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In admiration of Iverson

Page 2 columnist

The first game of the 2001 NBA Finals was one of the best basketball games I have seen in a very long time. There is just nothing like great talent fused with great passion in a big game.

Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson served notice in Game 1 that Philly wouldn't go away quietly.
It was not just that everyone, myself included, expected Goliath to coast to the title, and it was not just that David beat Goliath in Game 1, but it was the nature of the game, the pure ferocity with which David played, and in time the matching ferocity with which Goliath had to counter.

Even if the Lakers had won, which in the end they did not, it would have been a magnificent game, because the Sixers had pushed them so hard, pushed them to match Allen Iverson's level of passion. For it was obvious that Iverson controlled the pace of the game, not just by his own play but by his infectious effect on his teammates, and thus in turn his effect on the Lakers.

If that Game 1 assault upon the Laker journey to an unbeaten playoff record wasn't bad enough, the Sixers, in Games 2 and 3, again challenged the Lakers. In both games, they lost, but they also pushed L.A. very near the breaking point, leaving them confused and uncertain at critical moments in the fourth quarter. Game 1 clearly had not been a fluke, or a result of too long a layoff for the Lakers. Iverson has the rare capacity to bring a lesser team to parity with what was seemingly a far more powerful team.

I have been learning to admire Iverson this season, and it's turning out to be a good deal of fun. I don't know whether it matters if I like Iverson or not. We come from different worlds, and we are likely, once the Finals are over, to remain part of our different worlds. Just to admire him is good enough.

Iverson is very simply, no matter how well Shaq or Kobe or Tracy McGrady played, the great story of this basketball season, and if you think about it, I suspect, the single most interesting success story of the past basketball, baseball and football seasons.

He has taken a team of players with a medium talent level and struck terror into the hearts of a team with vastly greater size and talent. He has commanded our interest and our own emotions in these Finals against great odds. He has Phil Jackson calling timeouts, and Lakers fans aware that a five- or six-point lead near the end of the game is not enough because Shaq can't shoot free throws. On the sidelines Jack Nicholson looks unnaturally tense.

Larry Brown
Sixers coach Larry Brown is no longer fed up with Iverson's tardiness and poor practice habits.
We, the fans, are engaged in these Finals as we did not intend to be. He has made us look at the two previous challengers to the Lakers -- teams from Sacramento and San Antonio that obviously had a great deal more natural talent -- and made us think they did not play very hard on defense, and they could be intimidated by the Lakers. Because Iverson cannot be intimidated, and the Sixers, in turn, cannot be intimidated. This makes for very good basketball and a wonderful story.

Learning to admire Iverson took time. I am not a hip-hop kind of guy. I don't call people, "Bro'," or talk of "The Hood." To me, Pearl Harbor -- the news of which I remember all too well -- is the beginning of a hard frightening four-year war (during which we moved some 10 times because my father went back in the service) not a bad, indeed almost a profane movie. However, Iverson, if he has seen it, might well think it's a good movie -- after all, it's made for his generation with lots of video-game dogfight sequences.

I own no rap CDs, and by instinct when I hear the name Snoop Dogg, it sounds to me like that of someone who should be in a comic strip. So, we have our cultural differences, or perhaps more accurately our cultural divide. I think it's safe to assume that in my eyes he arrives with more cultural baggage than I like, and that if I were doing a piece on him, I would have more cultural baggage than he would prefer.

I, like many others of my generation, did not like what he seemed to represent. Nor was it just the surface manifestations of alienation, although in truth they matter, for we judge each other first on surfaces. ("I don't want," said a friend of mine who has Knicks season tickets, speaking of the old Iverson about three years ago, "to root for someone who looks like he might mug me.") And the surface manifestations are, in fact, very different, and to the white middle-aged fan, they are at first quite offputting: the cornrowed hair, the tattoos, the body piercing, the somewhat volatile relationship with the law.

But more important was his game. He was, I thought, like all too many young athletes in the NBA, disrespectful of opponents, disrespectful of teammates, disrespectful of his coaches, and in some way, I thought, disrespectful of the game. The transgressions in previous years were all too numerous, the fights with coaches, the deliberate tardiness to practices, the sulking when he was taken out of a game, the sense he gave out that his real team was his posse, who represented what he was and where he came from, and that it was to them that his true loyalty lay, not his Sixers teammates, who were involuntarily merely his business associates.

I saw all the talent, heard all the fuss, and thought that in the end the talent didn't really matter, because finally it was about self, and as much as he added to a team with his talent, he managed in other ways to subtract with his behavior.

In the past, I -- and, I think, a great many sports fans of my general background, gender, class, race -- have remained largely immune to his talents. Yes, he was very talented, exceptionally quick, and tough, and he could score and he could pass. No one, it seemed, could get a shot off that quickly. But 50-point games do not move me.

Allen Iverson
Even when facing a team with superior size and talent like the Lakers, Allen Iverson and the Sixers refuse to back down.
I saw the passion as I saw the talent, but I had a sense that the passion, like the talent, was primarily about self. In the end, there's nothing more boring than the rise of a talented, self-absorbed star in this modern entertainment society, whether it's on the part of movie stars, television stars, athletes, or for that matter, the self-inflated television personalities who cover them and are often equally as self-absorbed and who promote themselves instead of simply doing their job.

So, there was always a gulf between us. We come from not merely different, but really quite separate Americas. We only meet, in the sense that we meet at all-- which we do mostly electronically -- because of his superb athletic skills. Otherwise, we would be each other's invisible men, effectively vague, faceless shadows to each other in our daily lives, at best stereotypes.

I am white, a college graduate, old enough to be his grandfather. I was 26 when his mother was born. I belong to the generation which, when it was young, held its breath hoping that Jackie Robinson would succeed when he broke in back in 1947, and I have watched with pleasure the coming of the social revolution in American sports, the coming of the new immensely talented black athletes in all sports.

In my 20s and 30s I covered civil rights in the South. I take a certain degree of alienation on the part of black athletes for granted -- I'm somewhat surprised when it isn't there. I'm not easily offended by manifestation of black dissent or separatism. The decision of Cassius Clay to become Muhammad Ali did not bother me. Nor did his decision not to serve in Vietnam -- although it greatly offended many journalists from the generation older than me (even when their own sons were not going to Vietnam).

  I saw the passion as I saw the talent, but I had a sense that the passion, like the talent, was primarily about self. In the end, there's nothing more boring than the rise of a talented, self-absorbed star in this modern entertainment society.  

The early afros of the 1960s didn't bother me. Athletes at the 1968 Olympics raising their hands in black power didn't bother me. But I feel that whatever your beliefs, you have to prove yourself, first and foremost, by what you do, and how good you are at your profession, and your alienation better not interfere with your job.

Having said that, let me make a number of other points. We should, I think, before we continue, be aware of a number of things. One is that the media does not always get the business of who is a good guy and who is not a good guy exactly right, and that it tends to go softer on winners in these judgments because it wants, however unconsciously, access to winners.

The media wants good guys to win and the bad guys to lose, and tends almost without knowing it, to award an edge in being a good guy to the winner for merely winning. Inevitably, it thereupon tends to search harder for the warts of the losers than the warts of the winners. Sometimes, because of this, it tends to blow the call.

Thus in the ongoing competition between Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams back in the 1950s, the media -- actually the press in those days -- spent a good deal of time deciding who gets white hats and black hats. And they decided that DiMaggio was the good guy, and Williams the bad guy. That turned out to be a colossal mistake.

Ted Williams
Thanks in large part to the media, Ted Williams wore the black hat, while Mickey Mantle was glorified.
DiMaggio might have been the better all-around baseball player, but he was a deeply misanthropic man, surprisingly ungenerous and uncommunicative to all; even some of the same reporters who helped keep the flame of his alleged elegance burning, would, when speaking in private, talk about how unpleasant he had been with them, and how they had always been forced to adapt to his rather selfish treatment of them.

By contrast, Williams, tempestuous, systematically assaulted by a brutal Boston media, was by far the better, in all ways a more open and more interesting person. He was a beloved teammate. But the Yankees won regularly, and the Red Sox, much weaker in pitching, won only once. DiMaggio got the white hat, Williams the black.

Comparably in the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain competition, Russell (surrounded generally by better teammates) almost always won on the court, and was in time awarded the white hat by the media. In truth, Russell has always been, except to a small handful of people who go back a long way with him, aloof and unacceptably difficult to deal with, whereas Chamberlain was by contrast open, generous and accommodating to all kinds of people.

So, it is important to remember that the media can get its images wrong: or as Danny Ainge once said about Charles Barkley, back before Barkley emerged as a national charmer, (someone with far greater talent to host a nightly talk show than Jay Leno), I've known a lot of bad guys pretending to be good guys, but Charles is the only good guy pretending to be a bad guy I've ever known.

We ought to be aware that athletes, both white and black, who are often said to be religious, might in fact be narrow-minded and bigoted. We got a reminder of that this year with the Knicks. I am also aware that athletes who are presumed to be likable, and are portrayed as likeable, are not in fact necessarily likeable, particularly as they have in recent years become ever bigger players in the sports-popular cultural scene, paid more and more, and, of course, coddled more and more, and, of course, shielded more and more from the rules and codes of the larger society.

We ought to remember that some of them have learned not merely the ability to spin beat reporters, but in the case of Dave Winfield, for instance, allegedly a good guy -- who will ever really know? -- there were virtually full-time public relations people working for him to create an aura that Winfield was a concerned citizen and a good guy. (I was once assigned a magazine piece by the New York Times on Winfield, but by the time I had dealt with all the People from Dave, Paid for by Dave -- and not the Yankees -- his lawyers and his own PR people -- I decided he wasn't worth bothering with.)

  The media wants good guys to win and the bad guys to lose, and tends almost without knowing it, to award an edge in being a good guy to the winner for merely winning. Inevitably, it thereupon tends to search harder for the warts of the losers than the warts of the winners. Sometimes, because of this, it tends to blow the call.  

"What kind of guy is X?" I once asked my friend Steve Kelley, a talented columnist for the Seattle Times, mentioning a player on the Lakers a decade ago who seemed to be unusually pleasant and personable. "He's athlete-nice," Kelley answered. That struck me as a shrewd assessment -- and a new category. What it meant was that X was within reason amenable to dealing with the world around him, was not a raving egomaniac, and would on occasion talk with people with some degree of openness and candor, and did not expect to be catered to at all times. But it had to be done on his terms and when it suited him and that he would be open and amenable was hardly a given.

So, Kelley was offering me a different scale on which to judge athletes, one different from measuring other human beings, other than say stars of the movies and television. Everything tends to be done on their terms, and they expect everything to be done on their terms. We are grateful for their smaller attentions and we more readily forgive their medium-sized transgressions.

As one of Mickey Mantle's teammates once said of him, it was a function of his charm and his fame that he could play the worst practical jokes in the world on his teammates, and everyone would laugh because it was Mickey Mantle doing it.

So, the question about Iverson is not whether or not he is likeable. Let us assume that he is neither more or less likeable than most professional athletes, although perhaps slightly more alienated as noted by lifestyle, not surprising considering the raw nature of his childhood. Let us assume that he is as much culturally outside the reach of the average middle-class white fan as the normal son of the ghetto who never makes it to professional basketball is -- that is, that there is a lot of stuff that festers there.

I suspect Iverson would not like the average person who roots for him very much, nor would, in fact, the average person who roots for him necessarily like him if they met in a neutral setting.

Let us assume as well, that a certain amount of raw sexist and homophobic language is not that unusual in the average locker room -- although to make a CD that demeans women and mocks gays takes it a good deal further and means that we are well-advised to hold back a bit more in our enthusiasms as to who he really is.

Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant
The Sixers need Allen Iverson, left, to want to make the big shots, not pass them up.
But here is what we should remember, and it was something pointed out to me years ago by Roger Angell, the gifted New Yorker writer, when I asked him what a player on the Red Sox was really like. "They are what they do," he answered, wiser in the ways of being around big time athletes than I.

That was it. They are what they do. Which strikes me as wise and as good a definition for measuring an athlete as we have. We do not, after all, have to buy the goods they flack for, the sneakers, and the soft drinks, the sunglasses, the telephone services. We do not have to hold them up to our children as role models. We are free to tell our children that John Lewis, the heroic Georgia congressman, or my friend Ron Ridenour, the grunt who blew the whistle on My Lai who died a few years ago, are better role models than any athlete.

But if they are what they do is the test, then Iverson passes it handsomely this year. In a nation where too many people have what is now called attitude without talent, or attitude without passion, he has, it seems to me, all three, and ironically the more passion he displays, miraculously the less attitude we see -- as if he has forgotten that in addition to playing so hard he also has to stick his finger in the world's eye.

So, that is why I have come to admire Iverson so much this season. Having come perilously close to being exiled to Detroit (and being saved only by Matt Geiger's refusal to go along), he has shaped up.

All the talent and all the passion have finally been fused to something larger -- team. He has gotten along with his coach. He no longer sulks when he comes out of games. He is no longer late to practice. He has not only made his teammates better, the prime test of any basketball player, but the ferocity and intensity of his game has been infectious, and his teammates seem to me to have become an extension of him.

Everyone on that team plays hard, and they play hard all the time. You cannot put the Sixers away. If the Lakers, early in the fourth quarter make a major run of 10 or 12 points, enough for most teams to be a dagger in the heart, the Sixers are immune. They are not intimidated. Back they come. They never think they are going out of a game.

Much of this, I think, comes from the psyche of Iverson. He seems to me to be lionhearted. He is supremely talented as well. He has not just played hurt, he has played very hurt. So have his teammates.

He has been the invincible man, refusing again and again, when faced with opponents who have superior ability, to lose. He has driven himself and his teammates to a level where they normally would not be. He has helped take a team that is, in a technical sense, not necessarily that talented, and not only lifted it to the Finals, but he has made it competitive with an L.A. team that appeared ready to roll over it just as it had rolled over everyone else lately.

He has given us a competitive Finals. That's worth admiring.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49, writes a bi-weekly column for Page 2.

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