The Answer to ‘The Answer’
A look into Allen Iverson off the court
Chucky Atkins wouldn’t reveal “The Answer” as to who our superstar lunch guest was, but it was an unforgettable surprise.
Neither the then-Denver Nuggets guard or myself could remember the exact date, but it was in the summer of the late 2000s. We were both wearing the expected business casual at an upscale steakhouse in Orlando, Florida, when Allen Iverson walked in. The now Hall of Famer was unapologetically doing him, per usual, as he appeared much more ready for a rap video shoot than a petite filet mignon on a white tablecloth.
“A.I. had on white linen shorts, a white Louis Vuitton shirt with a leather collar with leather that also ran down the middle where the buttons were,” Atkins, Iverson’s longtime friend and former Nuggets teammate, said to me. “Remember those old Jay Z Reeboks? He was wearing the S. Carter low-top Reeboks with no socks and basketball shorts. There was a baseball cap and do-rag, too.
“We went out to the club later that night. He left the shirt in my car and I still got it.”
I’ve enjoyed a meal with numerous current and former NBA stars over the course of 17 years of covering the league. It’s a cool part of the blessing of a job ESPN’s The Undefeated has afforded me. You get to know the world’s best basketball players on a business, and at times a personal level.
But of all those times – which include lunch with Clyde Drexler in Sarajevo, a cold one with Kobe Bryant in Salt Lake City, breakfast with Chris Andersen at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and Charles Barkley anywhere – the most memorable NBA meal was with Iverson. What stood out to me was that the then-2001 NBA MVP told amazing story after amazing story, all of which while standing next to our table. Seriously. Each story was told with enthusiasm while standing next to our table at a ritzy steakhouse.
It was Iverson, quite comfortable in his hip-hop garb, chewing on the best of bovine, engaging his audience with every word. Surprisingly, the majority of the mostly nonblack patrons didn’t feel like their meal was disturbed at all by his boisterous nature. It was A.I., man. The 11-time NBA All-Star was bigger than the NBA. Everyone knew who he was, whether they liked basketball or not, and was trying to listen in to what “The Answer” was saying.
“It was always laughter and a good time when you ate with him. You could always let your hair down and be who you are with A.I.,” Atkins said. “He’s a genuine, down-to-earth, loyal dude, almost to a fault. He won’t sugarcoat nothing. You might not want to hear what he has to say, but it’s real and from the bottom of his heart. You can’t do nothing but respect that.”
The super combo guard was the only NBA player I’ve ever known who asked and was granted the ability to do his postgame home interviews immediately after the buzzer so he could rush to who knows where.
I thought I was certified cool when Iverson addressed me by my first name not long after he joined the Nuggets, after being dealt by his beloved Philadelphia 76ers in December 2006. A 15-minute scheduled interview for a story in the Denver Post before the 2007 NBA All-Star Game ended up being a 45-minute interview, thanks to his love of telling stories and his comfort level with me.
Iverson dripped swag long before swag was a term anyone used. It will always be one of the highlights of my writing career covering someone so unique on and off the hardwood. But just as I began to foolishly believe I was within a mile of a Stephen A. Smith-range relationship with the four-time NBA scoring champion, he set me straight after I asked for his phone number before the offseason. It was important for the Nuggets beat writer to get contact information for as many of the players as possible for the offseason. Iverson thought otherwise, as he made it clear he understandably only trusted me to a certain extent.
“What we gonna do, Marc? Hang out. Go to the club? Go to dinner? Man, I will see you in October.”
So instead, any comment from Iverson would come from his spokesman Gary Moore.
Denver didn’t have a lot for a “brotha” in his 20s to do and was definitely too small for Iverson. Wherever the Nuggets, Broncos and handful of black dudes on the Rockies hung out was typically where the rest of the black folks looking for nightlife would be: “The Mile High City.” So it wasn’t unusual to see Iverson out and about from time to time commanding a room at some nightspot without even trying.
He also enjoyed playing pool at Dave & Buster’s in Denver. The former Georgetown University star loved playing cards against his teammates. Perhaps there was a dollar or two involved. I was never allowed to attend any of those off-court competitions, but ex-Nuggets player liaison Dwayne Molyneaux recalled those good times, adding that the best Iverson stories couldn’t be repeated.
“If A.I. knew you, he’d give you the shirt off his back,” Molyneaux told me. “But if he didn’t, he was guarded. I remember being with him in [Denver’s] Cherry Creek Mall sometimes, and he didn’t like people going up to him. He wouldn’t sign autographs for nothing. He knew if he started signing autographs his day was done, because he’d be signing for hours.”
There certainly was a watchful eye on Iverson when he and then-young NBA star Carmelo Anthony joined forces, to figure out whether the two could co-exist. The two former Olympic teammates, however, had no problems on and off the court. Iverson was perhaps too unselfish at first in Denver.
Seeing the two tattooed NBA stars in cornrows take over visiting arenas was worth the price of admission before the game even started. It didn’t matter if you were white-collar or from the ‘hood, the only hotter NBA ticket was maybe Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. To female NBA fans, nothing beat the A.I.-Melo combo, as there always seemed to be more women than normal at games wearing No. 3 and No. 15 powder blue Nuggets jerseys, respectively, when they came to town. Those adoring lady fans screamed at the top of their lungs when Iverson and Anthony were introduced in the starting lineups or scored many of their baskets.
“A.I. and Melo had a great relationship, to be honest with you,” Molyneaux said. “Lot of playing card games going on. Both guys were the ultimate competitors. Who didn’t want to hang out with A.I. at that time? Melo didn’t want to take a backseat, but they didn’t want to step on each other toes.
“Melo like to do his own thing, but they were really close. Them dudes were rock stars. I don’t think Denver knew how big they actually were. That was during the cornrow era, too. Women loved A.I. It’s not that they didn’t love Melo, but they just loved the way A.I. carried himself.”
The growing question to Iverson once he arrived in Denver was how long could he be “A.I.”?
It was no secret that Iverson didn’t do much to keep himself in shape or strengthen his gift of a body in the offseason. Even as one of the greatest athletes the sports world has ever known, he began slowing down once he reached his 30s in Denver. The Sixers quietly believed they were seeing the beginning of the end of A.I., which is the reason that then-general manager Billy King traded the cash cow star for Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two first-round picks in the 2007 NBA draft.
After being dealt from Denver, Iverson told ESPN’s Scoop Jackson that his one season with Detroit Pistons during the 2007-08 season was “the worst of my career” since he believed then-coach Michael Curry was dishonest about not making him a starter. It actually got worse when Iverson signed with the Memphis Grizzlies before the 2009-10 NBA season. The Grizzlies had a young and unproven backcourt they had high hopes for in Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo. Iverson didn’t play in the preseason and only practiced three days due to a hamstring injury. In his first game with the Grizzlies, he oddly came off the bench to score 11 points in 18 minutes in a road loss to the Sacramento Kings.
Iverson’s most historic quotes came from his renowned, “We’re talking about practice … ,” rant with the Sixers. But after that Kings game, he had a darker rant much less circulated as he vocally made it clear to the media, the coaches and the teammates in the visiting locker room that he was unhappy coming off the bench and should start. While Iverson didn’t say who he should be starting over, it was presumed to be Conley. A stunned Mayo stood stoically in front of his locker listening to every word. Last year he told me he still remembered that night very well.
“I’ve never been a reserve all my life and I’m not going to start looking at myself as a reserve. If we’re winning, I can play 10 minutes and I’m happy. When we’re losing, that’s when I trip out,” Iverson told me after the infamous rant.
One Grizzlies player said that the franchise was in a tough place dealing with “a legend versus trying to build Mike’s confidence.” Iverson actually looked good against the Kings and may have eventually taken over Conley’s starting position until that loud locker room rant. When his emotions began to settle, before I departed from the locker room, I asked Iverson what was the real reason he was so upset?
“What are my people going to think,” he quietly replied while sitting in front of his locker reading text messages on his phone.
My presumption was “his people” were his family and friends. Perhaps, it was the fans, too. While it was tough to digest, Iverson probably knew in his heart that his window of being “A.I.” was coming to a close physically. Mentally, not being his old self had to be painful.
The Grizzlies waived Iverson shortly after. Fittingly, he played his last NBA games with the Sixers that season. He ended his professional career with a short and already forgotten stint in Turkey.
Iverson didn’t get the storybook ending to his NBA playing career. But neither did former Washington Wizards star Michael Jordan. Everyone can’t go out with a stunning 60-point finale like Bryant, who had major struggles last season, too. It’s always odd to see icons come off the bench at the end of their NBA careers, like Grant Hill, and Vince Carter, and Paul Pierce to do it now. There is no blueprint given to the NBA elite on the best time to retire or how to adapt to going from superstar to role player. For Iverson, his end was as hard as any NBA icon endured. But as time passes, “A.I.” will be certainly more remembered for averaging 26.7 points per game scoring average at 6-foot-0 than his days with the Grizzlies.
“As much as he was loved and they loved to see him, you are put in situations you never been before and you don’t know how to handle it,” Atkins said. “He was the face of the NBA for years. He transcended the NBA. He was the reason for ‘The Dress Code.’ He took a team with role players and took him to the Finals.
“He didn’t handle that [Memphis] situation the best, but this was a part of his growing process. He was on a team that had not done a whole lot at the time and he was a former MVP. You built up the Allen Iverson brand to what it is. You want to live that to the very last day.”
Iverson will get a storybook ending of a different kind on Friday when he enters the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Shaquille O’Neal’s speech will certainly be humorous and entertaining. Yao Ming could have a mix of Mandarin and English.
As for Iverson, there hasn’t been a Hall of Fame speech in Springfield as anticipated since Jordan. Just like that summer day at the steakhouse, I expect an emotional Iverson to be entertaining – in an uncomfortable suit this time instead of that Louis Vuitton shirt and baseball cap.
“There isn’t a more deserving person. I talked to him about it and I know it means a lot to him,” Atkins said. “We as athletes will always downplay things. I wouldn’t be surprised if he cries, because he’s that sensitive as a guy.”