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Wednesday, November 20, 2002
Updated: December 2, 11:05 AM ET
A 'Strong' look into Iverson's world

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Say what you want about him, AI is captivating. He's a touchstone -- we see things in him, say things about him, idolize him, judge him, and argue over him. To some, he's a rebel warrior. To others, he's trouble. No matter how you see him, on and off the court, you have to watch what he does, you have to wonder how he does it, and sometimes you have to wonder why.

Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson urges you to support the boys in blue.
Larry Platt is like anybody else in that he finds Iverson fascinating. But he's different from everyone else, too, because he has spent most of the last couple of years trying to get to know him, trying to understand him. A few years back, Platt wrote a book about the NBA lives of Charles Barkley, Chris Webber and others, called Keepin' It Real. This time out, he has written Only The Strong Survive: The Odyssey of Allen Iverson.

A died-in-the-wool hoops man, the editor of Philadelphia Magazine, and the author of a recent collection of essays called New Jack Jocks: Rebels, Race and the American Athlete (which I wrote about here last summer), Platt got unprecedented access to Iverson, his friends, and his family for Only The Strong. The result is a fresh, smart, compassionate, but never soft, look at what makes the little big man tick.

On Tuesday, AI put himself front and center again, saying he felt like a marked man in Philly. The day before, I talked with Platt about what motivates Iverson and about the ways we read him.

Here's what he had to say:

What first drew you to Allen Iverson?

'STRONG' PREVIEW
For a sneak preview of Larry Platt's book, check out this excerpt about Allen Iverson's childhood and a look at where Iverson stands today as an NBA superstar.

I'd just never seen anything like him before. It's almost the same thing that drew me to Barkley 12 years ago. You'd look at him on the court and not quite understand how he's doing what he's doing.

Jordan, on a certain level, you can understand. He's got the classic ballplayer physique and the North Carolina pedigree to boot. Barkley once described himself as the ninth wonder of the world, leading the league in rebounding at 6-4½. And with Iverson, it's similar. They list him at 6-foot, but I've stood next to him, he's like 5-10, 165 pounds. It's just ridiculous what he can do at his size.

I think it's that, and I think it's his different looking package, the whole sense you got in his rookie year that oh, here comes something brand new, both on the court and in off-court demeanor. I mean, what other guy says to the media pack -- I think it was his second or third year -- that he missed practice because Mase, the rapper, was in town? What other guy says, it don't matter that my friend was here, I stay out all night any time, if I want to? You don't hear that from anyone else in the league, or in any league. It's consistently surprising stuff, or singular stuff, coming from him.

You spend a lot of time in the book talking about his childhood. What was the most remarkable thing you learned about the young Iverson?

First of all, what a prodigy he was, for a long time, below the radar of the media. It wasn't until he was 17 that he really burst onto the big-time basketball scene, but before that, he was a playground legend from the age of 8 or 9. He was being surrounded at the mall by kids his own age looking for autographs. He was a prodigy from day one.

Allen Iverson
Iverson doesn't understand how sitting out practice affects his teammates.
The other thing was the lifelong issue of his being disappointed by male authority figures, which set in motion a whole life of seeking acceptance from authority figures at the same time that he recoils from them. The Larry Brown example is the one that comes immediately to mind, of course, but this all flowed out of a childhood in which his biological father abandoned him and ended up going to jail, a de facto stepfather figure went in and out of jail all the time, and all the role models in between died or disappeared on him. He's just constantly been disappointed.

Do you get the sense, at the age and level of accomplishment he has reached now, that Iverson has stopped hoping for a reliable father figure?

Oh no, I think it's still a hunger. I think that's what the problems he had with Brown last season were all about. He wants to be Brown's favorite, but he's not. Derrick Coleman is.

I was on the team plane with them, and I saw Coleman walk back and watch tape with the coaches. Brown is always saying Coleman will make a great coach some day. Derrick is allowed to get away with stuff Iverson's not, and I think it drives Allen crazy because he's not Brown's pet.

Is there a big difference between Iverson on and off the court?

I think there's a difference in degree, but ultimately, he is what he shows himself to be.

As with most prodigies, there is something unknowable about him. I think the best way to decode him is to watch his game. And it's not just a game to him, it's an art. He is self-expressive, whether we're talking about the game, or his rapping, or the drawings he did as a kid. He's all about self-expression, which is why attempts by coaches to make him do a three-man weave or whatever are just not getting him. It's not that he's not team-oriented, he is team-oriented, but you have to also play to his need to create on the court.

What about practice, though? Expression or no expression, shouldn't he take part in practice?

Larry Brown
Iverson craves acceptance from coach Larry Brown, but he doesn't always get it.
Absolutely. I honestly believe that he does not get it that things would be better if he would just practice. You know, like last year, he would have made Speedy Claxton so much better, because Claxton would have to check Allen Iverson. Allen just doesn't get that. I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's the same reason so many great athletes don't become good coaches, because they can't translate, can't understand that others are unable to do what they do. I mean, I imagine Mike Schmidt would be like, What do you mean you can't level off on that pitch and drive it?!

I don't know if that's what it is, or what, but it's ridiculous that he doesn't practice. It's not that he doesn't practice at all, it's that he's not committed to practice. He'll get there late, when Brown's not looking he'll duck out the side door and eat Taco Bell tacos and then duck back in. It's like a 12-year-old rebellious kid.

But the other part of that is that Brown. He says in the book, I coach execution not effort. Well, maybe with Iverson you have to do something to make it interesting to him, just like Sue Lambiotte, his tutor in high school, made studying interesting to get him through it.

Brown let me watch a week's worth of practices, and he does nothing to change his approach. I'm familiar with John Lucas, for example, and Lucas will put a $50 bill at mid-court and say, Whoever hits 10 free throws in a row wins the $50, just to mix things up, have some fun. Brown doesn't do anything, except the same L-cut drills over and over, the same fundamental-style high school drills, which obviously are successful, and you gotta do 'em, but you know, maybe Iverson, with his short attention span, needs to be reached in a different way.

Brown says he's not an innovator. He says he borrows and applies things from this lineage that he traces back to Dean Smith, Phog Allen, and Naismith. He thinks he's got the Holy Grail, and he's trying to pass it down to this kid (who he insists on calling a kid, by the way, which I think infantilizes him) who will, on a whim, pull up and pop a 3 just because he's feeling it.

For all their differences, what is the point of connection between Iverson and Brown?

Gary Smith did that piece in Sports Illustrated that focused on their both being fatherless, and there's probably something to that. The other thing is that they're very similar tempermentally in that they're both like tortured geniuses at what they do. They're both quick to wound and slow to forgive. They nurture and harbor every slight, both real and imagined. And they use it for fuel. If you trace every time they're up against it, they use it. They both sort of orchestrate these blow-ups because they always end with a win, and with them hugging on the court. It's a psychological pattern. It's how they play out they're issues.

Iverson says in the book that he wears one of his tattoos because he represents his boys back home (they call themselves "Cru Thik"). What does "representing" mean to him?

It sounds like such a cliché, but you see it in hip-hop all the time. It's about not forgetting where you come from, which is a veiled criticism of the Civil Rights generation, of those who sought assimilation. By extension, it's also a criticism of the Jordan-era guys who sought to cross over.

Michael Eric Dyson says in the book that before this generation, black entertainers were asked to blanche their blackness in order to achieve. In part, I think Iverson's constant references to his upbringing, to his boys, to Newport "Bad" News, is a way not only to pay homage to his roots but a way of saying I'm not forgetting my roots, I'm not changing, I'm not forgetting where I come from.

I think it's racial but I think it's also a generational thing. It's a defense, too, against becoming something he doesn't want to become, against becoming mainstream. Iverson once said something equating money with evil. I'm not sure he knows what his principles are all the time, but he knows they're under assault by the millions of dollars he makes, and he's gonna fight that.

You make the point in the book that Iverson is smart.

Yes. His game is smart. He's a smart player. A lot of people might disagree with that, but his game is very cerebral. He imagines possibilities and acts them out. Sportswriters tend to confuse work ethic with intelligence, but I don't think that's always the case.

And he's smart beyond basketball, too. He sizes up people. He's incredibly perceptive about people and what they want of him, I think.

There are so many labels people put on Iverson. In your mind, what is the biggest misconception about him?

In "Only the Strong Survive: The Allen Iverson Story," author Larry Platt goes back to Iverson's childhood in Newport "Bad" News, Va.
I think the whole thug thing. If you do a database search of his name and the word "thug," they appeared connected something like 354 times last I checked. I take pains in the book to go through the actual record. This past summer, when everyone was talking about his criminal record, "the rap sheet," it really consists of one incident, a 1997 arrest.

In that incident, he was in the car with friends and they were smoking dope. He had a gun under the seat. It was a registered gun, but it was considered concealed because it was under the seat. He did three years probation, and he served it successfully.

And that's really it. In the bowling alley thing, the appeals court overturned the case against him. (Editor's note: In July, 1993, Iverson was found guilty of participating in a mob fight in a Virginia bowling alley.) And the thing this summer with his wife, of course, all the charges were thrown out on that.

There's a discrepancy between the rhetoric about him and the actual record. When people talk about him as a "thug" or a criminal, I think it's really about his style, not the substance of the record. People are lumping-in his look, and the cornrows and the tattoos, and the run-ins with Brown, and they're coming up with this sense of him as the anti-Christ.

He seems to fit a conventional narrative of the bad guy, but it's more complex than that. Yes, he's anti-authoritarian, but I'm not so sure he's a radical rebel. He's a product of his generation, of a generation largely misunderstood by the people chronicling him in sports pages and books.

In many ways, in fact, he's very traditional. His wife is his girlfriend from the 11th grade. He is devoted to his kids. He's trying to carve out a stable life that was missing from his own upbringing. He's incredibly supportive and loving toward his mother. He is not embarrassed by her when she stands on the sideline with those signs, or when she comes over to the bench before the game and sprinkles him with │holy▓ water. He's not only not embarrassed by that, he embraces it, out of loyalty to her for everything she did for him, and tried to do, when he was a kid.

There's no question Iverson makes mistakes. And he is an emotional person off the court, which is what I think that thing was this past summer. But he often, also, admits those mistakes. It's one of the ways he is different than Charles (Barkley), for example, who was defiant, but not near as amenable to self-inspection.

A lot of the story of Iverson over the years has been dictated by the kinds of stories sportswriters like to write, about good guys and bad guys. If you could change the habits of sports journalism, what would you like to see writers do differently?

I'd like them to be less judgmental and more explanatory. Take me as a reader into a world so I understand the central humanity and the dramatic tension in it. Let me decide whether this person is a good person or a bad person. So much of sports journalism is hand-wringing and finger-pointing. That's what Allen is reacting to, he says as much when he says, Y'all been against me my whole life.

Allen Iverson
Iverson adapted marketing for his image -- not the other way around.
I've been asked whether I'm making excuses for Allen in the book. No, his missteps are all in there. I'm not sugarcoating anything, but I think context is everything when telling a story. And I have respect for the reader to read the story and make a judgment on your own. You don't need me to say he's a "punk" -- you get that story all over the place.

You point out in your book that Iverson is full of contradictions -- he's a family man, he's a tough guy from the streets; he's smart, he's na´ve; he's disciplined, he's reckless -- but the stories about him tend to be simplified (he's a "thug," he's a "punk").

I think what's interesting about him is the complexity and the inconsistencies in him. He's trying to find himself, in the most public of ways, since he was 8 years old, with no role modeling whatsoever. I mean, of course he's gonna have inconsistencies. I think that's what makes him so interesting. But rather than embrace that, often the way he's written about or talked about is that those inconsistencies make him a bad actor. In fact, I think they are what make him a compelling character.

What keeps us from seeing someone like him in complex ways?

You know, I don't know. I think part of it is that we live in a media universe in which we have more outlets, more information available to us than ever before, but precious less wisdom is being communicated to us through those outlets. I just think because of the competitive nature of media, because of the daily drum beat, the emphasis on news pegs over insight, a character like Iverson's lends itself to caricature.

Is there something we can learn from Iverson's story if we go beneath the surface?

For me, this guy is proof that traditional values can come in different-looking packages. If I was walking down a dark street in innercity Philly and I saw somebody who looked like Iverson, I'm ashamed to say, I might cross to the other side of the street. But here is that same looking guy on the court, diving for loose balls in the laps of white guys in suits, and they're giving him standing ovations, and then he's hugging his mom. I think there is something to be learned from that. Without sounding too trite, it's the whole book-cover thing.

If we owe Iverson another look, in light of a book like yours, what does he owe "us" -- writers, fans, his fellow citizens?

I don't think he owes the media anything. That's a commercial exchange that he can engage in or reject on his own accord, and he has the right to do either, it seems to me.

In terms of what he owes the fans, I think he gives it. It's this unbelievable 110-percent style of play. In other words, he owes what any performer owes, which is a pedal-to-the-metal performance, which he hasn't let up on yet, even for a moment.

And in terms of being a citizen, he owes what anybody else owes, which is to obey the laws and be a productive member of society. And by the way, he is a productive member of society. He pays $25,000 a year in property taxes, he employs and has lifted up 40-some-odd families. He has done more for more people than I have and, I would venture, more than just about anyone writing about him, and yet that doesn't stop those people writing about him from judging him.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.