Allen Iverson always knows where he stands. When he was a dual sport sensation in high school, and he got railroaded over a bust-up at a bowling alley, he knew he had made a mistake, but he also knew he was being punished so severely (a 15-year sentence for light assault!) for Brawling While Black, a victim of a parochial Virginia town’s slo-mo racial conflagration. When he committed to Georgetown, he knew John Thompson would look after him in a way Mike Krzyzewski or Jim Boeheim never would. When he arrived to the NBA covered in tattoos, hair braided tight, kitted out in throwbacks the size of hot air balloons, he was at first confused as to why anybody cared, but he caught on quick: oh, okay, this thing again. And then he didn’t change, because he didn’t want to, didn’t think he should have to. He was right. A.I.’s right a lot, on cultural matters. He sees himself, and he sees you. He probably knows what you make of him and why.
It’s unsurprising that his recent Players’ Tribune piece has a bunch of keenly observed stuff in it. “[The public] all have their ways of projecting this baggage on me that’s not even always what’s real.” “[The] things you do, they’ll never be as important as the things people think you do.” He tells an M.J. story that’s good precisely because of the way he tells it. He elides the cranky has-been pothole by, hallelujah, framing his dislike of superteams as a personal preference rather than objective old head fact. He emphasizes over and over again the importance of being yourself, which is literally the moral of every other Disney movie, but coming from him is more political argument than feel-good sentiment. Iverson put up with a lot of coded hectoring and outright racism in his day—from fans, from the media, from the league office itself—just for being his own man, and he has a right to be proud of that. He bled so John Wall could stunt.
Whenever Iverson reemerges to remind us of his best qualities, I get a little bit sad, because there’s a great deal to admire about him. He’s smart and tough as hell, both ahead of his time during his playing career and enthusiastic about what the generations that have replaced him are doing now. I sometimes like to pretend the worst thing he ever did—what he’s referencing when he writes that “they’ll have to invent a whole new number to find out how many mistakes I’ve made”—was show up to a few games hungover, pick a few fights with Larry Brown that he shouldn’t have. But that’s just not the case. Iverson isn’t complicated in a way that can be easily dismissed. He’s done some horrific things, including physically abusing and threatening to kill his ex-wife Tawanna, dipping in and out of his kids’ lives and once locking them in a hotel room so he could go out and get slammed. And his drinking, while less obviously despicable, was a huge problem. He regularly showed up to practice and sometimes even games still drunk from the night before, and was, as anybody would be after closing down a bar and then having to run around a bunch, pretty miserable to be around.
Iverson has never totally copped to this. Much like Mike Tyson—another bright, introspective, misunderstood dude capable of monstrous things—he simply alludes to mistakes, which is not the same thing as apologizing. We’re in the midst of a peculiar cultural moment with the #MeToo movement doing the good work it’s doing and exposing the variously squickish-to-awful trespasses of powerful men. That’s a positive development—Harvey Weinstein’s overdue for a long, lonely, state-supervised think on the damage he’s done—but we’re not quite clear yet, in part because it’s a less important aspect of the issue, what proper atonement looks like, to what extent redemption is possible. This is something we’ve grappled with throughout human history—what does the murderer who’s served his sentence deserve?—but it’s been in the news lately, so we’re talking about it more than usual. Louis C.K.’s playing the Comedy Cellar again, and many people aren’t okay with it. Is there anything he could do, in their minds, to regain that privilege? Is he just supposed to go away?
Of course there aren’t cosmic judges to decide this stuff, only a mess of people, and they all have their reasons for thinking what they do. I’m probably going to continue admiring Allen Iverson for the rest of my life, but it’s not uncomplicated admiration. I’d really like it if he explicitly acknowledged his mistakes, especially the domestic violence. This wouldn’t solve anything, but it would at least represent some philosophical consistency. Iverson speaks movingly and persuasively about owning who you are. That means, not just celebrating what’s unique and exceptional about yourself, but examining your flaws and what you’ve done wrong. A full account with no shame, is what Iverson preaches. Or sells, anyway. It’s part-myth.
I understand why he’s not eager to castigate himself in public. He’s been punished for so many things that aren’t sins that he doesn’t want to give the folks who superciliously browbeat him for years any ammunition to say: see, he’s actually a terrible guy. Especially considering he has come out the other side of all that nonsense a hero. He’s going to stay A.I., which is to say stubborn—and insightful and funny, by turns exuberant and dark, sometimes malignant, at any rate a tangle of contradictions, a real pain in the ass to describe without feeling like you’re getting several things wrong.
I think of him five years ago stone-drunk in Vegas before the Mayweather fight, joking that he’s ready to play Russian roulette with Adrien Broner. He’s sitting in the back of an SUV, swaying slightly, impressed by the lightless depth of his own depression. And I think, first, that I’ve been there, and second, that that’s a dangerous place to be. You can do some real damage to yourself and others; you can screw up in ways you can’t take back. Your hands are slipping from the wheel. His eyes are the opposite of clear. He’s got no point to make; he’s way past having a point. He’s collapsing in on himself, washed up and whiskey-mad at god. This is A.I. too, believe it or not.