Allen Iverson will soon announce that he's retiring from basketball. You're excused if you thought he had already retired, since he last played professionally with Beşiktaş in the Turkish Basketball League in 2011 and his most recent semi-public appearance involved gin-eyed, intensely grim jokes about his willingness to play Russian roulette. As it stands, he's more an object of concern -- Kent Babb chronicled just how depressing his life has gotten for the Washington Post back in April -- than someone you would expect to show up on an NBA or European team's roster. It's easy to view Iverson's forthcoming announcement as a doleful, belated acknowledgement that something he thought was still happening has already been over for a while, but finally everyone, perhaps last of all Iverson, has accepted that an ending has taken place. In the eyes of an optimist, this is occasion for Iverson, now that he realizes he will never be anything like what he was again, to assume dominion over his fate. He's only 38. People make mistakes, as he's fond of saying, the implication being that they can correct them.
At endings, we tend to reflect on what has transpired, and I've always been eager to write about the time Iverson sat down with Stephen A. Smith for the inaugural episode of Smith's doomed sports chat show Quite Frankly. He wore a camouflage tee shirt with that famous picture of Biggie and Pac hanging out melted onto the front and a black Dodgers cap pulled down over his eyes. The Sixers had just hired Mo Cheeks, and Chris Webber had been traded to Philadelphia that past February. (Neither of those moves turned out well.) Iverson talked with a fawning Smith for 41 minutes about Larry Brown, media scrutiny and searching for his wife with a gun tucked into the back of his waistband. It's one of the most fascinating interviews I've ever watched. Here's a link to the low-quality YouTube video.
One of the things you'll notice in watching Iverson talk is that he doesn't present a coherent version of his worldview or himself. He "[doesn't] have an ego," but he occasionally refers to himself in the third person. He says he gets along with his coaches, then admits that he had constant spats with Larry Brown because he didn't understand what Brown was trying to teach him. (Not to mention that he definitely didn't jibe with the beleaguered, then-recently fired Jim O'Brien.) He says he advises young stars -- then T-Mac, LeBron, et al. -- to "be fake" if they have to, and a minute later, while on a tangent about Kobe Bryant's sexual assault case, he insists: "Don't try to act like you're somebody else -- and not saying that [Kobe] did. Kobe Bryant is who Kobe Bryant is."
Iverson seems to lapse into self-contradiction not because he's confused but because he thinks these contradictory things all at once, and they come bursting out of him as a sort of sentiment salad. A lot of this has to do with the discrepancy between who he wants to be and who he is. He says he gets along with coaches because he wants to get along with coaches. He understands that his coach is "the guy that's trying to accomplish the same things that I'm trying to accomplish," if not in every moment. He wants to be selfless and have no ego, but also knows he doesn't play the game selflessly all the time. In fact, he owns up to wanting to express himself on the court, to test out his abilities and see if some hare-brained maneuver might just work. The advice Iverson gives the league's younger stars is to essentially not be like him, while at the same time admitting he can't help speaking his mind. There is an incorrigibility to Iverson, one that even he glancingly laments.
What emerges most prominently from that interview, and the reason I've watched it so many times, is how adamantly Iverson asserts his humanity and the humanity of his famous colleagues. He circles back to it several times. "I'm not even 50 percent perfect," he says when asked who, precisely, Allen Iverson is. On that aforementioned Kobe tangent, he mentions that "Kobe Bryant is Kobe Bryant" and not "the Kobe Bryant that [other people] want him to be." The reason Iverson warns LeBron and others to tread carefully is because he knows there are talking heads, radio blowhards and grouchy columnists out there waiting for them to slip up and tear them down. He speaks fondly of John Thompson, who threatened to pull his Georgetown team off the court when a handful of mean-spirited Villanova fans showed up at a game in prisoner outfits and chains, holding a sign comparing Iverson with O.J Simpson. "Some people get scared of who you are" might be the most concise and accurate description of Iverson's public life I've ever heard. Iverson is an objectivist: He demands that you view him through the prism of his actions and make your own determination. He protests against both the canonization and vilification of athletes. They are, after all, just people.
This insistence that I am me, and I am problematic and strange and complicated frames everything else Iverson says. He's happy with who God and his mother made, but also doesn't seem to fully grasp who that person is. He loves Philadelphia while kind of hating the sports media culture of the city. There's an awkward moment where he describes "guys that like other guys," and the audience laughs because homosexuality is apparently a punch line in that room. There are a lot of moments that are not entirely one thing or another: impassioned but foolish, angry but touching. The interview is essentially an inscrutable monologue interrupted only occasionally by Smith, one that you will likely interpret differently than I do, because Iverson only gives you himself. You're left to make sense of a person -- in only 41 minutes, at that -- as opposed to a sales pitch or a purposefully affected persona.
This website's Will Leitch has expressed repeatedly that he's not sure why athletes ever say anything interesting to reporters because they have nothing to gain from doing so. I think I agree -- and obviously, lots of athletes and their agents do as well, given the magnitude of boring athlete interviews -- but the answer to Leitch's rhetorical question might be this: Because some athletes cannot be anything besides themselves. A majority of athletes probably aren't terribly introspective or fun to talk to because most people aren't either of those things, but there must also be athletes who are engaging and insightful who willfully bite their tongues because it doesn't suit their interests -- or that of their team, bank account, or personal brands -- to be candid. Allen Iverson is the rare athlete who, at his peak, was both interesting and willing to indulge our interest in him.
Iverson is now only morbidly fascinating. He doesn't do interviews, either because he doesn't want to talk about what he's going through or thinks the media will only bury him further. It's hard not to think he's also a little ashamed of what's happened to him. Given the distance fandom permits us, incorrigibility can be an endearing trait. Professional sports are an intensely regimented system, and some of us get a thrill out of watching players who refuse to be institutionalized. We root for athletes who help us believe that rules are meant to be broken, if only we're extraordinary enough. But Allen Iverson isn't an athlete anymore; he's just a recently divorced guy who seems to have a not-great relationship with his kids. He's also short on money, and appears to have a drinking problem. He is one of those interesting people who, it turns out, is interesting in part because he's screwed up and perhaps fatally flawed. I'm not even sure what to do with that information, it's so disquieting. I hope Allen Iverson does.