Allen Iverson this week did something that a bunch of people were quick to label as good, a few to dismiss as self-serving and the rest of us, I think, to receive as basically the only thing Iverson could think to do, which makes him fairly human in the face of a tragedy that transcends stardom.
When Iverson offered to pay for the funeral of Philadelphian Kevin Johnson, he set into motion several conversations at once. The root was the circumstance of Johnson's death itself: It came from complications more than three years after Johnson, then 19, was shot and left paralyzed because he refused to surrender his Iverson replica jersey to a group of teenagers at a Philly trolley stop.
Iverson was, and remained, Johnson's favorite player. Johnson, who lived as a quadriplegic with his mother until his death Tuesday, will be buried with an Iverson jersey. Technically, his ventilator failed late last week, leaving Johnson in a vegetative state; but more broadly, his life changed forever because somebody was willing to shoot him over a uniform.
And Iverson himself can do absolutely nothing about any of that, no more than he can prevent the next crime that's related to a material thing with some connection to sports. He couldn't prevent Johnson's shooting any more than Michael Jordan could prevent the 2005 death of Steven Terrett, who died on Chicago's South Side after apparently being shot by robbers who wanted his brand new Air Jordans.
So Iverson did the only thing he could think of, which was to call Johnson's grieving mother and ask if he could cover the cost of the funeral. Of course he can, and of course it is a decent and grounded gesture, even if it represents the slipperiest of slopes.
I have no trouble believing Iverson was hit hard by the news. Despite his own history with weapons (Iverson once pulled a gun on a cousin while trying to locate his wife, with whom he was feuding), the Sixers' star sounded genuinely anguished Wednesday while discussing Johnson's fate.
Iverson recited gun-death statistics, including "almost 400 people in Philadelphia" this year (actually 357 as of this week). "It's just terrible, what's going on in Philadelphia," he told reporters in Seattle before the Sixers played the Sonics. "I just feel like I've got to do something more than I have been doing to try to help this situation as much as I can."
And that's the rub, of course. The thing about being famous, or infamous, and monied is that it sometimes fosters the notion of a power that does not actually exist -- the power to transform society. As much as Iverson's words ring real, at the end of the day he is still a paid entertainer, not a social engineer. He won't solve gun crime in the inner city with a thousand free jerseys, or a million of them. But he will suffer all the same when something goes wrong that is even tangentially in his name.
Charles Barkley first elicited some awe, and then guffaws, when he once upon a time told viewers of a Nike commercial, "I am not a role model." Even Barkley now realizes that athletes in America are role models by definition, not choice. But his words have always been the source of great debate, just by the sheer audacity of what he (or the Nike scriptwriter) had to say.
I'm now convinced that Barkley uttered those words with such sincerity and passion because, deep down, one of his great fears was that somebody would use him as a role model, and what kind of deal was that? He was young, rich, on the prowl. Where was the upside to someone using him as a model for anything other than life in the NBA?
There is a component to their lives that famous people, famous athletes, can never fully control, and that is what direction the public or the fans will take when it comes to them. For his part, Iverson's public past is a checkered one -- gun charges, marijuana charges -- and even though it may be deep past, the record of a star never really goes away. It had to strike the 31-year-old point guard that he is now officially part of the concerned sect of society, the people who want the violence to end sooner rather than later. He sounds an awful lot like a grown-up.
"It was tough to see somebody die for something senseless like that, over a jersey, over something material," Iverson said. "Life is way more precious than a jersey."
If Iverson is looking for a way to channel his need to do something about the situation in Philadelphia, he can always follow Kevin Johnson's lead. Johnson spent the last three years of his life visiting schools and youth groups to warn kids and adults alike about the consequences of gun use. He was the living and suffering example of how badly it can go, and there are two other young men in prison as a result of their roles in that 2003 incident.
Of course, Iverson can't change the situation by himself. Neither could Michael Jordan, and neither can anyone. But Iverson can do what he can do, and judging by his words this week, it is what he wants. Take him at those words, and keep watching.
Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland," will be published by HarperCollins on Jan. 23, 2007, and may be preordered on amazon.com. Reach Kreidler at firstname.lastname@example.org.