Up Next

Commentary

Allen Iverson’s hugs are a ritual black men should embrace

A.I. and Dwyane Wade’s viral hug teaches us about humanity

Other than my dad or grandfather, the first black man whose hug I found distinctive was a fellow church member named Jeff Grant. He was a Sunday school teacher and a mentor.

You know how when brothas hug, it’s dap first, then you pull in for the hug and pat on the back? Mr. Grant wasn’t about that at all. Every time I saw him and led with my right hand to dap him up, he would politely smack my hand away and stretch out his arms for a hug. I didn’t really appreciate the gesture until Mr. Grant died. I remember how his death resonated through the church, and even more so with his family.

I thought about Mr. Grant when I saw Allen Iverson hug both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade during All-Star Weekend in Chicago. The gesture isn’t uncommon to A.I. His embrace of Jimmy Butler in November 2018 when Butler was with the Philadelphia 76ers also went viral.

The thing is, it’s not just that Iverson is boldly showing his affection for today’s players. There’s a visual and almost visceral feeling that comes from these hugs. There’s not just mutual feelings. There’s also mutual healing.

Those hugs are revelatory and refreshing because we often fail to see the human side of athletes and entertainers. That failure is intensified when one realizes that so much of the black struggle is related to society’s failure to treat us as human beings — “three-fifths human.”

And yet, that A.I. hug just hits differently. It’s like one of Granny’s hugs when the grandbabies come around. Those hugs last forever. He’ll embrace a player and it’s clear that he’s saying something affirming in the moment. He’ll release the hug, dap up a player, then hug him again, as if he’s sealing love and declaration into that person’s life.

Lord knows the person who’s doing the hugging needs it as much as the person who’s being hugged. We’ve heard the stories about Iverson’s tough upbringing and how he turned a childhood of injustice and adversity into an NBA and cultural tour de force. And while A.I. will always be remembered as a Sixer, those stops in Memphis, Tennessee, and Detroit made sense as well. His life has always been about the grit and the grind, and A.I.’s biggest motor is his heart.

He is, to quote the late Tupac Shakur, the rose that grew from concrete. He is, to quote Ossie Davis’ assessment of Malcolm X, our manhood — our living, black manhood.

Those hugs are revelatory and refreshing because we often fail to see the human side of athletes and entertainers. That failure is intensified when one realizes that so much of the black struggle is related to society’s failure to treat us as human beings — “three-fifths human.”

It doesn’t get any more real than Iverson. His triumphs, his failures, his emotions are so palpable that I think sometimes even he can’t believe he made it. I think that’s why he periodically tears up in interviews as he reminisces about his life.

No one ever questions those tears, either. As much as the late Kobe Bryant is the best player of his generation, A.I. is the model of authenticity for that same generation.

As much as we criticize that era for its brashness, that era is the gap between Michael Jordan and the successes of the NBA that we see today. When you look at the details of Iverson’s Instagram page, you see both the young man who looks up to Michael Jordan as well as the “spiritual” elder who big-ups Stephen Curry. In an age where media almost dictates we tear each other down and compare eras, A.I. does the opposite, and people love him for it.

Now, about that love and about these hugs. I read an opinion piece by Jeff Perera recently with this headline: Telling Male Friends ‘I Love You’ Is a Muscle Guys Need to Flex Every Day.

The importance of using muscles we don’t normally use became more relatable to me in the aftermath of a recent injury. During physical therapy sessions, I wondered why seemingly easy exercises created tension and exertion.

My physical therapist had a simple answer: “Because you don’t work those muscles out as much.”

Brothers, we gotta work it out. We have to continue to reassure and reinforce each other. The “head nod” is an understood, albeit silent language. We have to speak up and tell each other, “I love you.”

The fact that A.I. can be the face of that movement in a sport that unfairly harbors stereotypes about black men — and dunks on said clichés — is something I can wrap my arms around.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his son.