When I saw the neon tabloid headline: "Allen Iverson faces lawsuit!" I thought that the 21st century NBA bad boy was back courting trouble. I felt the jolt of curiosity that always comes when the man who causes David Stern to reach for the Maalox makes headlines for off-court issues.
But this time the troubles facing AI speak not to the renegade youth who taught a nation that a neck tattoo could be fashionable. It's the kind of banal trouble that seems to fit more the person AI has become: a thirty something elder with some salt and pepper in the cornrows.
Iverson won't be headed to court for any kind of after hours hi-jinks. Apparently, after taking $10,000 as an advance for a speaking engagement, he didn't show, leaving 2,000 - one can only assume ex - fans waiting about three hours at an Omaha high school. His spokesperson claimed a family emergency but the event organizers want their 10 grand back as well as "$33,000 in special damages, including the cost of renting a plane and sending it to pick up the star in Virginia." Iverson responded that he had alerted the organizers that he wouldn't be attended and "I have to deal with it like a man."
I'd like to say "good for AI" but right now hearts are breaking amongst the faithful. Iverson getting negative press for missing a speaking event in Omaha? What's next? Will he show up late for a talk at the Elks Club? Is he cheating at golf? Will he wear white after Labor Day? This is a crisis of generational proportions. This Joe DiMaggio selling us Mr. Coffee. This is Eddie Murphy in Daddy Day Care. This is Sam Malone taking off his toupee.
Whether David Stern wants to admit it or not, a whole generation of NBA fans have lived vicariously through Iverson's hip-hop outlaw aesthetic: the man who didn't practice but busted his behind on every play. The man who slouched on the bench, his eyelids at half-mast, who could stand and out run everyone on the court with wicked abandon. That man wouldn't stand up a crowd in Omaha because Omaha would never have been in his evening itinerary.
AI has always been the outlaw superstar: a man who thumbed his nose at the system without thumbing his nose at his wicked talent (think Isaiah Rider) and becoming the best little man in the history of the game. This is the man who as a rookie said after schooling the great MJ on a crossover, "Jordan is not my hero. None of my heroes wear suits." This is the man who said about the Philadelphia police, "I know that if there's a crooked cop out there, they could do anything to me. He could do anything. Allen Iverson could wind up dead tomorrow if a crooked cop wants him dead. It's as simple as that."
But now AI, living on the other side of 30 and starting his first full season as a Denver Nugget, has become a advertisement for personal growth. He's going to be the team leader, the sage, the man who would show CArmelo Anthony how to work the game. Like Chris Rock said, "No one wants to be the old guy at the club." Heck, he even pulled people from a crashed car earlier this summer after a highway pile up. Afterward he shrugged and said to the press, "It was the right thing to do." The "wild-child" as his Georgetown coach John Thompson still calls him, has grown up.
This was seen most clearly last week when he repudiated his infamous - and endlessly hilarious - comments from five years back about the irrelevancy of skipping team practices ("we're talking about practice!") To this day I loved that rant because it pulled the curtain back on the gap between our fantasies about professional athletics and reality. In the real world, more than a few players shared - and share - Iverson's view that there are few things more monotonous than an in-season NBA practice. It's like asking a mathematics doctoral candidate to take side classes in how to operate< a calculator. But just because Iverson was right doesn't mean it was either great for his image or the best message to young athletes - the people who actually need practice.
Iverson said recently about those comments from yore, "It was just being young and definitely immature. I wish it wouldn't have ever happened. But you learn from experiences like that . . . I think it sent the wrong message, especially to kids. You can't be a scoring champion and an MVP and an All-Star and all of that without practice . . . I didn't want kids to get the message that you don't need to practice because when you're not practicing, someone else is out there practicing, getting better."
This is also a good message to send his young team, the Denver Nuggets that while high on talent seems mired in the second tier of a packed Western Conference.
But while the more mature Iverson - leading the Nuggets, pulling people out of burning cars - might be good for George Karl's blood pressure - the Omaha incident shows that even in the more genteel world he now inhabits, trouble seems to stalk him. A rather mundane white collar trouble, but trouble nonetheless. Maybe that's not such a bad thing. I like that Iverson's troubles match his new personae. I hope when he's a senior citizen, he's switching medications and playing cards for people's dentures. Either way, there is a reason why despite the constant troubles, the man has a fan base fierce in it's loyalty: it's because nothing breaks his stride, and as we see on the court the troubles become his adrenaline.
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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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