baggy-jeaned business adviser, who holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management. "They've seen [urban fashion company] FUBU [For Us, By Us] explode on the scene, they've seen Lauryn Hill maintain her identity while getting the cover of Time magazine. There's a new audience out there that craves authenticity and embraces characters like Allen, who won't let himself get pimped out."

At a time when P. Diddy is partying with Donald Trump and Martha Stewart in the Hamptons and the oft-obscene rapper Lil' Kim is doing Calvin Klein ads, Allen Iverson has similarly come to embody the New Crossover by suggesting a new way to think of the American Dream. It's no longer solely about "rags to riches." It's still about attainment, yes, but it's also about achievement born of a ballsy, antiestablishment style; in rap song after rap song, after all, none other than the Donald is celebrated as much for his renegade mind-set as for the fortune he's amassed.

And so we get Allen Iverson, holding a defiant press conference at the end of the 2001-02 season in which he blasted the press and, by extension, his old-school coach, for publicly questioning his practice habits. The media compared it to a Mike Tyson-like public meltdown, yet people ate it up. Here was a sports star unafraid to speak his mind, or to turn the dynamic around on his interlocuters.

And then we get a series of felony and misdemeanor charges against Iverson in the summer of 2002, for allegedly threatening two men with a gun when he was in search of his wife late one night. His mug shot adorned newspaper front pages, Jay Leno made him a running gag, and the sports columnists called for Iverson to be traded, without citing even one on-court reason for such a move.

At the same time, far from the hand-wringing pundits, there were different perspectives. On the streets, people -- usually black people -- wore "Free Iverson" T-shirts. On Philadelphia playgrounds, kids and young adults of all ages wore Iverson No. 3 jerseys. Not only that, countless wore long, protective sleeves on their left arms, from their biceps to just below their wrists. Iverson, of course, had played the entire season like that to protect a still-tender surgically repaired elbow. Yet, because he had, the sleeve had been adopted as an inner-city style statement. Yes, at all of 27 years old, Allen Iverson had achieved rarified status: that of a true American antihero.