The tragedy of Allen Iverson

Ethan Miller

After a judge garnished Allen Iverson's bank account to pay a debt, it became clearer that his tragedy is coming full circle. And that's heartbreaking to someone who grew up at the peak of his stardom.

From the second the NBA left Allen Iverson, I wondered what in the world he would do without basketball. It seems "paying his bills" wasn't on his to-do list.

The gumshoes at TMZ say Iverson's bank account has been garnished to pay an exorbitant jewelry bill. Per American custom, that's brought out snickers and finger wagging. Iverson made over $150 million, according to basketball-reference.com. Now, he's 36-years-old and can't even come up with the money to pay for bling he's too old to wear.

People laugh when rich folks struggle. In this case, I see two levels of tragedy. There's the predictability of it all. Even the best adjusted athletes have a million factors to fight when their careers are done, from divorces to simply trying to fill the hours of each day without practices and games. Plus, athletes, figurative lottery winners, are like the literal ones -- they often find a way to blow all their cash.

The rest is the big stuff, the totality of Iverson's nearly four decades and what they meant to a generation of fans and observers who never met him. Even those who couldn't relate to him felt inclined to root for him, if only to spite those who despised him. He was readily associated with hip-hop, but Iverson was rock star from the same mold as all the great ones. They grew up with the Stones, but gave Iverson the same lectures on his clothes that Jagger complained about on "Satisfaction." It was he who was immune to consultations, quite aware of what he was going through, even if those who judged him were not.

For people like me, Iverson's complaints were also ours. His defenses of his own rap music were the same we offered our parents when they heard the words coming from our bedroom windows. We wanted to wear t-shirts and sneakers everywhere, and we couldn't see what the big deal was, either. We were tired of being treated like criminals because of how we dressed. After being told for so long all the nonsensical compromises we would have to make to be successful, it warmed teenage hearts to see Iverson make it without doing any of those things.

It didn't feel like he was being knocked for his undeniable flaws, or even simply for being young and black. It felt like he caught hell for refusing to believe there was something wrong with who he was, how he dressed and how he wore his hair. It wasn't just a refusal to conform. It was a demand for his right to exist. He wasn't analyzed as much as he was indicted by his critics, many of whom never considered how truly impressive it was for someone from his side of the tracks to be a tax-paying millionaire. So many treated him as if he were doomed, that he could never be more than he was as a jaded, immature man in his early-20s.

No matter what anyone thought he did in that bowling alley, or what they thought he deserved, he made it out. Talent alone won't do that for anyone. That's the sort of thing done by hook or crook, and there's no time on the back end to worry too much about how it got done. After suffering the worst in a dying shipping town, being caught on police cameras buying drugs for his mother like it was just a run to the store, the slim chance Iverson had to be successful panned out.

And successful he was. The city he played in, Philadelphia, loved him for his passion. His teams won. He brought home scoring titles, led his team to six playoff series victories and dragged a motley crew of role players to the NBA Finals. And, for better or worse, he brought his people with him. No matter how silly it was to support dozens of people, or how selfishly Iverson handled his role in a team sport, he'd reached places that once seemed impossible for him.

That's why, no matter how boorish he could be or how self-inflicted his problems were, I rooted for Iverson on the court, and why I will continue to do so in life. He earned what he had, and he had a chance for even more. The short, skinny underdog who played harder than anyone in recent memory could be king, and he nearly did so without compromising personally or professionally. Even if that made him a jerk, it was one worthy of respect.

The older I got, the clearer it became that A.I. was going about things all wrong. The braids were a lot cooler in 2001 than ‘09, especially since they were worn by someone 26, not 34. The one-man offense was more defensible when that man, at the very least, was a capable NBA starter. He maxed out what he could do through force of personality and little else. His aging body needed a nuanced game that he hadn't picked up. His ego needed to be commensurate with his diminishing skills to find a place. And he needed to see, clearly, that he was losing basketball, which was the linchpin that held together everything he had.

Now, it's gone. So are his wife and family and, apparently, much of his money. He's no longer a star, not even at the Atlanta watering holes he frequents. We only hear about him when the cops are impounding his Lamborghini or creditors are beating down his door. After being so much, good and bad, to so many, Allen Iverson is a 36-year-old retiree. He is a nobody.

Does he have any fight left in him? We will find out soon. He may be finished as a basketball player, but he can't be finished as a man, if he ever was one. He's done too much, been too far and proven himself to be too strong. Right?

He seems totally unprepared for his greatest challenge: life. Iverson was tossed out of high school. He dropped out of college. Not even the gods of irony are funny enough to make A.I. a coach. He's demonstrated no interest in any activity meant to be performed 40 hours per week. In the most significant ways, he is alone. And there's no reason to think any of this will get any better.

Four years ago, he averaged 26.4 points per game. Two years later, as a free agent, his irrelevance was impossible to ignore. He wasn't even on the backburner. He was in the fridge, cold and past his expiration date. Only running backs and radioactive isotopes decay that fast.

The game hadn't just passed him by. The Game, the macro-level stuff about basketball and branding that The Answer could never be bothered with, were way beyond him. The suits he didn't want to wear, not his t-shirts and du-rags, were in style. The superstars of the day bore little resemblance to the anti-hero who directly preceded them in the limelight.

Now, it's as if he was never here. His most lasting imprint is the NBA's dress code, a measure taken to erase some of Iverson's cultural influence. He has a lifetime contract with Reebok, but he'll never be the Jordan-like icon whose brand power could sell shoes forever. Each of his employers was ready for him to go when he left. The Sixers will retire his jersey, and he'll surely be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Sadly, it might be best-case scenario if we never hear from him beyond those nights.

He went from nothing to the world, and now Allen Iverson may be back to nothing again. Literally, figuratively and tragically.

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