Questioning the Answer

Thursday, June 7th, was the twenty-sixth birthday of the Philadelphia 76ers’ star guard, Allen Iverson. This fact, while seemingly tangential to the team’s NBA Finals match-up against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, was brought up repeatedly by national sports anchors on ESPN and NBC, as well as by countless other local broadcasters and columnists. While Iverson is widely recognized as one of the top players in the league, the manner in which his birthday was covered suggests there’s more at stake than in the typical human-interest vignettes that accompany so many professional sports broadcasts. Specifically, the word “maturity” was mentioned repeatedly in connection with Iverson’s birthday, connecting his biological coming-of-age with declarations of a newfound emotional growth. Finally, the story goes, Allen Iverson has grown up into a responsible citizen and, as a result (and perhaps as a reward for his maturation), he finds himself a member of the Eastern Conference championship team with a chance to win the league title.

Such attention to his character is nothing new to media coverage of Allen Iverson. Nicknamed “The Answer” for his superhuman problem-solving abilities on the basketball court, eluding defenses with impossible dexterity and frustrating opponents with his unflagging competitive energy, Iverson has also provoked persistent questions since he was a high school athlete in Hampton, Virginia. A star quarterback as well as a basketball player, Iverson was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for his part in a fight at a local bowling alley. Although this conviction was later overturned (and by many accounts, he was the victim of a bigoted legal system), Iverson continued to be associated with criminal behavior during his college career at Georgetown. Once, while the Hoyas were playing an away game at Villanova, a fan held up a sign that read, “Allen Iverson: The Next O.J.”

Such accusations of immorality and subversiveness levied against Iverson would only intensify as he was drafted into the NBA by the 76ers after just two years as a stand-out college player. But Iverson’s premature entry into the NBA in 1996, coupled with his flashy and individualistic style of play, only made him the object of antipathy for a greater number of basketball fans. Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly neatly summarized the uneasiness Iverson provokes, when he called him the “kid which America sees as the jeans-saggin’, ‘do-raggin’, gun-totin’, dope-smokin’ hoodlum who’s going to ruin the post-Michael [Jordan] era, one cornrow at a time.” Anxiety about this image (from his cornrow hairstyle and the ‘do rag that covers it, to his twenty-one tattoos and the baggy clothing he wears over them) recently inspired Hoop magazine, an official NBA publication, to remove any trace of “gangsta” posing. In a photo of the guard, all signs of his tattoos and jewelry were digitally erased in an effort to present a kinder, gentler Iverson to the league’s fans.

Despite such a reconfiguration of his physical appearance, though, recriminations against Iverson continued. Just before the start of the 2000-2001 season, the publicly tumultuous relationship between Iverson and his head coach, Larry Brown, reached a breaking point. Unable or unwilling to bring coach and player together, the 76ers’ owner Pat Croce (in collusion with Larry Brown himself) attempted to trade Iverson to the perennially lackluster Los Angeles Clippers. Such a drastic and punitive action, sending the team’s star player to the league’s worst team, reveals the degree of animosity that existed between Iverson and Brown. A technicality invalidated the trade. And then, everything changed.

This season, Iverson has led the previously mediocre 76ers to one of the best records in the league and the Eastern Conference championship. Along the way, he was named the Most Valuable Player of the league’s All-Star Game, as well as of the regular season. This remarkable turnaround in Iverson’s and the 76ers’ fortunes has been repeatedly construed in the media as an epiphanic rapprochement between the newly mature Iverson and a more tolerant Brown. The only possible explanation for the team’s success has been represented as a deep understanding reached by player and coach alike, as the two put aside their differences to win basketball games. But the press isn’t necessarily the best judge of what’s happening. In his book Black Planet, David Shields describes the guarded attitude of NBA players and coaches toward members of the media, pointing out just how limited reporters’ (and by extension our own) knowledge of the league’s inner workings truly is. He writes, “The reporters are forever trying to enter a club to which they are, by definition, denied access.” While Iverson has repeatedly credited his coach with the team’s accomplishments whenever reporters have asked for an explanation, it is impossible to know the true extent of the pair’s reconciliation.

Efforts to explain Iverson’s (and his team’s) successful rebound this year should be understood as reflections upon those who are doing the explaining — their values, their interests. Now that Iverson is a superstar in professional basketball, critics are no longer able to point to his controversial gangsta image as a sign of the juvenile unruliness that had prevented him from winning early in his career. Instead, Iverson is widely praised for recognizing the error of his ways in order at last to “grow up,” to “accept responsibility,” and to “become a man.” The fact remains that only Allen Iverson knows how he has come to his current, remarkably consistent brilliance. Those members of the media who spin this yarn only reinforce their original views of Iverson’s gangsta image as “subversive,” “criminal,” and perhaps worst of all in the world of basketball, not a team player. In this world, after all, the good of the team is paramount, and the ideal player is disciplined and, when necessary, self-deprecating.

Though Iverson’s outward appearance has changed little, his recent triumphs have suddenly — in newspapers, television broadcasts, and radio programs across the country — been turned into the result of a miraculous transformation, some inner rejection of the anti-social values he once held so dear (values that were, in reality, only more projections made by these same media members). While reporters and columnists scramble to dissect Iverson’s changing behavior and rationalize his performance, many of their strategies for doing so reflect an eagerness to whitewash Iverson’s gangsta attitude, just as Hoop magazine did, with a veneer of visible maturity and responsibility. And Iverson, for his part, has encouraged them, publicly and repeatedly crediting his coach and teammates, trotting his children out at press conferences, and generally staying out of trouble.

By questioning the questions being directed the Answer’s way, and the manner in which he is discussed in newspapers and on television and radio, it becomes clear that members of the mainstream media can only represent a ballplayer as successful if he fits preconceived notions of acceptable, mature behavior (respecting one’s coach, being a selfless teammate, etc.). Kobe Bryant, Iverson’s counterpart for the Los Angeles Lakers in this Finals series, is a good example of this ideal. Witness the Adidas ad in which Kobe’s worldliness (he grew up for a time in Italy) is praised as he drives to the hoop while speaking flawless Itallian. Those who see Kobe’s polished image as the standard for success in the NBA, however, forget those Reebok advertisements that have been running throughout the televised broadcasts of the Finals. In these, rapid-fire highlights of Iverson’s accomplishments are displayed music video-style, punctuated by a graphic tagline that encourages viewers to “Defy Convention,” just like Allen.