By Chris Murray
Like many people this past week, I have been reading and hearing reports of Allen Iverson’s spiraling career, his impending divorce, his daughter’s illness and his alleged gambling and alcohol abuse.
With his once uncanny skills on the basketball court diminishing into a distant memory, Iverson’s great NBA career appears to be heading toward a sad ending.
If this is indeed the end of Iverson’s career, how he will be remembered will depend upon your point of view, when your were born and possibly your socioeconomic status. To the Hip-Hop generation of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Iverson is as iconic a figure as rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G (aka Biggie Smalls). Were there a Hip-Hop Mount Rushmore, Iverson’s image would be engraved on it beside those hip-hop icons.
Iverson’s career, the good and the bad, reminds me of another great sports icon—the New York Yankees Hall of Fame outfielder Mickey Mantle. While this comparison will rankle some people, the two men have a lot in common.
To an often misunderstood, disconnected generation of mostly African American young people, Iverson was an uncompromising figure who truly kept it real. Sporting the cornrowed hair and tattoos most commonly associated with urban African American youth, Iverson decided that his credibility with the streets was more important than his credibility with Madison Avenue.
But while Iverson’s endorsements consisted of a line of Reebok basketball shoes and not much else, his on-court accomplishments caused his Sixers jersey to fly off of store shelves. In 2006, it was third highest selling jersey in the league ahead of Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant.
Although he took a lot of heat from the local media for doing so, Iverson maintained the relationships he had with his homies from Hampton, Va., a group of people who often took care of him when his parents were unable to do so. Because many of these men allegedly had criminal backgrounds, it was seen as an example of Iverson’s bad judgment.
In the mainstream media, especially in Philadelphia, Iverson was seen as a selfish, immature player who blew off practice and didn’t play well with others. Even during the midst of his success with the Philadelphia 76ers, local columnists constantly called on the team to trade him or get rid of him.
Some observers will remember Iverson as a great player who never quite lived up to his potential. The man who won four NBA scoring titles, two All-Star MVP Awards, and singlehandedly took a group of mediocre players to the NBA Finals in 2001 could have been even greater. They argue that because of his off-court lifestyle, a lifestyle that included late-night partying, drinking and hanging out with his boys in places like Atlantic City, Iverson didn’t take care of himself enough to take his game to the next level.
For all the criticism that he received during his 11 years in Philadelphia, Iverson was a great player on the court who played through injuries and his personal issues. There was never a shortage of effort or a will to win on his part on a nightly basis. He played the game with a blinding, no-fear ferocity against players who were oft-times bigger and stronger than him.
Mantle, like Iverson was a brilliant all-round athlete who was naturally gifted. Playing through a plethora of injuries, Mantle managed to win three American League MVP awards, four home run titles, and was the last Triple Crown winner to lead the entire majors in batting average, runs batted in, and homeruns.
In the 1950s, Mantle’s blond, blue-eyed matinee idol looks along with his ability to knock the ball out of the park made him a beloved figure among young boys of that generation in the same way that Iverson is to the Hip-Hop generation. If they sold jerseys back in the 1950s the way they do now, Mantle’s No. 7 would have been as popular as A.I’s No. 3.
Both men were icons of their respective generations. And like Iverson, Mantle enjoyed his celebrity by hanging out, drinking and carousing at all hours of the night with boys and the leading entertainers of those times like Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis. It was been widely reported in several documentaries and a few books including Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” which said that Mantle would often show up in the Yankees clubhouse with a hangover after one of his late nights out on the town.
Mantle himself admitted at the end of his career that he might have been an even better player had he done a better job of taking care of himself. He said God gave him talent, but he wasted it with his drinking and carousing.
That’s eerily similar to what is being said about Iverson now. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Stephen A. Smith on a recent edition of ESPN’s Sportscenter said as much when he pointed out how Iverson didn’t work on his game with the same dedication as guys like Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade and Ray Allen.
But despite having similar lives, there are a bunch of reasons why Mantle was revered while Iverson is reviled.
One of those reasons is that Mantle’s Yankees teams won championships. The Yankees of the 1950s had more stars than a moonlit sky and won seven World Series titles and 12 American League pennants. When you’re doing that much winning, the carousing tends to get overlooked.
Iverson, on the other hand, came close to a championship only once. While the Sixers made a trip to the NBA Finals in 2001, the Sixers organization failed to bring in the kind of talent to build on that trip to the Finals.
Another difference in perception centers on the eras in which both men existed. In the “Ozzie and Harriet” 50s, it was considered okay to spend nights out on the town drinking and chasing women, even if you had a little thing like a wife to consider.
Journalists knew that these liasons were going on, but because the media of the day didn’t cover such off the field shenanigans, they never saw the light of day. To tell you how much this has changed, TMZ, the entertainment gossip website, has announced that it is looking for sports writers.
While both players were surly with the media earlier in the careers, Mantle began schmoozing with sports writers later in his career. During the famed 1961 homerun chase to break Babe Ruth’s single-season record between him and Roger Maris, Mantle became the “good guy” of New York writers and broadcasters of that time who felt he was the “true” Yankee to break Ruth’s record.
Mantle eventually endorsed all kinds of products and was a media darling long after his baseball career was over. Iverson was never a pitchman. In fact, AI will always be remembered and reviled for his infamous, “Practice” tirade with the media in 2002.
While he will be a certain Hall of Famer for his basketball career, Iverson has to manage the rest of his life without basketball. It’s not going to be an easy thing for him. You’re not going to see AI endorsing sports drinks or working as an analyst on TNT.
Perhaps the one saving grace that Iverson has that Mantle didn’t have during the midst of his playing career is his close relationship with his children. Maybe his personal troubles will be a wake up call for him to consider what’s truly important in his life.