Two of the NBA's greatest players were once again in the spotlight on Tuesday night when Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the 2015 NBA Finals. Curry and James are headline factories, but another one-time NBA MVP has also generated buzz in recent weeks: Allen Iverson, the swaggering megastar of the late 90s, is the subject of the Washington Post's Kent Babb's new biography, Not A Game.
Iverson's dramatic fall from millionaire idol to broke has-been ultimately eclipsed his otherworldly skill with a basketball, but his story is far more complex than irresponsible spending. Iverson certainly isn't the only athlete to blow a fortune and struggle personally – former boxer Mike Tyson and former NFL player Vince Young usually come to mind. For Babb, it was Iverson's transcendent status as a pop-culture icon that made his fall from grace compelling enough to warrant a book.
"Just the fact that he was going to have his cornrows and he was going to have his tattoos and he was going to talk and dress the way he wanted to and no one was going tell him otherwise [...] To know that he made mistakes, his family was dissolving and his fortune is going away, he's having a hard time with his identity now that his basketball career is finishing – It's like seeing Superman without his cape on."
Babb's book delves into the complexities of the player nicknamed "The Answer," although a sense of incompleteness clings to certain parts of the narrative because Iverson and those closest to him declined to be interviewed. Babb says Iverson's agent made it clear that participation would come at a cost, not just in dollars and cents but in control.
"I think it would have been better with his voice," Babb said of the book. "I just know that wouldn't have been the case [that he would have talked]. I mean, forget about asking for money and whether they need to be compensated and all this [...], but I think it was more about the control. I was never going to write the fluffy 'this is how awesome a basketball player Iverson was.'"
But interviewing dozens of people, reading hundreds of news accounts and drawing on more than 600 pages of court records, Babb assembled a mosaic of a man, with mood swings faster than his feared crossover. Iverson accomplished incredible feats on the basketball court even as his demons double-teamed him off of it.
When it first hit the shelves on June 2, the book garnered widespread attention because Babb wrote that many people both in and outside of the Sixers' organization believed Iverson was under the influence of alcohol during an infamous practice rant.
ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, a friend of Iverson's, called Babb's description of the incident a "flat-out lie," and defended Iverson on air.
I've known Allen Iverson for 19 years. Allen Iverson and I speak every week. We spoke this morning for 45 minutes. I might know a thing or two about basketball. I might know a thing or two about a lot of things. I know a hell of a lot more about Allen Iverson. I challenge any journalist in America to tell you they know him better than I do ... Allen Iverson and I spoke for 45 minutes this morning.
For his part, Babb says Smith and others took exception with that particular part of the book, instead of with other, far grislier details about Iverson's life, because it was one of the few things in the book that didn't come from sworn court documents and public records.
"This was through interviews. And I think if you're going to – it's interesting warfare and probably a good strategy — if you're going to attack something, don't go for the things that are going to be most easily backed up," Babb said, adding that if his critics had read the book, there would have been a different conversation.
Babb portrays Iverson's inability to accept limits as one of his major flaws. From his childhood in Hampton, Va., where he endured a troubled childhood and landed in jail at 18; in his relationship with his ex-wife, Tawanna, who alleged that he was physically and verbally abusive; while playing in Philadelphia where he shot to fame with the Sixers, despite endless arguments with head coach Larry Brown; and even out in public, Iverson's ferocity may have pushed him to the highest peak in professional sports, but then inertia carried him over the cliff.
"He's a man of extremes. He would either be wonderful or terrible," Babb said.
"Terrible" often seems like an understatement. According to the book, Iverson told his wife he would pay a man $5,000 to have her killed and that his wife's attorney suggested he had drunkenly urinated on the floor in front of his children. Yet it's hard to write Iverson off as a monster, because the book recounts impressive flashes of kindness. Babb details Iverson's familial and affectionate relationship with his former Georgetown athletic trainer, Lorry Michel, his admirable loyalty to his friends and those who helped him along the way, and his thoughtful tribute to long-time Philadelphia sportswriter, Phil Jasner, after his death. Even when he argues Iverson used charm and promises to finagle his way back into the good graces of those people he burned again and again, Babb's portrayal of a tender side keep the reader hoping that real redemption may be just a page or two away.
Babb also weaves in lively play-by-play accounts from Iverson's heyday, each flashback imbued with such energy it will send even the most casual sports fan searching for the highlights on YouTube. One of the most memorable happened in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals when the six-foot-tall Iverson easily worked around the Lakers' Tyronn Lue, who tumbled to the floor. Just to make sure the world knew who was in charge, Iverson took a very big and very deliberate step over Lue as he lay sprawled on the court.
"It was the little guy stepping over, if not the biggest guy, but then the biggest team. The Lakers hadn't lost in weeks and they lost that game and it was just this great, real-life, real-time defiant moment that every little guy, every little person in the country who had maybe been marginalized could identify with," Babb said.
Despite his admiration for Iverson as a player, Babb says he knew going into this project that this would likely not end with a triumphant comeback. And it doesn't. The book ends with an image of Iverson failing, repeatedly, to show up at his own summer camp, choosing instead to while-away the day in a hotel bar, searching for his lost glory at the bottom of Corona bottles. But for all his research, Babb says he does think change is possible for Iverson, who at 40 years of age is still relatively young.
"People ask me all the time, do I think he can change, is there hope for Allen Iverson? And I think yes," Babb said, tempering his optimistic assessment with a splash of cynicism: "And maybe I'm just like the rest of them."
Iverson does still have people in his corner. After writing the book, Babb found out that Iverson and his ex-wife, Tawanna, have reconciled — something Babb admits he thought impossible — and that Iverson's former Sixers coach, Larry Brown, is trying to help him find a position within the organization.
Not A Game captures the magic of Allen Iverson: it's hard to root for him, but somehow, it's even harder to root against him.
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