|Chapter One: Newport Bad News|
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The foregoing is excerpted from "Only the Strong Survive" by Larry Platt with permission from HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
but we call it Newport Bad News,
'cause a lot of bad s--- happens there."
Harper, an environmental engineer and substitute teacher in the Hampton, Va., school district, lived at 35 Jordan Drive, a tree-lined street of shoe-box one-story, two-bedroom homes in the Aberdeen section of Hampton, the neighboring town of Newport News. Next door, in a faded yellow house with a cramped back yard, lived a large, boisterous, rotating cast of Iversons. There was the matriarch, Mrs. Mitchell, and her eldest granddaughter, Ann, known as "Juicy." There was Ann's sister, Jessie, called "Li'l Bit," who ran track at nearby Bethel High, and there were the boys, Stevie and Greg, not to mention an ever-present cast of cousins and aunts and uncles and friends. They slept, 13 of them, in the two bedrooms. "I smelled my share of stinky feet," Ann Iverson remembers today.
And there was Juicy's son, Bubbachuck, the kid who, at all of 4 and 5 years old, would be there, every time Harper looked out his window, day and night, playing football with the older boys. They wouldn't coddle him; far from it. Harper would watch this tiny kid -- the football was almost as big as he was! -- pivot and stutter-step and run, eluding his frustrated elders. He was always in motion -- that is, until they caught him. Then they'd hit him, and they'd hit him so hard he'd go slamming into the back of the house; sometimes Harper swore he could feel the reverberations under his feet next door. But the kid would get up, time and again, shaking his head, not letting them see him stagger, and then he'd be right back out there, running and cutting and running some more.
Harper got some peace and quiet when the Iversons got booted from the comfort of Jordan Drive three years later. They settled at the Stuart Gardens Apartments in Newport News' east end. Stuart Gardens wasn't the projects per se -- but it was close enough to the dicey cluster of government-provided housing that, over the years, its residents had come to see themselves as indistinguishable from those, say, in the troubled Ridley Circle Homes just blocks away.
The east end of Newport News was only a 10-minute drive from Aberdeen, but the differences were vast. When it came time for Allen to play in a rec league, Ann -- no stranger to the perils of the street -- didn't want her son walking from Stuart Gardens to the Boys and Girls Club or the Dorrie Miller Rec Center in downtown Newport News. So she called Harper, who was also commissioner of the Aberdeen Athletic Association. He waived the rule that forbade those living in Newport News from playing in Hampton leagues, and vice versa.
Football came first. Gary Moore, who had been a collegiate baseball standout at Hampton University, coached him in Aberdeen and couldn't believe what he saw: a lethal combination of speed, quickness, fearlessness, and toughness. Just as he did on Jordan Drive, the kid would spring back up no matter the ferocity of the hit that had -- finally! -- taken him down.
But Ann wasn't satisfied. "You're going to basketball practice today," she told an 8-year-old Allen one day after school.
"Hell if I am," he snorted. "Basketball's soft. I'm a football player."
Ann stood in the doorway. "Well, you ain't coming in until you go to basketball," she said, arms crossed. Grudgingly, alternately sobbing and cursing his mother, Allen Iverson headed for the basketball courts for the first time in his life.
Once there, he was surprised to see all his buddies from football. He sat back and watched for an hour, picking things up. So that's a layup, he observed, when a player scored close to the basket. That's a jumpshot, he noted. When he got in his first game, knowing only one speed, he was a blur. After two possessions in which he literally did whatever he wanted, it dawned on him: I'm the best player here.
Allen's de facto father, Michael Freeman, known as "House Mouse" on the streets, would take a 10-year-old Bubbachuck to the courts at Anderson Park and knock him around, one-on-one. "Get yer ass up," the 5-foot 6-inch Freeman would growl every time Allen would hit the asphalt. Freeman was an aficionado of playground ball; his favorite team was Dr. J's high-flying Philadelphia 76ers, who had been changing the once-staid NBA. Along with such colorfully ghettocentric characters as World B. Free and Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins (who, after a magazine writer made an oblique reference to his "Devastating Dunker" in the locker room, penned an eloquent letter to the editor: "Been looking at my dick, motherf-----?") and, later, Andrew "The Boston Strangler" Toney, Erving was making the once-taboo one-on-one street game a fundamental staple of NBA play. That was the game that Allen was first introduced to, one born of creativity and freedom, where shots were celebrated for their degree of difficulty, regardless of whether the ball actually made it through the twine. From the earliest age, Allen Iverson was shown that basketball is art, not craft, that playing and self-expression go hand in hand.
Eventually, Allen started to run with the older guys in the early evening at Aberdeen Elementary School. Uncle Stevie and Greg were among them, as were a bunch of the older guys who would spend the next few years looking out for Bubbachuck, including Tony Clark, a mentor. Soon the legend extended to basketball. Mike Bailey, the basketball coach at Bethel High, had heard the stories about this Bubbachuck kid, this playground phenom, a skin-and-bones energy freak who would outrace all the older guys, despite the fact he was dribbling while sprinting. Bailey had to see for himself. He walked into the gym at Jefferson Davis Middle School, where, it was rumored, Bubbachuck would be. He poked his head in and saw a kid in desperate need of Ritalin throw a behind-the-back pass out of bounds. He also saw that every eye in the gym was on this indefatigable child.
It would take some time -- years, really -- for the basketball establishment to take note of Iverson. For now, he was an underground phenomenon, a gift to a town in need of one. For a time in the 1980s, Newport News was flourishing. The Newport News Shipyard, at the height of the Reagan era's upsurge in defense spending, was the area's largest employer -- some 32,000 locals were on its books. When the 4-p.m.-to-midnight shift let out, the town would be ensnarled in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam in the dead of night.
By the late '80s, though, the Cold War was over and the Shipyard was faltering. But even when the Shipyard boomed, other policies of the Reagan '80s started to have a deleterious effect. Throughout the country, an underclass began to develop; the gap between those doing well and those barely making it broadened. The top 1 percent prospered while the bottom 90 percent treaded water, at best, waiting for their promised windfall to "trickle down." Corporations, finding themselves competing in a newly global marketplace, began exporting low-skilled manufacturing jobs. Words like downsizing and outsourcing entered the national lexicon.
Ann, by turns, drove a forklift, was a typist at Langley Air Force Base, manned a cash register at a local grocery, and welded at the Shipyard, where she met Freeman, the man who raised Allen and fathered Allen's two sisters, Brandy in 1979 and Ieisha in 1990. Freeman had spent a good part of his adult life in and out of prison for dealing crack cocaine. As far as Allen was concerned, his stepfather had only been trying to put food on his family's table. Unlike the fictional Nino Brown, he wasn't chasing some new twist on the American Dream; he was just trying to stay afloat. Watching Ann, Freeman, and others in the neighborhood, Iverson began to get the message, even then: sports would be the only way out.
It's a message Ann had long accepted as the gospel truth. Many of our feel-good sports narratives portray the mother of the indigent athlete pushing education -- sometimes even after the kid has made it, as when Isiah Thomas, later in life, completed his undergraduate degree at his mother's urging. But Ann Iverson didn't subscribe to the "you need something to fall back on" school of thought. No, her baby was born to make it. When folks started talking about her son as if his mere presence had been divinely granted, she didn't humbly object. No, Ann Iverson had long known that God had a plan for her and her baby.
Like her son, Ann Iverson doesn't just smile; she emits joy. First, her mouth, framed by liberal swipes of righteous ruby lipstick, begins to widen, revealing gleaming white teeth, and then the smile keeps expanding, wide and bigmouthed, until Ann Iverson is beaming the way her red Jaguar's headlights beam. But the smile predated the red Jag; it was there, in fact, on June 7, 1975, in the maternity ward of Hampton General Hospital, when her boy was handed to her; suddenly the pregnant lady who hadn't stopped talking and bitching and demanding more drugs to ease the pain of childbirth, this mouth that ran a mile a minute and had nurses rolling their eyes, started to beam when she took in one specific sight: the length of her baby's arms, which dangled down to his kneecaps.
"He gonna be a ballplayer!" she cried.
She knew it then, just like she knew it when the whole clan landed on Jordan Drive in Hampton -- you think that's coincidence, she'd say, that my baby lives on a street the same name as the guy who is The Man of the NBA?
Because she knew God had a plan for her, see. She'd inherited from her grandmother, Ethel Mitchell, a strong spiritual sense, and she just believed. In her view, Allen was her Baby Jesus; she even later claimed -- in the hallowed pages of Sports Illustrated, no less -- that he was immaculately conceived, which would make her the Virgin Mary.
Ann grew up in Hartford, Conn., a tomboy who climbed trees and kicked little boys' asses. Her mother was a waitress; her father was long gone. In the fifth grade, she met Allen Broughton. They started dating in seventh grade.
Like Ann, Broughton was a basketball player, a teammate of Rick Mahorn's. (Mahorn would later spend a year as her son's teammate in the NBA.) She and Broughton were in love, according to Broughton, who is currently serving time in Connecticut for assault after stabbing his girlfriend six times in 1998. It was Broughton she was talking to on the phone the night her mother, Ethel, was rushed to the hospital for an appendectomy. Doctors botched the operation and Ann's mother died on the table. The hospital paid the Iversons $3,818.18 to settle any future legal claims.
Ethel Mitchell committed to raising her grandchildren over her husband's objections. "I've already raised mine and I don't want to raise no more," he said.
"I guess you better be on your way, then," Mitchell told him. Without her husband, she moved her brood to the comparatively safer streets of Virginia, where she'd grown up. Before the move could take place, however, Ann decided to lose her virginity with Broughton on her 15th birthday, though she claims he never penetrated her. Not so, recalls Broughton. "We were in love and we wanted to make a baby and be together," he says. They were in the eighth grade and consumed by the tragedy of their impending separation. "I wanted her to have a part of me," says Broughton.
Once the move took place, Ann and Broughton kept in touch for a time. He even visited once, buying baby clothes for Allen. "We were kids, man," Broughton recalls today. "Kids making a kid." Ann soon met Michael Freeman, and they had Allen's sister Brandy together. She had started a family with another man. Allen Broughton was out of the picture.
So this was the school skipper extraordinaire. She had heard a lot about him, but she hadn't been prepared for just how engaging he could be, or how talented. And she wasn't even thinking of his athletic skills.
Sue Lambiotte was a teacher and president of the Peninsula Literacy Council. Along with her husband, Butch, a lawyer, the Lambiottes were steeped in sports. All four kids had grown up playing. Clay Lambiotte, Sue's youngest, played in Boo Williams' Summer League with a 13-year-old Iverson, which is how Sue came to be on Williams' board of directors, which is how she first came across Bubbachuck.
Boo Williams is well known and widely respected in basketball circles. In 1982, Williams came back home to the Peninsula area after starring at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He started a summer league with $400 in his pocket. Over the years, it has grown into one of the premier summer programs in the country, and Williams has earned accolades as one of the nation's great barnstorming Amateur Athletic Union coaches. AAU coaches often come under fire as the scourge of college sports; unregulated and operating in the shadows, they have been accused of steering their high-school ballplayers to sneaker companies and college coaches with whom they have forged under-the-table deals.
Williams, though, enjoys a stellar reputation compared to most. And he has coached some of the most talented basketball players in the country. Alonzo Mourning, J. R. Reid, Joe Smith, and Bryant Stith have all passed through his program. The 13-and-under team that went to a national tournament in Kansas with Sue Lambiotte as a chaperon was no exception. In addition to Iverson, Williams put on the floor Tony Rutland, who would star in high school with Iverson and go on to play with Tim Duncan at Wake Forest; Aaron Brooks, now a quarterback with the New Orleans Saints; and Damon Bacote, who would go on to play hoops at the University of Alabama.
During that trip, Lambiotte was taken by the happy-go-lucky class clown that was Allen Iverson. In Kansas for a week, Lambiotte insisted on taking the team to local museums. There was no need for a tour guide, however, as Iverson -- a talker, when he gets going, right out of the mold of his mother -- kept his teammates in stitches with his own running commentary. When he wasn't cutting up on his teammates, he was breaking into dead-on impersonations of them or quickly drawing their caricatures on loose-leaf paper. Lambiotte was amazed at the frequency and depth of his artistic expression. He'd find the one distinguishing characteristic in his subject's makeup -- later, in Shaquille O'Neal's case, it would be his slightly crossed eyes -- and he'd exaggerate the detail to uproarious proportions.
During practice at the University of Kansas during that trip, the then head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks walked into the gym. There he saw the shortest player on the court, chirping loudly and goofing off while his coach tried to capture his frantic, easily diverted attention. "Who's that little kid?" Larry Brown asked, not knowing that he'd just laid eyes on the player who would grow up to be the most important, and maddening, he'd ever coach.
This Bubbachuck was not what Lambiotte had expected. She had been warned about him. She knew how, already, he was well on his way to becoming one of the most truant students in the history of his school district. She had heard the stories of how, when he didn't show for a practice or tournament, Boo and his coaches would fan out across town, inevitably finding the kid on a dimly lit playground court, shooting around by himself -- sometimes well past midnight.
Iverson's lack of reliability was one of the reasons Williams hadn't already brought him up to play on the main barnstorming team. In the spring of Iverson's eighth-grade year, Williams and his coaching staff debated whether to give the high-maintenance Iverson a chance. Coach Carroll Williams lobbied against Iverson. "We don't want to mess with this kid," he said. "He doesn't want to come to practice."
Williams, noting that Tose was often the softest touch among the group, opted to elevate Rutland instead, in part because his game -- as an outside shooter -- would mesh better with that of Michael Evans, an older kid out of Norfolk. Williams was convinced Evans would be the program's next superstar -- following in the sneaker prints of Reid and Mourning. (Sure enough, as a senior at Norfolk's Granby High School, Evans would go on to be ranked as the nation's No. 2 point guard behind Jason Kidd; because of injuries and academic neglect, his college career never panned out.)
But then Evans couldn't make a tournament in Memphis, so Iverson was picked to go in his place. During the 14-hour drive to Memphis, Williams started to regret it: he'd never heard someone talk for 14 consecutive hours. Often, it was just Bubba bitching. One favorite complaint was the beat-up rental van: "Coach, why don't Alonzo buy you a damned real van, man?" he called out. "Tell you what, when I make it in the NBA, I'll get you a real van." Williams laughed at the kid's presumption. ("I'm still waiting on that van," he jokes today.)
He didn't regret having Iverson on the court, though. The team went on to capture second place, losing in the finals to the Arkansas Wings, led by future NBA star Corliss Williamson, a behemoth even then. Iverson wasn't cowed; he challenged Williamson at every turn. He earned all-tournament honors and the team took home the runner-up trophy. During the long van ride back home, he cracked everybody up by opening his window and flinging the trophy onto the side of the road. "We don't take no second place," Iverson said. "That's not what we came to do."
"But that still would've been a nice dust collector," Tose deadpanned.
Meantime, Iverson's life away from the court was still turbulent. The coaches had addresses for him, but were never quite sure where he was spending the night. They'd still conduct nighttime searches, trying to track him down. The family had been evicted from Stuart Gardens; for a time, he went to stay with Gary Moore while Ann and the two girls moved into a shelter.
Mike Bailey, the Bethel head coach, took Allen in for three weeks that summer between ninth and 10th grade to make sure Allen attended summer school. Bailey's wife, Janet, taught English at the high school, and had even taught Gary Moore during his Bethel days. Early on, Bailey made a deal with Iverson: you're going to come to study hall at my house, and we're going to stay on top of everything you need to do to stay eligible so you can go to college and make something of yourself for your family.
It wasn't easy. The first time he went to pick up Allen to come over, he showed up outside the locker room after football practice as they'd arranged. No sign of Allen. But then, pulling out of the Bethel parking lot, Bailey spied a 1981 black Toyoto Tercel. That was Michael Jackson's car, a sweatbox with no air-conditioning. Jackson, whom Iverson called "Thrilla," was a tailback on the football team and one of Iverson's closest friends. They bonded when, as 12-year-olds, Jackson was the only kid who could beat Iverson in a footrace. Jackson, a stellar student, drove Iverson to and from school every day -- doing his best to get Bubbachuck there on time. Now Bailey pulled up alongside Jackson.
"You seen 'Chuck?" he asked. "We're supposed to meet for study hall."
"Well, if you see him, tell him I'm not giving up," Bailey said. "Tell him I'll see him tomorrow." The next day, Bailey successfully corralled Iverson on the football field.
Bailey's commitment might have appeared self-serving to an outsider. His job, after all, was to win basketball games, and Iverson, for all the headaches he caused, could do that for him. But others attest that Bailey truly loved Iverson like a son. This was because, like Lambiotte, he saw some potential that had gone untapped. He'd had experience in dealing with inner-city black kids. The hardest thing to combat was their fatalism, the sense that they were doomed, that no one was there for them. He knew so many kids who lived for today, even if it meant they'd die tomorrow. Hearing Iverson talk about how he just had to make it to the NBA, how he wanted to use sports to help his family, Bailey sensed that, unlike so many of his generation, he lived for the next day. Lived for his family. Hell, he'd already promised Ann that, when he signed with an NBA team, he'd buy her that candy-red Jaguar she'd always wanted. The kid was fixated on the possible while others around him were succumbing to hopelessness.
So that summer, Bailey took him in for three weeks while Iverson took a history class he had failed. Bailey would wake him up at 5 a.m. and watch as Iverson ironed his T-shirt, trying to smooth over its holes. He'd fret when Friday came, because along with it came the call of the streets. Bailey would cruise Newport News on Sunday night, trying to find him. One missed class, after all, in such a truncated semester, resulted in a failing grade. One Sunday night, Bubba was nowhere to be found. A distraught Bailey headed home.
The next morning, Bailey checked the history class. There was Iverson. He'd scratched together enough pennies to afford a taxi from the streets of Newport News to the school at dawn. Another time, he called Bailey at 6 a.m.: "Coach, my ride didn't show. Can you pick me up?" After three weeks, he'd gotten a B.
But that's not what sticks most in Bailey's mind of this, his first summer of Bubbachuck. No, what Bailey remembers is what made him realize that, to reach Iverson, he'd have to "coach him with my heart." In their first sit-down together, when Bailey spelled out all that he'd be expecting of Iverson -- the study halls, the promptness, the attitude -- he wasn't even sure if Iverson was listening. Iverson was looking down or looking away, rarely making and holding eye contact. Bailey finished by asking, "Now, what do you expect from me?"
And this 13-year-old who had no recollection of meeting his father, whose de facto father was hustling on the streets when he wasn't doing time, who, almost every day, found himself among a hushed crowd jockeying around yellow police tape while cops crouched over yet another chalk outline, this 13-year-old raised his head and looked Mike Bailey squarely in the eyes. "Will you always be there for me, Coach?" he asked.