Tuesday, April 22, 2003 Updated: April 23, 2:15 PM ET
By Ralph Wiley Page 2 columnist
Usually, I find if you listen to the troubadours, the barbers and the children, you can find out who the real heroes are to the people down on the ground. Usually they are named "anti-heroes." Why? People on the ground have a different viewpoint from people in ivory towers who name things.
Usually the heroes I find compelling are anti-heroes -- Robin Hood, D'Artagnan, William Munny, Josey Wales, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali; in this case, Alley Icon, Allen Iverson.
First heard his Song by word of mouth, from one of the troubadours. I heard of him second-hand from Bruce Hornsby, also a resident of Hampton Roads in Virginia.
Then I heard of him at the barbershop. Get what's left of my hair cut at Dodge Park Barber Shop, over in Landover, Maryland; shop's owned by William Reid, father of Don Reid, a stoic, thick 6-foot-9 power forward, ex-Georgetown; even John Thompson was always a little scared of him. He's a vet of the NBA wars now; Bad Don was Iverson's roommate at Georgetown. When Bad Don first brought him by the shop, some barbers couldn't see what was so special about him; "look like a li'l baby deer," one said. Must've been Cairo, the comic relief barber; Kevin, the shrewd one, looked Allen over and said, "Long legs. Split high," though he didn't say it to Allen, who smiled at snaggle-toothed, nappy-headed children waiting their turn, who in turn looked up at him curiously. They were the only ones who had to look up at him. A barely six-foot guy? Becoming Herculean in the NBA? Is that possible?
It isn't. It's impossible. It's legend. Urban legend. The Kid came from nothing, with nothing. His mama Ann begged John Thompson: "Please. Save him. Save my son's life." And so, there he was, just a child, standing with his hands jammed into jeans pocket next to a big 6-9 power forward.
It remains ever thus on the court; his baggy clothes and uniform, his tatted hide, his intricately corn-rowed and head-banded dome, his black-sleeved shooting arm ... it is all just camouflage, to hide his vulnerability, mask his injuries, and his secrets. He's split high just as Kev the Barber and lesser talent scouts said, high waist and spider-long legs of a 6-4 man beneath a 6-foot body. Those legs can get him from here to there faster than anybody else. Can bounce him up into and over the square.
Quick? Impossibly quick. Not just quick, but fast, freak-of-nature fast. You couldn't see the other stuff, the hard-won radar, the million dribble-and-shoot-until-can't-see-at-night reps that give him such shooting range and Duncan-yo-yo-on-a-string handle; you could not see that his spine was toughened, made of rubber, flint, steel and Silly Putty; you can't see or measure heart.
Can't tell you how many players with ability don't make much of anything out of themselves, who come from out of tough or harsh circumstances, places where life is cheap, staging areas of Hell, barrels of human crabs pulling you down while saying, "Me! Me! No Me!" Allen Iverson's will alone is very heroic. You can say it isn't, that he isn't anything but trouble, you can O'Reilly him, shout him down, try to kill him off by saying, in a fair and balanced way, that he is undeserving, and not the Answer, but the troubadours, barbers, kids and I will laugh at you if you do.
That 55 points, that Dub-Nick, in Game 1 against the Hornets in Philly? Break that down. That wasn't 55 in a regular season game on a coasting non-conference foe. There are maybe 20 guys in the league who might be able to pull that off when circumstances are right -- but to kick off the playoffs? With only 10 made free throws? That's 45 points from the field on 32 shots, pure and pureed, over the Plastic Man, Stacey Augmon, Bulldog Wesley, no cheap inside layups, with Magloire and other beasts in there?
Please. Allen is "Rocky" for the people "Rocky" forgot.
For those in Philly, beyond Philly, stuck in staging areas of Hell, stunted by Section 8 housing, with time as their only luxury, time and imagination and endless blacktop ... even from so much nothing like this, something wonderful was made. The troubadours, barbers, poets, artists and children, they know. Ask your kid. Ask Bruce Hornsby. Ask Woody Allen. They know this genius when they feel it and sense it.
Allen Iverson is like their duty-free gift to you, the pilgrim traveler, even if you don't know it. So, don't trip. Enjoy.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."