Allen Iverson and The People We Create From Nothing

I just finished reading “Not a Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson,” and it forced me to face some harsh realities about Allen Iverson

Like so many basketball obsessed teenagers in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I loved Allen Iverson. I loved the way he played basketball. I loved how he dominated despite being the smallest guy on the court. I loved that he didn’t seem to care what anyone thought. I loved the image the media helped him cultivate. I loved the shooting sleeve, tattoos, cornrows, and baggy clothes. Above all, I loved watching him try to take on the world.

Which is why I couldn’t wait to read Kent Babb’s new book: “Not a Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson.” After reading it, I discovered that hidden beneath everything I remembered so fondly about Iverson, it seems he was also a self destructive and deeply troubled human being.

One who allegedly squandered his millions, mistreated his wife and children, and drowned his sorrows in alcohol. Perhaps most telling of all, Iverson’s key characteristic in the book was convincing people to give him another chance, only to make those people regret they ever thought he could change.

Even as many unflattering reports about Iverson’s personal life continued to surface in recent years, I was hesitant to admit he was anything other than the person I had created in my head well over a decade ago. I refused to let these recent reports interfere with the nostalgia of Iverson slashing through the lane, winning the MVP, and leading Philadelphia to the NBA Finals many years ago.

But nothing lasts forever, and I can finally admit that Allen Iverson is not, and never was, the person I had created in my head as I watched him in that Sixers jersey terrorizing defenders and head coaches alike. But this is ultimately my fault, not Iverson’s. I wanted him to be something more than just a guy who played basketball. I wanted to believe that he was someone worth admiring.

It’s not that I was necessarily wrong about who or what Allen Iverson was back then; it’s just that I didn’t know the full breadth of who or what he was. And there’s no way I could have known who Iverson was when those lights were turned off and there weren’t 25,000 screaming fans hanging on his every movement.

But that didn’t stop me from thinking I did.

It was difficult to imagine that he might be someone completely different away from the court. The guy who gives 100% of himself to his team and teammates on the court does the same for his wife and family when the cameras aren’t rolling, right? Though naive, this logic seemed to make sense at the time.

But what makes sense now is that Allen Iverson, as I had built him up, was a person I created from nothing. Not only does he not exist now, he never existed to begin with. The things that shaped my view about Iverson had nothing to do with the person he actually was.

I saw him play basketball on TV. And it was awesome. I saw him speak at press conferences. And it was entertaining. I saw him peddling Reebok gear in commercials. And I owned a few pairs of his sneakers. But none of that indicated anything about who Allen Iverson was off the court.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from creating an image of Iverson in my head that was based on an extremely limited amount of information. Despite what Reebok and the 76ers would have me believe, I knew nothing about Iverson away from the game of basketball. I had created my own personal version of Allen Iverson that wasn’t based on much more than watching him play basketball and wanting to like him. Wanting to believe.

My experience with Iverson is not unlike our experience with many other people in our lives. People who we build up in our heads only to be disappointed when we find out that they’re flawed and human like everyone else. And in these cases, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. We should know better than to expect any human being to be anything close to perfect. But we hope for it anyway.

In much the same way, I wanted to believe that Allen Iverson was a great person because he was a great basketball player and had such a magnetic personality. Or, at least, I wanted to believe he was not someone who abused alcohol and routinely mistreated his wife and children.

Though a fascinating and sometimes horrifying window into Iverson’s personal life, Babb’s book is incomplete without Iverson giving his side of the story. Something he declined to do for Babb’s book, and has yet to do anywhere else. But even if 25% of what the book details about Iverson’s life is true, it’s a sad and sobering reality for any Iverson fan to come to terms with.

On the other hand, based on excerpts from Babb’s book, there’s no doubt that Allen Iverson could be a heartfelt and loving human being. But that was only a part of who he was.

After all these years, I’ve finally accepted the fact that I have no idea who Allen Iverson is. And I know he’s not the person I had created from nothing so many years ago. I was just a teenager who liked watching him play basketball and wanted to believe he was something more than just a great basketball player.

Expecting anything close to perfection from Allen Iverson certainly wasn’t fair. I just wish he wasn’t the complete opposite of the person I had created all those years ago. At the very least, now I know what it feels like when you create someone in your head who couldn’t possibly exist in real life. I suppose it’s fitting that these people we create from nothing ultimately end up being nothing.