- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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It's not too hard to imagine -- with a twist here and a break there -- a world in which Allen Iverson is sitting in jail and Michael Vick is dazzling the sporting world with his athletic gifts.
You could cut and paste parts of their bios, and it wouldn't change a thing. Grew up in a single-mother home in the Tidewater area of Virginia. Blessed with speed better suited for the Formula One circuit. First overall selection in the draft.
The biggest split in their life arcs is the timing of their incarcerations. Iverson's came in high school. Vick's just started last week.
Maybe it's too late for the 27-year-old Vick. Or maybe he can end up like Iverson, the flip Vick, the guy who seems to still be running in the fastest gear at age 32, putting more and more distance between himself and his troubled past. If you drop "Iverson" through a Google News search these days, it turns out headlines such as "Iverson quietly having great year" and the once-unthinkable "Allen Iverson: The NBA's Brett Favre."
It's not easy to escape the gravitational pull of the the black hole that sucks in young black men all the time, the imbalance that tilts the odds toward getting locked up in prison instead of enrolling in a university. Iverson's teenage prison sentence for a bowling alley brawl (he later received a pardon from the Virginia governor, and his conviction was overturned on appeal) was enough of a wake-up call. Not even NBA contracts and star status made the difference initially; he was arrested on gun and drug possession charges in 1997 and faced 14 counts for allegedly threatening two men with a gun after a domestic dispute with his wife in 2002 (the case later was dismissed). Even this past summer, he was on the losing side of a federal jury verdict that found Iverson negligent for his bodyguard's beating of a man at a Washington nightclub in 2005.
It says something about our society that all that trouble -- that refusal to distance himself from his past or his people -- only increased his popularity and bumped up sales of his jersey and signature Reeboks. But it says something about Iverson that he eventually realized enough was enough, that he never wound up plummeting quite as far as Vick has.
"I got close many a time," Iverson said. "Just making young, dumb mistakes. I think the hardest thing for a black man to do in this society, one of them, is to think when he's mad. At times, you've got to take that five, 10 seconds to think before you just react. I've learned in life, what to do and what not to do from experience."
His experience has taught him not to write off Vick, or condemn him and relegate him to a high-temperature cave.
"I'm sad for him, because I know him personally," Iverson said. "I think it's important for him to try to climb back to the top. That's another obstacle in his life, to try to overcome what happened to him. Understand that he made a mistake, accept the mistake and try not to make the same mistake again. Just try to move on.
Just making young, dumb mistakes. I think the hardest thing for a black man to do in this society, one of them, is to think when he's mad.
"Hopefully he'll know who cares about him, the people around him, and get his circle a lot tighter. But you've got to root for a guy that made a mistake and accepts what went on."
Root for Vick? Sure. I started pulling for him as soon as he stepped to the podium and apologized. Nothing can bring those dead dogs back to life. And I don't think he was treated unfairly. If you don't want to go to jail, don't hang with bad people, and don't torture dogs and put them to cruel deaths. I'll save my tears and outrage for people who are persecuted unjustly. But what good would it do to see another life wasted, to see nothing productive from Vick ever again? Wouldn't it be better if he turned out like Iverson?
I always rooted for Iverson to get it right. But that was personal. I was in on Iverson since the IPO, covering his two seasons at Georgetown, seeing him do something amazing almost every night. I winced whenever he got out of line (although I did love the "practice" rant).
I've always appreciated the honesty in his answers, even more so now that he has some perspective. He has learned he can't beat media perceptions of him, so he doesn't try to fight. In hindsight, he sees some of them were right. He doesn't offer excuses after losses. He seems to bring the genuine effort to his interview responses that he does to the games on the court.
And do you realize he's been playing that fearless style of ball for 11 seasons now? He spends more time on the floor than a ball boy's mop, yet he still drives to the hoop sometimes against men a foot taller than him.
He plays defense like a gunslinger, arms hanging straight down his sides. Yes, he often gambles on steals by either jumping the passing lane or rushing from a ball handler's blindside. But the payoff when he's right is one of the best sights in ball: a one-man transition game, that instant conversion from defense to offense.
He might be playing the most efficient ball of his career right now. While his scoring average (23 points per game) is the third-lowest of his career, his assists average (7.3 per game) ranks among his highest.
"I'm doing whatever it takes for us to be successful," Iverson said. "I'm not making a conscious effort. The assists are up because of the surroundings around me. I'm playing the same basketball. Trying to be as aggressive as I can, trying to be the scorer that I've always been. When [teams] try to take something away from me, I try to make them pay."
He tried doing it solo, shouldering the offensive load for the Philadelphia 76ers and dragging them to the 2001 NBA Finals after being named the regular-season MVP. That was too draining and ultimately didn't deliver the big prize. The way he's playing with the Denver Nuggets now, he's more likely to squeeze a few more years onto his career -- even if he doesn't hear the clock ticking yet.
"Nah, I'm 32 years old," he said. "I look around, and I see [38-year-old] Sam Cassell on the floor. I see so many older guys on the floor. I feel like I can still dominate like I've been doing it."
He said he wants one more long-term contract when his current six-year, $90 million deal expires in 2009, and then that's it.
"I won't be a guy to just come off the bench or play 10-15 minutes a game and feel satisfied," Iverson said. "I would never just stay around and try to steal money."
Despite his arrest record off the court, no one has ever accused him of grand theft contract come game time. He still puts on one of the best shows in the NBA.
At one time, Vick was the NFL's Iverson, all flash and velocity and ankle-breaking moves.
But the gap between Iverson and Vick was never greater than it was last week. On Nov. 19, Iverson was named the preceding week's best player in the best conference in the best basketball league on the planet. Vick voluntarily went to jail in advance of his Dec. 10 sentencing for a dogfighting-related guilty plea.
Now, it seems Vick's best path is to get back to his basketball twin. To be more like Iverson again.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.
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