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Where Does Allen Iverson Fit In?

As other members of his generation move into prominent media and NBA front office jobs, the Philadelphia 76ers legend’s job is to be Allen Iverson. And, as he and those around him will tell you, that’s a complicated occupation.

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Allen Iverson is late. Not obscenely late—not the kind of late where you wonder whether he’ll show, which is a classic kind of often-unapologetic Iverson tardiness—but the kind of late where one acquaintance who’s been around him for years shrugs it off: “He’s on Iverson time.”

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a familiar voice fills the Wells Fargo Center hallways—and there he is. Allen Iverson is 44 now and a little thicker around the middle, but otherwise looks much as he always has, with the important exception that his current fit is not nearly as baggy as before. He’s wearing a blue jacket with gray sleeves and a hood, a crisp white T-shirt, jeans, black Questions with gray tips, and lots of very expensive jewelry around his neck, some of which will be stolen from his Center City hotel two days later, though the thief will eventually return it and turn himself in. Most notably, Iverson is also rocking a Yankees hat. Anyone else would be excommunicated from Philly for such blatant blasphemy. With Iverson, no one even blinks. That’s how beloved he remains around these parts.

On this particular evening in late January, Iverson is one of the main attractions on a night that’s full of them. Before the Sixers host the Lakers on national television, Iverson is booked on ESPN’s The Jump, which will go live from courtside during pregame warmups. The game is also doubling as a Chinese New Year celebration, with Chinese media, fans, and one notable celebrity (who will be independently described to me on multiple occasions by several different people, including her PR handler, as “Chinese Rihanna”) all eager to meet Iverson as part of his lengthy to-do list.

Iverson lives in Charlotte these days, but makes a handful of contractually obligated appearances a year for the Sixers as a … as a what? Fan favorite? Ambassador? Celebrity? None of those are individually sufficient descriptors, but they’re all true. It has been 10 years since Iverson last played in the NBA, wrapping up his Hall of Fame career with the same franchise that drafted him—a retirement send-off that culminated in the Sixers gifting him a personalized fishing boat with an outboard motor for reasons that are still unclear to me—but he remains as wildly popular among locals today as he did a decade ago. (Imagine if, oh, I dunno, Jimmy Rollins wore a Yankees hat to a Phillies game. And then ask yourself whether Rollins would make it halfway to the nearest exit before the new mutated Phillie Phanatic body-slammed him as punishment.) There is a deep and enduring attachment and affection between Iverson and the city that can be hard to fully explain or appreciate unless you’re from here. The only requirement for him to be showered with love is the same now as ever: He just has to show up.

That is sometimes an issue. During divorce proceedings in 2013, Iverson’s ex-wife, Tawanna, testified that Iverson was not present for the birth of their daughter, Tiaura, in 1994. In 2015, journalist Kent Babb reported that after Iverson missed practice one day during his first tour of duty with the Sixers, he was drunk for the subsequent (and now infamous) press conference rant. More recently, the Sixers held an art exhibit with Reebok in November. I had been told for months that Iverson’s attendance was looking good—until it wasn’t. He didn’t make it. A Sixers staffer told me the franchise has learned not to fly Iverson up the night before an event because it tends to increase the odds that he won’t show; for this evening’s appearance, they put him on a flight from Charlotte this morning.

Iverson’s whereabouts at any given moment have been a local talking point for as long as I can remember, like a family member who is invited to all the holiday festivities but who you can never be sure will actually make it to the dinner table. But tonight, he is present and eager to get this latest reunion underway.

“Y’all ready?” Iverson asks the contingent waiting on him near the elevator. He says it like he’s been standing here the whole time, like he pulled off that Sixers uniform 10 years ago but never left. And in a lot of ways, that’s true. I spend most of the pregame and game in his company and, as with most things Iverson, our time together is a blur. We end up having five different Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk conversations, as his handlers rush him to and from countless grip-and-grin fan events and various media interviews all over the Wells Fargo Center before we eventually settle into seats in the alumni suite in the second half for a longer sitdown.

And so, if you’re wondering what Iverson is doing a decade removed from his final NBA season, the short answer is the same now as it was back when he played. Allen Iverson is content to do what he’s always done for as long as he can keep doing it: be Allen Iverson.

Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers
Rachel Nichols and Jalen Rose interview Iverson on The Jump before the Lakers-Sixers game in January
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

At the moment, being Allen Iverson means being a prop. That’s fine by him. He gets paid to do it, and it’s easy money. He is essentially a much more popular and better compensated mall Santa, and there’s a never-ending line of people eager to be in his company (if not sit in his lap). During a halftime meet-and-greet with season-ticket holders, four evidently overserved and overjoyed fans pack in so tightly around Iverson while trying to take a picture that they all almost topple backward into a 76ers-branded backdrop. Luckily Iverson catches himself and brushes it off. “Ain’t nothing,” he tells me. “I’m used to it.”

Still, he would prefer if, before he mugs for more pictures and shakes more hands and does more interviews, he could have his braids fixed. This is, after all, why his hair stylist is in tow. (Per usual, Iverson is accompanied by a large delegation, among them his longtime manager Gary Moore, his publicist—and Gary’s daughter—Shayla M. Prince, the aforementioned hair stylist and her daughter, and more than a few friends.) To Iverson’s dismay, he’s told his hair will have to wait. Then he’s whisked away to a windowless room on the event level of the arena, where Temple University is throwing a Chinese New Year celebration. The format here is the same as all his other stops: a roughly 10-minute flood of kids and adults eager for photos. The Temple Owl takes one with him. So does Temple University president Richard Englert, who offers Iverson his customary greeting: “You should have gone to Temple.”

“You say that to me every time,” Iverson replies.

Suddenly, the crowd parts and there’s a murmur in the room as Chinese Rihanna is introduced to Iverson. Her name is actually Vava. You might have caught her work in Crazy Rich Asians. Vava and Iverson pose for pictures together before being herded into another, much smaller windowless room for a joint interview with a Chinese TV station. China loves Iverson, and he loves China. The host informs Iverson that Vava has a surprise for him. As they sit side-by-side on the couch, she launches into a “prepared freestyle” in Chinese. Iverson bobs his head along and says, “She can flow.”

The host seems pleased and notes that Iverson was also a rapper. “Nah,” says Iverson, who once put out a song called “40 Bars” under the name Jewelz, much to the chagrin of David Stern, “I was an impostor.” When I ask Iverson later what he really thought of Vava, he says she sounded good but “I was really just listening for my name.” (I was also just listening for his name.)

When the rapping concludes, the host leads AI and Vava though a game of “marry, fuck, kill,” which has been rebranded “marry, do, kill.” By the look on his face, it appears no one briefed Iverson on this. There is also a twist. The host tells them that if they do not answer the questions, they’ll have to eat something “weird.” In Vava’s case, she does not like cheese, so an unopened wedge of cheese has been placed before her on top of a plastic cup full of ice. For Iverson, the host has selected something called a thousand-year egg, which has apparently been pickled for a long while and is black and discolored. It, too, is placed on the table on top of a plastic cup of ice. It seems Iverson has not been briefed on this, either.

“Wait,” he asks, “what do you want me to eat?”

Vava is asked to marry, do, kill Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, and Allen Iverson. She marries AI, does Tobias, kills Thybulle—which the host finds curious because a little earlier Chinese Rihanna said Thybulle is cute. Meanwhile, Iverson is asked to rank the following players in order from best to worst: Kobe, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and himself. He ranks them in that order, with himself last.

“I’m not trying to be arrogant,” Iverson says.

“You don’t want to eat the egg,” the host replies.

“I would rather not even see it.”

He also passes when they try to get him to smell it. Everyone finds this hilarious. As we walk and talk again, Iverson tells me the scene was “nothing new to me.” This is the job.

While he’s not physically around as much as he once was, Iverson still follows his old team. During one of his many media interviews this evening, he responds to a question about the Sixers’ disappointing season (relative to their preseason expectations) by noting that the team has had all five starters healthy and on the floor for only 19 games at that point in the season. He adds that they’ve had a winning record during that limited sample size. That’s something I hadn’t heard anyone mention, and it turns out to be true when I look it up.

“I know basketball,” Iverson tells me more than once. He’s expressed the same sentiment to Sixers general manager Elton Brand. While I was sitting in Brand’s office one day, he told me Iverson had called him just to say, “EB, Carmelo’s still got it.”

“This was way before he got signed” by Portland, Brand told me. “And Carmelo came back and was killing and I was like … you’re right. I never said Carmelo didn’t have it. On the record. Make sure that’s known. But he was right.”

When I relay the story to Iverson, he’s not so much pleased as surprised that anyone might doubt his judgment in the first place.

“Man,” Iverson says, drawing the word out, “look, what’s different for me than a lot of other guys or people, period—and I’m not saying I’m [James] Naismith or Red Auerbach or somebody like that—I just know basketball from a standpoint of guys that I played against and with all my life.”

It is the preamble to an oratorical iso. I have passed AI the ball, and he is all too happy to pound the rhetorical rock while we walk. “I know the heart of basketball players and the courage of basketball players,” Iverson continues. “I know the toughness of basketball players. I look at it a whole different way from a lot of people. … You’ve got to know the looks. You got to know the feelings. It’s hard to explain. That’s what I had, those certain feelings and instincts. I could look and tell if a player was scared. I could look and tell if a person was up for the challenge. I could look and tell if a guy was just doing it because his teammates and his coaching staff would kick his ass if he showed fear. And I could see if a motherfucker wasn’t scared. I just know basketball from that sense. Yeah, I know the X’s and O’s. That’s the easy part. But I know the dynamic around it all as far as the human part of it. The mind-set of it all, the thinking, the believing, the not believing, I know that part of it. I know who’s scared, who’s not scared. … I can tell. I can tell by looking at a person. I can tell by how they react in certain situations or whatever. That’s just stuff that I know that God gave me.”

For all of his bravado, it’s worth noting that guys he played with and against have stayed in basketball in some capacity. Brand and Malik Rose are NBA executives. Aaron McKie and Tim Duncan are coaches. Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber are broadcasters. Meanwhile, Iverson is still trying to figure out his next move. The subject of whether he wants back into the league is something we’ve discussed before. But now, just as he was then, the Answer is still struggling with the question. He thinks he’d make a good coach, but he’d never want to be a coach because the possibility of being unable to properly manage everyone’s egos for the betterment of the team would “frustrate the shit out of me,” because “that’s what it’s all about anyway.” (The irony here is not lost on either of us.) What he really wants sounds simple enough, though he acknowledges “there might not be a job description for it.”

“I just want a voice. I just want a voice,” he says. “If I had a voice to help a team that mattered, that would be what I want, as opposed to coaching.”

He thinks his difficult-to-define dream job would involve “getting the right personalities together and the right talent together.” Iverson believes he could “definitely be a big-time consultant” where teams would go to him for “some type of opinion to matter.” He says that he and his manager hear things and talk to teams, but nothing formal has been discussed and, besides, you can’t rush these things.

“The situation has got to be right for me to transition to such a serious job like that,” Iverson says. “Everything would have to be right. I would have to be 100 percent ready. I’m saying I could do a good job. But that’s something that if it presented itself, that I might still turn down. I got a lot going on.”

Which raises the question: What, exactly, does Iverson have going on these days? Reebok famously signed him to a lifetime contract that reportedly pays him $800,000 a year. The deal also has a trust fund with a $32 million lump sum he can collect in 2030 when he turns 55 (though The Washington Post reported that half that amount will go to his ex-wife, Tawanna, with whom Iverson says he is still close; they have five children together ranging in age from 11 to 25). When I ask him to describe a typical day, he says he takes his kids to school and spends time with them—something he admits he didn’t often do during his playing days—then pauses for a long time to think. He says he and his manager are trying hard to “better ourselves and our business and our brand.” He’s also working on an autobiography. It’s as yet untitled and doesn’t have a release date, but he’s excited about it.

“That’s what I like to do,” Iverson says about writing the book. “You get a chance to reminisce and talk about things that people don’t know. And you get to tell from your perspective. And that’s the great part. Especially for my fans.”

He has always loved being himself. Years ago, after he retired, I asked him who the Sixers should select in the draft. He replied almost immediately: “They have another Allen Iverson?” That was a very Iverson response. In an NBA TV documentary about his life, Iverson memorably said that after he dies he wants to come back as himself and do it all over again. In a way, that’s exactly what these Sixers appearances are about.

Being Allen Iverson isn’t as easy as it once was. For a certain generation of players, coaches, and fans, Iverson is an icon. He’s said so himself over the years. “I said it,” Iverson tells me again, “because I am.” More than one person has drawn a direct line from Iverson’s cornrows and distinctive style in the late ’90s and early 2000s to former NBA commissioner David Stern’s infamous dress code—including and unsurprisingly Iverson himself.

“Not only the wardrobe traces back to Allen, and I’m gonna go out on a limb here, but also inclusion and diversity traces back to Allen,” Brand said. “You can have tattoos. You can have cornrows or whatever.” Brand called Iverson a “trailblazer,” someone who for a time was as famous, if ultimately not as talented or successful, as Michael Jordan. “Among our peers, he was a celebrity,” Brand continued. “He was a celebrity in other areas, like hip-hop, doing a commercial with Jadakiss. He crossed over into other arenas that I think other players, star players … were kind of envious of. They wanted to be part of the culture. They wanted to be respected. But he actually did it.”

During the same period, Iverson was just as revered as a basketball player. Sixers head coach Brett Brown recently told me a story about being an assistant under Gregg Popovich at the All-Star Game one year and being wowed by all the Hall of Fame talent in the locker room. He ticked off names like Kobe and Garnett and Duncan. “And you look over at AI,” Brown said, “and he’s taking his shirt off and he’s just a bag of bones. He’s just thin, you can see his rib cage, and he’s got those long arms. When you’re looking around, that’s a different body. And you just watched him compete, holy shit. Like, really, just elite, elite stuff.”

Viewed through the lens of today’s often dogmatic pace-and-space, ball-movement, anti-midrange era, Iverson’s distinctive high-usage, hero-ball-heavy game might seem retroactively anachronistic. If we took his PER and box plus-minus from his MVP campaign and applied them to this current season, he’d rank 12th and 10th, respectively, in those categories. And yet, if we did the same exercise with win shares and value over replacement player, Iverson would be first and third, according to Basketball-Reference.

It is, of course, a much different game today than it was then. While player empowerment and superteam building are now commonplace, Iverson dragged the 2000-01 Sixers to the NBA Finals for the first time in nearly two decades with a supporting cast of Dikembe Mutombo, George Lynch, Eric Snow, and Aaron McKie, none of whom averaged as many as 12 points per game. For someone so slight during his playing days, his ability to single-handedly carry his team was a worthy feat of strength—which is why LeBron once called him “pound for pound the greatest player ever.” That’s a legacy that the young, skinny stars of today proudly promote. Or, to put it into condensed Brett Brown parlance: “[Iverson] had some shit to him.”

If you ask Brown, there’s no real mystery to what he called Iverson’s “cultlike status” in town. That’s when he paused and insisted we go tour the weight room in the Sixers’ Camden, N.J., practice facility. He wanted to show me something that he figured said it all rather than tell another story. There on the back wall was a giant mural of Iverson along with a single word: heart.

Of course, establishing Iverson’s bona fides by mentioning him in the same sentence as Duncan or KG—or, for that matter, Jadakiss—necessarily dates him. There’s a whole generation of young Process-era Sixers fans who don’t have the same emotional attachment to Iverson because they’ve only seen him play in fuzzy standard-definition YouTube clips. He was the Rookie of the Year, a four-time scoring champ, seven-time All-NBA selection, and 11-time All-Star. He is a Hall of Famer by any measure—and yet Iverson never won a championship and does not hold a host of individual NBA records that will live on long after he’s gone. (He is fourth all time in career minutes per game at 41.1, which is the kind of effort-based achievement that Philly tends to adore and everyone else ignores.) His legacy is more closely tied to the same nebulous words he used to describe why he’d be an asset to an NBA team: emotions and instincts. The indelible moments that immediately come to mind when you think about his career—crossing over Jordan, stepping over Ty Lue, calling out for “my coach,” putting his hand to his ear and playing to the crowd like Hulk Hogan—all have little to do with stats and more to do with what Brown was getting at. Iverson had some shit to him. There’s no all-time leaderboard for that.

As he comes off the court following his pregame interview with ESPN, LeBron, Dwight Howard, and Frank Vogel all stop to pay their respects, while the crowd immediately turns its attention from the current players to their old favorite. People in the stands scream his name while we walk by, and security has to clear a path. One man reaches out to grab his arm and I hear him say he just wants to “touch the god.” The way Iverson sees it, these people grew up with him and understand “their hero is not perfect.”

There’s plenty of evidence to support Iverson’s admission. As Babb detailed, things got so bad for Iverson financially after he retired that he turned out his pants pockets and yelled to Tawanna during the divorce hearing “I don’t even have money for a cheeseburger”—a dark period in his life during which he lost custody of his kids and also had his $4.5 million Atlanta mansion foreclosed on. Around the same time, he was drinking and gambling heavily enough that Stephen A. Smith wrote a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer imploring people to “pray” for Iverson, while former teammate Roshown McLeod told The Washington Post that Iverson had “hit rock bottom, he just hasn’t accepted it yet.” Iverson still drinks, and as recently as 2017 he was spotted by TMZ gambling late into the night/early morning at a casino in a Chicago suburb before skipping a Big 3 game. That particular incident drew attention because the game was in Dallas and Iverson was the coach and captain of the team he bailed on.

And yet, through it all, Sixers fans cheer him whenever he’s back in town. To Iverson, the relationship works because there’s no pretense.

“They know who the fuck I am,” he says.

“I told y’all I know basketball!” Iverson shouts. I’m not sure what prompts this latest proclamation, because I am engaged in a conversation with a friend of Iverson’s, who has never heard of Shake Milton and seems fairly certain I made him up.

We are back in the alumni suite. It is the third quarter and the room is packed—people passing here and there with plates of sushi and shrimp, wings and pizza. Beers and booze flow. Iverson’s commitments for the evening are over. Now he gets to hang out with his friends and watch the game.

“Seeing all the season-ticket holders,” Iverson says, looking around at the fans, “and seeing the familiar faces wherever they’re at in the crowd that made you recognize them. I still see all the people from way up here that holler stuff and we had our own personal relationship. It was mad shit. Man, this is it for me. I am this. This is me.”

While we were walking and talking all night, Iverson would regularly and randomly sing lines from Faith Evans’s “Love Like This.” Now he’s singing it to himself in the suite while we watch the game. Maybe Iverson’s book will be a success. Maybe he’ll get back into basketball in some capacity and find someone to listen to his voice in a way that doesn’t involve games of marry, fuck, kill. But it seems that what he wants more than any of that is for all these people, to paraphrase Iverson himself, to keep knowing who the fuck he is.

Before the third quarter ends, someone taps me on the shoulder. An arena cameraman has been waiting patiently for me to wrap up so they can throw Iverson on the giant new expensive Wells Fargo Center HD scoreboard. AI beams. He gets to be Allen Iverson for the crowd once more.

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