‘The Answer’ Needed A Question





GORDONVILLE – Independent filmmakers and recording artists will tell you they are content where they are, but most are in violation of the commandment about bearing false witness (lying).

They’d rather be recognized at the Academy Awards than the Sundance Film Festival, or be on a major label playing big venues than singing for their supper.

The same could be said about the vast majority of sports writers who claim inner peace without ever covering big-time collegiate or professional sports.

I should know, because I was one – for 13 of my 25 years in newspapers.

My first assignments were Little League, followed by high school events in all sorts of weather conditions or in packed gymnasiums with little to no elbow room to think or breathe.

If you want accurate statistics, you have to keep them yourself. If you want quotes from both teams, when a school bus already has the motor running for the visiting team, you best get to stepping.

The fuel that keeps your half-empty tank going is that it will all lead to something more allegedly glamorous one day. For me, that day came in 1997, when I was assigned to cover the Philadelphia 76ers.

Truth be told, it would have been a distant third on my list of pro beats, but I wasn’t about to complain.

I expect a major culture shock, going from scholastic sports to the pros, but the real shock is that I was still dealing with a lot of immature athletes who lacked the power of consequential thinking.

No one epitomized this more than Allen Iverson, who officially retired on Wednesday – and then watched from a box as the Sixers stunned the world champion Miami Heat – a few years after his playing career was prematurely put on life support.

Iverson was contrite and tearful when he made his announcement, and I don’t doubt his veracity.

He always wore his heart on his sleeve, and no naysayer can take that away.

On the court, a small player among giants, it worked to his advantage. Off the court, where he was as hard to handle as an errant pass against a full-court press, the opposite was often true.

The Allen Iverson I came in contact with in 1997 was an angry young man who blew off interviews and could be heard saying he “(expletive) hated (expletive) reporters” on occasion, while seeking high fives from whichever teammate was willing to play the role of temporary sycophant.

After his junior year of high school, he had been incarcerated – seemingly unjustly – and perhaps blamed the media, more so than the justice system, for that scenario.

The beat writers, though, weren’t trying to get him convicted on appeal. We just wanted a coherent quote after a game or at practice, and we ran with any morsel he grudgingly gifted for us like a pre-epiphany Ebenezer Scrooge.

I remember one guy coming all the way from Japan, for that country’s equivalent of Sports Illustrated, and staying two weeks waiting for an interview that never came.

All the Sixers employees could do was gingerly approach Iverson and ask if they had time for the guy. The answer was always no.

We weren’t asking for inner most thoughts on the meaning of life and death, just something simple from the players who just dropped 30 points in a dramatic win. Quotes from the more approachable teammates – Eric Snow, Aaron McKie, George Lynch, etc. – were nice, but when the three maybe had 12 points between them, it was not ideal.

If Iverson got out of bed on the right side and actually spoke at practice, some of my cohorts would actually go up to him the next day and thank him for talking to them like people with jobs to do.

I wasn’t playing that game. And I wasn’t long for the beat.

After my second season, the strike-shortened 1998 campaign that saw the team turn a corner and reach the second round of the playoffs behind the play of Iverson and coaching of Larry Brown, the landscape – as is apt to happen in the roller-coaster world of journalism – changed.

I was covering college hoops and keeping a keen eye, one now blessed with an insider’s insight, on the Sixers as they climbed Iverson’s shoulders to the summit of his time here. The Sixers reached the finals in 2001, falling to the Lakers in five games.

Even then, I didn’t miss the beat.

There was only one time when I did yearn to be back in that press room with Iverson at the podium, which was during the infamous press conference in April of 2002. That’s when Iverson said “practice, we’re talkin’ about practice” in a confrontational and derisive tone that, as he pointed out recently, made for a nice sound bite.

Another question arose about his conditioning, and he wondered why he needed to get “all swolled up” by lifting weights.

And no one asked the obvious follow-up question – at least not on camera. It was that working out would and should and could extend his career, or at least extend his prime.

No one was saying he had to be Charles Atlas – let alone Vinnie Johnson – but he owed it to himself, if not his employer and adoring fans, to put in the same effort in the gym that he did
playing more than 40 minutes a night for 82 games on the court.

But Iverson, like those high school athletes I covered, thought he was invincible.

He thought wrong.

Give me a vote for the Hall of Fame, and I put all personal feelings aside and put him in there with the other greats of the game.

An 11-time NBA All-Star (a two-time MVP of the all-star game), Iverson was the Rookie of Year (1996-97) and the league MVP (2000-01). Known as “The Answer,” he led the league in scoring four times and in steals three times.

What would keep him out? Beyond not winning a title, there is a legacy sullied by the clumsy way it ended.

Iverson’s lack of dedication off the court came back to haunt him in later years. He turned into a nomad faster than you can say “air ball.”

After averaging 26.4 points per game in 82 games for Denver in 2007-08, his production took a precipitous and permanent dip after being dealt to Detroit the following season. After three games in Memphis, he returned back to the Sixers for 25 games (averaging 13.9 points for an
atrocious team) in 2009-10.

He was never seen in the league again, and only played for pay just 10 more times – during an ignominious 10-game stint in Turkey, hoops hot bed that it isn’t.

There were no offers to play other than, in January of this year, from the Texas Legends of the NBA’s Developmental League.

Look up adding insult to injury in the dictionary, and there it is.

All careers end, and all superstars see their skills erode, but Iverson didn’t help himself with a head that was more “all swolled up” than his body.

And the media he despised didn’t do him any favors by not asking “The Answer” a simple question about the consequences of his actions.

And that’s no lie.

This column can also be found at http://www.phillyphanatics.com

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