Understanding Allen Iverson on Allen Iverson's Terms

Allen Iverson's reputation is messed up. By that I mean, he has a bad one, especially off the court. (In case you haven't noticed, he's more or less the icon of NBA thuggishness.) But that reputation is messed up by the fact that it's sloppily created: the things people think they know about him--they're based on shoddy little shards of information, held together with bailing wire and assumptions.

It's a mess. And a lot of it doesn't reflect what I believe to be the truth.

Why bring this up now? Because today's the first day in a long time that Allen Iverson and the world have a real chance to totally change the way they relate to each other. New uniform, new city, new ownership, new coach, new fans... if everyone can kick this off with a pretty good understanding of what they're getting, I think Allen Iverson has a chance of succeeding like never before.

First of all, there's the partying thing. Does he stay out late? Indeed, there's a boatload of evidence. Oh to be omnipotent and be able to provide you with the list of professional athletes who share that trait. I know it includes Michael Jordan. I'm not apologizing here, but let's not pretend it's just him.

Then there's the practice thing. You might not like it, and you might not buy it. But you should at least understand Allen Iverson's approach to the game. Larry Platt's Only the Strong Survive, which every Denver Nugget fan should read immediately, makes clear that, petulant as it may sound, Iverson is an artist. Both in reality--he can do things with pen and paper that would amaze you--and in his approach to the game. It's helpful to understand that. This segment deals with Dennis Kozlowski, who was both the football coach and the athletic director at Bethel High School:

Kozlowski was a staunch believer in psychocybernetics. He'd preach the value of visualization long before such mental gymnastics were in vogue. He had Allen read the book Psycho-Cybernetics, by Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who maintained that, even after reconstructive nose surgery, many patients would still see their old nose when they looked in the mirror; such was the power of the brain's imagery. Kozlowski would tell Iverson to tie his shoe while continuing to carry on a conversation with him. Iverson would be speaking to him, looking up at him, while kneeling and tying his shoe. "See that," Kozlowski said. "See how you didn't have to look at yourself tying your shoe? See how you didn't even have to think about it? I want you to play like you just tied your shoelaces--automatically. The way you do that is by having an image in your mind of what you do before you do it."

"Allen took psychocybernetics to a new level," Kozlowski recalls. Today, Iverson doesn't like to talk about how he does what he does on the basketball court. "I just do it," he says. Partially, like any artist, he is wary of overanalyzing his gift. But it could also be that he's known since high school that the real explanation defies easy answers, that the answer is, at heart, both beneath and above the level of language, and connected, on some level, to his psyche. In other words, missed in all the hand-wringing about his lackadaisical practice habits in the NBA is the possibility that so much of his work is cerebral. Unlike, say, Jordan, who was a craftsman, someone who would take hundreds of jumpshots a day, Iverson imagines the possibility and then acts it out.

"Let me tell you about Allen's workouts," says Terry Royster, his bodyguard from 1997 until early 2002. "All the time I have been with him, I never seen him lift a weight or stand there and shoot jumper after jumper. Instead, we'll be on our way to the game and he'll be quiet as hell. Finally, he'll say, 'You know now I usually cross my man over and take it into the lane and pull up? Well, tonight I'm gonna cross him over and then take a step back and fade away. I'm gonna kill 'em with it all night long.' And damned if he didn't do just that. See, that's his workout, when he's just sitting there, thinking. That's him working on his game."

(High school players, don't you read that and get any ideas. You're not Allen Iverson. Shoot those jumpers, learn how to pass and play defense...)

But there's a huge part of the story that often gets glossed over. What Allen Iverson has that's so valuable--in addition to some halfway decent skill with the ol' basketball--is a furious, lifelong, til-death-do-us-part fascination with winning. Practically all of his emotions are raw and untempered, but that one is the most ferocious. Do you understand the kind of heart it takes for a 160-pound man to scare NBA players?

You know those glow sticks they give little kids on Halloween? With the neon goo inside? Where you and I have blood, Iverson has that glowing stuff pumping through him. He's just on fire, all the time. If you could spread that magical juice throughout your roster, you'd win the title every year--talent and size be damned.

But as it is, Allen Iverson has two gallons of it, and most people don't even have a teaspoon. There's your trouble. Hmm... it's a game won by the best team... so what do you there? Through most of his career, Allen Iverson has known what to do there: win the damn game himself. He can see how and where the fire is burning, and by comparison it's almost all in him.

Deep inside all of us, upon hearing and seeing that, there's some eighth grade basketball coach ready to tear that little punk a new one, with a lecture about teamwork, a lecture about leadership, and a lecture about lighting the fire in your teammates, instead of complaining it's not burning brightly enough and moving on.

Well, I urge you to turn off that little coach for a second. Why? That coach's point is valid, but his tactics suck in this instance. You are simply not going to convince Allen Iverson to change anything about his game with a lecture. Maybe he has a learning disability. I don't know. But I do know this: IT HAS BEEN TRIED AND TRIED AND TRIED AND TRIED. It doesn't work. You don't need me to quote that line about doing the same thing again and again repeatedly but expecting a different result? That, as the story goes, is one definition of insanity.

He's a "show me don't tell me" guy. A lot of people are. And he has been a team player, of sorts, in the past. To my mind, the most memorable game of Allen Iverson's career so far was on May 20, 2001. That was Toronto at Philadelphia, game seven of the second round of the NBA playoffs (the winner got to face, ironically, George Karl's Milwaukee Bucks in the conference finals). The Sixers ended up winning 88-87. Iverson had a lousy shooting night, finishing 8 for 27 against a physical Charles Oakley team. They were beating the crap out of Iverson. He looked drained. But down the stretch especially, he recognized what had to happen, and fed the ball to his teammates who were practically all overachieving. Eric Snow finished 5 for 11. Aaron McKie was 8 for 16. Jumaine Jones was 6 for 9. Allen Iverson blew everyone away with 16 assists. When the game was over, and the whole stadium was freaking out with joy, a jubilant Iverson grabbed the TV microphone and screamed "We're a team! For the first time in my life I'm on a team!"

Sadly, it was practically the last time, too.

But it needn't be. Stories like that are the way to convince Allen Iverson of the value of teamwork. Steer him that way, and Denver has a shot--a wild shot, perhaps, but a real shot--to amaze us all.