Al Sharpton, Al Iverson: Parallels in Falls from Grace

This was posted by my friend Ross. He was supposed to be at school when this happened.

Allen Iverson was the one of best things going on the hardwood. The Virginia kid from the house John Thompson built burst onto the scene in ‘98, garnered Rookie Of The Year honors, and never looked back. In 2001, his lone MVP season, he snatched a game from the Lakers at the start of a three title run with a bunch of guys who faded into oblivion for the rest of the series. He played hurt, tired, and at a height and weight that inflated his true build by around two inches and fifteen pounds. He made Nike heads buy Reeboks, forced David Stern to change the dress code, rapped, and delivered the single greatest sports rant of all time. LeBron James, basketball’s own M. Bison, lists him as his second favorite player and admires his heart and iron will. He endeared himself to some, made himself a pariah in the eyes of others, beat a court case, put points on the board, sold newspapers and tickets, and refused to change his approach to the game that made him around $200 million.

And then, he was gone.

Iverson’s rant, when viewed for more than its comic repetition of its key word, contains all we need to know about the rise and eventual fall of Hampton’s best ballplayer. He got to where he was playing the game the way he played it on the terms that he played it. He wasn’t going to change that. A different approach to practice wasn’t going to make him a better player or endear him to teammates or coaches or help his PER numbers when the lights came on in the arena. He was the star who willed his teams to victory and willed their records to playoff contention, and practice was of no benefit to his will—his strongest on-court asset.

Iverson, having suffered through years of bad breaks and front office ineptitude, had finally made himself insufferable to the 6ers. He was traded to the Denver Nuggets and continued to put up gaudy numbers with another basketball prodigy, Carmelo Anthony. When the pairing didn’t bring playoff wins to a victory-starved franchise, and when news of a disjointed, even contentious locker room came out, Iverson was moved again, this time to the Motor City.

The jig, as they say, was up.

In Detroit, with a team focused on defense and a coach unwilling to hand him the keys, Iverson was relegated to the bench behind Rodney Stuckey (despite going for 20+ in his first ten or so games) before he was deactivated for the season. In september 2009, he signed with the Grizzlies, expressed frustration over his role as a bench player, never got the keys handed to him, and left the team for personal reasons before agreeing to terminate his contract. After another brief stay with the 76ers, AI was gone.

For fans who grew up with Iverson contorting his frame through the paint, it was sad, even painful. We posted to social media, brought out our old jerseys and Reeboks, watched highlight reels and hoped that Iverson would get a call. The older this fan becomes, however, the easier it is to see that Iverson’s is a tale of how stubbornness burns bridges and robs talent of its stage before its time.

Around the time of Allen Iverson’s pending retirement ceremony in Philadelphia, the Rutgers student group of which I was vice president, Black Men’s Collective, was drumming up support for our upcoming comedy showcase to benefit a local soup kitchen. Ten comics from the Tri-state Area were going to compete for $500 and a chance to do a fifteen minute set at a well-known club in NYC, and Donnell “Ashy Larry” Rawlings was set to host. The room was set, the comics were practicing backstage, the other two judges (myself and Vine star @SamTakesOff) were waiting for Larry to show and the games to begin.

Donnell Rawlings didn’t show, as he was stuck in Montana under a few feet of snow. We managed to get him on Skype to judge a few contestants, and when the feed dropped out for good, his agent called and said he’d be happy to do a free show on four twen…err…Easter.

The show went well, the comics killed, thousands of dollars and hundreds of cans were donated to the soup kitchen.

Ross, the world’s biggest Iverson fan, the organization’s secretary who had agreed to sit at the donation table, was a no show. Just before the show, John, the group’s president, joked that Ross would probably slap his grandma for a ticket to Iverson’s ceremony. Everyone agreed, and when the question of Ross’ whereabouts was brought up, we took turns calling, texting, and tweeting the prodigal secretary. Ross never showed. At about 9:30, near the end of the show, John came to me during an intermission and showed me the Instagram photo displayed above.

At the next meeting, Ross apologized profusely. He had every intention of being there, he goaded his friends into being there and donating, but his sister came up on a pair of tickets at the last minute and Ross couldn’t say no to his idol. We laughed, understood, and moved on with the issues at hand. Iverson’s glory days made the chance to see the crestfallen, embattled star too great to resist. He recognized all of AI’s past foibles and errors, knew that he wouldn’t be going to see him lace them up one last time, knew that it would be an emotional goodbye for nearly everyone present. Since Iverson had refused to adapt, refused to update his game, expectations or persona, this was all Ross had.

A day after the publishing of his Washington Post profile, Al Sharpton would be keen to take a long, hard look at AI.

Al Sharpton has gone through about as many transformations as James Naismith’s gym class game. Gone are 176 pounds, as is the color from his hair, the tracksuits and gold medallion, and some of the back taxes owed by himself and his organization. But, for all of the external metamorphasis he’s undergone in the past few decades, his need for ubiquity and control have yet to go the way of his waistline.

And, in a world that demands less of his leadership and authority in favor of movements centered on victims and radical change rather than reform and discernible figureheads, it seems Sharpton has grown desperate. And bitter.

If he doesn’t learn from the other Al and get up to speed, his relevance could join his plan of attack in the graveyard.

And they don’t hold ceremonies for Black talking heads put to pasture.

-Follow My Shorter Thoughts on Twitter.

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