When people ask me about Allen Iverson -- and they ask me about him quite often -- I don't respond right away, because I'm busy filtering through dozens of memories, processing an equation, trying to get them to add up to one thing, an adjective that sums him up, something neat and tidy.
I want to be able to say, "Allen Iverson is [fill in the blank]."
But I can never do it.
So instead, I end up telling the stories I compiled about him during my time on the 76ers beat for the Philadelphia Inquirer. That seems so much more fair, to let the listener draw his or her own conclusions about Iverson -- aka "The Answer" -- one of the best and also one of the most polarizing players in NBA history, who will officially announce his retirement at the club's home opener Wednesday night.
I covered his final days in an NBA uniform, his last go-round in a league he helped define. The year was 2009, and the Philadelphia 76ers, the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 1996, the team for which he played his most successful seasons (seven All-Star appearances and four scoring titles), had done an about-face and signed Iverson to the veteran's minimum in early December, its season already crumbling. I say "about-face" because the folks within the franchise, from top to bottom, had sworn he would never return.
Almost from the moment AI was traded to Denver in December 2006, Philly fans had been asking, their words earnest and pleading, "When will he come back? Might he come back?" And over the next three years, really until the very days before the deal was announced, the possibility of such a move was rejected outright: Not a chance. We're not going backward. That ship has sailed. (Picture team executives shaking their heads, hands waving in front of them, backing away slowly.)
Not everyone in Philly adored Iverson. Some folks couldn't get past his brash attitude, his reckless behavior, his plethora of tattoos. (The fuss over his body ink seems especially silly now.) But many other people, those who had watched enough games, saw beyond his rough exterior to the passion and vulnerability beneath, to the heart of the man.
The thing about Philly, about the people who live and work there, is that they see right through fake and reject it emphatically. And while there are many maddening things about Allen Iverson, inauthenticity is not one of them.
When Iverson, 38, speaks, it's almost impossible not to believe in him. Most professional athletes have polished the façade of invincibility. Now here was Iverson, walking in the door, voice quivering, tears leaking from his eyes, promising he was going to try his best to live up to what the Sixers were offering him: another chance.
He was broken. The Memphis Grizzlies had unceremoniously bounced him from the NBA early in the 2009-10 season because he expressed displeasure about coming off the bench. This was after stints in Denver and Detroit, his star gradually fading in each city. But Iverson wanted to be whole again, and he needed Philadelphia to help him, like a balm.
When you're in the same room as Iverson, listening to his gravelly voice, sensing his all-in presence, you feel a deep certainty that it's his intention to do the thing he's saying. And then circumstances that haven't yet been conceived, complications unforeseen, usually come down the road and thwart or derail all those good intentions.
The night of Iverson's return to Philadelphia, the city and the arena were abuzz in a way I had never seen and wouldn't see again in three years on the beat. The game was sold out because Philly fans are fiercely loyal. Iverson had poured his heart out for them, had taken their team to the NBA Finals in 2001, had carried their struggling franchise to glory on his slight frame, finding a way to slip his 6-foot, 165-pound body through gaps in the defense that no one else could see, some that didn't even exist until he decided to make them exist.
The people wanted to thank him.
Which is why I was genuinely surprised when Iverson, ushered in by team officials, arrived a few minutes late to the locker room that night. He seemed rushed and panicked, like he'd forgotten to set his alarm, tearing at his jacket as he walked to his locker, hastily putting on his uniform. The reason for his lateness, we were told, was traffic -- an explanation that felt lacking given the gravity of the evening. Iverson had promised to be better, and he really intended to be, but life was always getting in the way.
None of us wrote about his late arrival because we wanted to believe in the fairy tale. Allen Iverson could make you believe.
A few nights later, the Sixers played the Detroit Pistons, coached by John Kuester, who was an assistant in Philly (1997-2003) when Iverson was carving up opponents on his way to winning the league MVP award in 2001. Before the Pistons game, Kuester told a story about a young AI, who in those early years would show up to preseason training camp to run the timed mile in less than prime shape. But when you have a competitive heart, oxygen is just a luxury you're willing to forgo if pride is on the line.
Kuester shook his head at the memory of Iverson sprinting around the track faster than anyone, running times in the low five-minute range -- shocking times, really.
There are different kinds of athletes, different kinds of competitors. Some are meticulous about their preparation, obsessing over their training and showing up on game day having consumed the proper amount of carbs. When the ball goes up in the air, though, they don't have that killer instinct. Iverson wasn't exactly a paragon of fitness, but when he stepped on the court for games, he was fierce and unyielding, pushing himself through pain and fatigue.
I remember sitting on the sideline a few weeks after his short-lived comeback with the Sixers and seeing him dive for a loose ball along the sideline. It was a relatively meaningless possession in the second quarter. Much to my surprise, tears sprung to my eyes as I watched Iverson gingerly pulling himself off the court -- that's how long it had been since I'd seen a pro athlete who reminded me so much of a kid who'd just fallen in love with the sport.
Of course, all of this was balanced with the parts of Iverson that weren't so inspiring, the stuff that would eventually lead to his downfall: the drinking and partying, the inability to follow through and be the person he wanted to be. When I started on the beat in 2008, some of the younger guys on the team -- the ones who were rookies and second-year players as the Iverson Era was coming to its dramatic conclusion two years earlier -- would talk about wanting to emulate AI's behavior, to burn the candle at both ends. Then they realized how impossible it was to be great and be everywhere and be everything to everyone.
When people ask me about Allen Iverson, I tell them all of these things and also about the time I traveled to Istanbul in 2010 to write a story about him while he was playing overseas for a club called Besiktas. After practice, I caught him as he was walking off the court and asked him if he had time to talk, to answer a few questions. He said sure, just give him a few minutes to shower and get ready.
I waited for an hour. He never showed. One of the team officials told me he had left through the back exit.
I've also stood around as Iverson weaved story after story, staying much longer than he needed to, making sure everyone had exactly what they needed. Standing on that court with him in Istanbul, I fully believed he intended to come back out. Then things changed.
Yes, Iverson is flawed. Then again, who isn't? He has a chip on his shoulder, but also an incredibly big heart on his sleeve. Just like Philly. Together, the two were perfect in their own way.