The most intriguing job I’ve had was being a summer camp counselor in the early to mid-2000’s. Kids, more than any age bracket, are honest. Sometimes to a fault, but more than not, it’s always admirable. I had a young kid, probably 11 or 12, once tell me Allen Iverson was “the realest dude ever.” I asked what he meant by “realest,” and his answer stemmed around the fact he was referring to someone not in his family and Allen was “real” because he was himself regardless of whom he came in contact with.
Deciding to pick his brain, I asked what he knew about the likes of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and people of that nature. His response to that was equally interesting. School taught him about them. His grandparents spoke highly of them. And while he appreciated “the marching and stuff,” he loved Iverson because he could reach out and touch him. In other words, he lived during Iverson’s reign instead of hearing secondhand stories. I respected the answer.
In a larger sense though, the kid’s adoration kind of represented everyone in Virginia. We aren’t necessarily a New York City or Chicago or any other big city known for developing icons in music, sports or any other form of pop culture. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve produced Pharrell, Timbaland, Missy, Mike Vick, Clipse, Chris Brown, Trey Songz and others, but there’s always been a chip on our shoulder of having something to prove. The story of Allen Iverson – affectionately known as Bubba Chuck around these parts – is well known. Stealing a line from the late Tupac Shakur, A.I.’s matriculation through the years mirrored a rose growing from concrete. An incredibly talented individual oftentimes running into the wrong side of the law on multiple occasions only to overcome those setbacks with more determination than he had before.
There was the now iconic Jordan crossover his rookie year. The scoring titles. The cornrows that inspired an entire generation to grow their hair out. The tattoos. The arm sleeve. The Tyronn Lue step-over. The 2001 All Star Game. The clashes with management. The fight to get back in the league. And then, of course, “practice.” The great Myles Brown said on a recent episode of The Unsportsmanlike Conduct Show he understood the fascination with Iverson, but never quite bought into the hype. There was a strategic recklessness about Iverson that either turned people off or won them over.
Maybe at no other point was this on full display than in 2006 during an appearance on Stephen A. Smith’s Quite Frankly.
Stephen A. and Allen basically grew up together professionally, so their on-camera chemistry created an interview that basically put Bubba Chuck’s entire life on the table. The result was rawer than anyone could have ever imagined. In an audience featuring men and women, black and white, young and old, Allen offered a side of himself that tugged at the heartstrings of each person. You could see it in their faces as a roller-coaster of emotions took over the entire studio. He wore an army fatigue shirt featuring Tupac and Biggie; symbolic in a sense because the two rappers, both loved and hated during their lives for the hope they gave people and the fear they instilled in middle America. Iverson, to an extent, represented that same dynamic.
There aren’t many 40+ minute videos on YouTube worth every damn second. The human attention span isn’t built to be fixated on one object that long. Yet, the human brain has a way of realizing pure human emotion and often gravitates towards this. There was laughter as he recalled some of his finest moments in the NBA, inspiration as he spoke on the change he wanted to reflect on his community – both in Virginia and Philadelphia – and frustration as he lamented on the stereotype and image labeled upon him, one he was never able to escape. There were even tears as he spoke on the tug-of-war relationship with Larry Brown he admitted made him mature as a man both on and off the court.
Even as all in attendance listened to the life that was, at the time, one of the NBA’s most electrifying names, they were afforded the opportunity to experience life in Allen’s shoes. Reflecting on John Thompson’s father-like role in his life (so you know, Iverson proudly admitted his father played a significant role in his life albeit in and out of prison), he recalled a Big East road game – in Villanova of all places. The ill-will of his bowling alley brawl years earlier was still fresh on people’s minds at this point. Thompson threatened officials he would take his entire team off the court and forfeit the game if a sign was not removed. The sign said, “Allen Iverson: The Next
MJ OJ,” with several figures of prisoners in orange jumpsuits.
Stories of this ilk explain why Iverson walked in basketball courts in Philly, New York, Chicago, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Miami and more with a chip on his shoulder. No scene scared him because he had already witnessed the evil men do. This fearlessness led to the adoption of his rebel-esque “me against the world” mentality on the basketball court.
I remember telling someone probably four or five years ago I had never seen any pro NBAer play with so much unabashed passion with the exception of Kevin Garnett. In his own words, he played the game hard, but never dirty, and players around the league respected him for that. In turn, certain ones earned his respect. Vince Carter – yes, at one time, Vince was one of the most exciting players in the world – was high in Allen’s book; probably stemming from their instant classic seven-game series in 2001 that saw them trade 50-point onslaughts. Shaquille O’Neal was the one he spoke most highly of because Shaq showed him love from the moment he stepped in the league. Other than a few other names, he had no problem revealing most of his peers were “corny.”
Yet, probably the most prophetic moment of the interview came when Iverson mentioned LeBron. Still only in his third season at the time, A.I. noted James as one of the younger players he admired. His words of advice, however, would only prove drastically eerie some four years later. “I always let LeBron know off top. Dog, they love you right now. They love you right now. But please believe me, the first incident, the first time something happen, they are waiting, man.”
Through all the nonsense, Allen Iverson remained Allen Iverson. For better, it paints him in history as one of the most dynamic players in league history and possibly the best “little man” to ever play. But, if I know Chuck like I’ve come to know him through basketball and interviews, subjecting him to simply a “little man” is doing the same thing people did his entire life – label him. He’s a basketball player. He’s a lightening rod for controversy. He’s his own bank of memories for those who remember basketball in the late 90’s, early 2000’s. Everyone’s got a favorite Iverson memory like everyone has a favorite cousin. And like he preached to Stephen A., he was a human being sporting the same emotions as the people who paid to see him play every night in cities across America.
For worse, being Allen Iverson remains a stigma of selfishness and someone unwilling to conform.
Either way, he was and will always be comfortable in his own skin. And that’s more than many people who woke up this morning can say.