Allen Iverson (courtesy of Getty Images)
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It was January of 1995, and I was a seven year-old walking out of U.S. Air Arena in Landover, Maryland. A freshman point guard named Iverson had just scored 25 points in a one point Georgetown loss (to rival Syracuse), and my dad and his friend couldn't stop talking about what was wrong with Allen Iverson.
"Point guards pass," they said, over and over again. "Georgetown would have won the goddamn game if he could just get that through his head."
I remember this vividly. It's one of those indelible memories that takes hold almost by accident. There I am, seven years-old, listening to my father shaking his head in disgust after watching Allen Iverson take 23 shots from the point guard position. Probably my first memory from a live sporting event, and in hindsight, it's way too perfect.
Years later, I realized that my uber-conservative dad knew almost nothing about basketball. I realized that Allen Iverson single-handedly rejuvenated Georgetown's basketball program, regardless of how many shots he took. And I realized that people hating Iverson had almost nothing to do with basketball, let alone the aesthetics of his point guard play.
Iverson had been imprisoned—then pardoned—as part of a highly politicized controversy that nearly engulfed his hometown, and eventually became national news. He played in ridiculously baggy shorts with kente cloth on the side, Georgetown's towering black coach was (and still is) the only authority figure to ever get his attention, and most damning of all, "he just looked like trouble." Of course my dad spent the car ride home prattling on about shot selection.
Brian Phillips' recent essay on Pele and Diego Maradona reminded me of that night:
Scrape away the grime of scandals and sound bites, and the contrast between these two great players says something about the imaginative possibilities presented by this game or by any game. Think of how you approach sports at different stages of your life. ...
Pelé, whether he's being paraded on the shoulders of his teammates or accepting the next bright prize from Sepp Blatter, embodies the basic, necessary fantasy of sports as a place of accord. Maradona exposes the falseness of that fantasy and, at his best, makes something beautiful out of the exposure. That ... is why they're rivals, and why they remain locked together in the answer to the unanswerable question: "Who's the best player of all time?" They are the inextricable either/or at the heart of soccer's sense of itself.
You don't even have to understand soccer history—or the long, convoluted relationship between Pele and Maradona—to appreciate what it is that elevates this rivalry beyond mere sports.
It's about life, and the choices we make. You can be great like Diego, constantly chafing against authority and running roughshod over your personal life, or you can be great like Pele, teaming with said authority and doing and saying the right things... Whichever we choose to romanticize is, in some way, a reflection on how we'd like to live and be remembered ourselves.
Mind you, Diego Maradona didn't decide that he was going to become a tornado of self-destruction that would come to embody, as Phillips wrote, "the falseness of [Pele's] fantasy." It just sort of happened. The same way Pele, upon realizing his dreams, sought to stay on top by playing the part of fairytale hero. He never would have known another path.
It's who we are, and how we operate, and everyone's just... different. And the same way our heroes take different approaches borne from different impulses, we're driven to worship them—or not—for the same innate reasons. We're all different.
I'm not my dad, and as soon as I was old enough to appreciate what Allen Iverson meant, he became one of my favorite athletes in all of sports.
Jordan and Kobe, on the other hand, never really mattered much. To me.
But that's me. Just as Pele captured the imaginations of millions but left others cold, some people look at a player like Emmitt Smith as the "perfect running back for wining games", while others prefer Diego Maradona or Barry Sanders, the running back who could transcend the impossible, but struggled to grasp the pragmatism of a diving ahead for a two-yard gain.
Ultimately, this is as close as we get to having modern-day debates about philosophy and success and all those other abstract concepts most of us considered for only a semester in college. Pele and Maradona and Kobe and Iverson and Emmitt and Barry—they're all historically great. When we argue about these guys in bars or on long car rides home from games, we're essentially debating between two ideals. Two best case scenarios. It's the impossible hypothetical again.
As a sportswriter, people often ask me what makes sports more than "just a game." Like, why is it worth dedicating a lifetime to following along with all this stuff?
Almost always, I'm too scatterbrained to answer coherently. There's usually a game on, or something. But Phillips' look at Maradona vs. Pele reminds us what sports can mean.
Which is to say, sports can be about life. The arguments can be about success and the varying approaches we think should be taken to get there. And in the end, it becomes about a lot more than "just a game." What we value, and who we choose to romanticize—it's all about us.
Was Maradona a drugged-out boor who used the '86 World Cup to buy himself immunity from the standards of human deceny, or was he a beautifully imperfect—and authentic—genius, the likes of which we'll never see again? Was Pele a corporate shill that benefited from great teammates and soaring mythology, or nothing less than the most magical player to ever set foot on the pitch? Was Allen Iverson merely a point guard that didn't pass, or was he Allen Iverson, the basketball player that transcended the game the way a point guard never could?
The answers depend on our perspectives. And whether we're talking about Georgetown-Syracuse, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, or the best soccer player in history, it's all a a confused, convoluted, sometimes contradictory, and creepily accurate reflection of us, and what we value.
So why are sports "more than a game"? Well, for one thing, that.