My mother kept most of my old things, but whenever I go home to root through the boxes stacked up in the attic, I can sense her editing hand. The programs from the Red Sox games I attended in 1986 are still in the attic, as are the plastic sheets of basketball cards and the notebook filled with Robert Lowell–inspired poetry that confesses to a litany of boring indulgences — shoplifting, dumb lust, baseball. Nearly everything is in that attic space, except for the hip-hop albums I collected in high school, the Ecko hooded sweatshirt I wore nearly every day in the 10th grade, and the suede Timberlands that I bought with two weeks’ worth of tips from delivering pizzas. Now, it’s very possible that these sentimental things were stricken from the official record for practical reasons — those old albums were scratched beyond playability and I suppose it’s no longer rational, in any sense, to clutter up one’s house with CDs. The sweatshirt was so filled with teenage dank that it probably weighed a full pound more than it had upon purchase; all young boys are gross, but 15- and 16- and 17-year-old boys are gross in a sticky, angsty way that almost never holds up well with the passage of time. And yet, while I know my mother is no racist, not even in a passive way, I still sometimes wonder if she might have taken a look back at my earnest but ultimately awkward hip-hop phase, thrown it in a bag, and dropped it off at Goodwill.
I am bringing this up because I cannot find my old Slam magazines. Most important, I am missing the following issues: January ’96, June ’97, and March ’99. All three of these covers feature Allen Iverson. The cover from ’96 shows a shorn Iverson in his Georgetown Hoyas uniform. In ’97, Iverson poses with a basketball spinning on his index finger, his face largely devoid of emotion. The cover from March ’99 is one of the most iconic images in basketball history. Standing with his arms crossed against a red background, Iverson scowls into the camera. His hair has been picked out of its braids into a wavy Afro. He wears a Dr. J–era Sixers jersey over a white undershirt. There is no irony in the photo. The nod to the past is about as earnest as it can be. Sports images, especially the lasting ones, have a long tail — the captivated generation must first grow up, get nostalgic, and imbue the image with a mythology.
Last month, when the news came out of the Washington Post that Iverson was approaching rock bottom, I felt a flash of anger at my mother and considered sending her an accusing text about throwing away my old Slams. But then I remembered that I am an adult now and should be outgrowing my nostalgia over the souvenirs of my adolescent cultural tourism.
It has been almost two weeks since I read the Post story, and I am still a little angry.
Allen Iverson was the modern-day version of Ali because he was so polarizing and honest. He made white America look at a certain part of black society a little differently. Slam became Iverson’s Howard Cosell — we were able to use the media to change people’s opinions of a great but polarizing athlete.
— Scoop Jackson
At first blush, the statement seems wrong. Not logically wrong, per se, but more wrong in the way that fruit on a pizza just looks wrong. Iverson certainly never sat out the prime of his athletic career to protest a war. Outside of stepping over a prone Tyronn Lue in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, Iverson never had a truly transcendent sports moment, at least not one like Ali’s victories in Zaire and Manila. Ali has achieved public sainthood in this country, while Iverson seems to be on the path to being a cautionary tale. But when you compare the effect both Ali and Iverson had on the media, Jackson’s statement begins to make a whole lot more sense. Ali’s anointment came only after the generation of kids who had grown up idolizing him started writing books and putting his image in commercials, movies, and documentaries. His association with the Nation of Islam more or less evaporated, as did pretty much everything about Muhammad Ali that could not be encapsulated within a photograph and a few lines by Bundini Brown.
The iconic image of Ali standing over Sonny Liston has taken on its own life — the particulars of the fight itself no longer matter (I’m pretty sure the majority of people who see that image assume the man laid out on the canvas is Joe Frazier). Instead, what we are left with is a clear image that connotes a hazy feeling of rebellion and brio.
Iverson’s Slam cover was the Ali-over-Liston for kids who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s.1
According to former Slam editor-in-chief Tony Gervino, the cover of the March ’99 issue came about during the NBA lockout. The magazine did not want to use a current jersey and had decided to go for a retro look. The cover was inspired by a photo Gervino had seen of Julius Erving with his hair picked out. At the time Mitchell & Ness was a small athletic-wear manufacturer in Philadelphia. Gervino knew it had some retro-styled jerseys and asked if he could borrow a Sixers uniform for the shoot. Iverson showed up several hours late and argued over the choice to let out his braids. But when he saw the proofs, Iverson recognized the potential of that ’70s look. The throwback jersey era, led by Mitchell & Ness, started shortly afterward.
“We were the Allen Iverson of magazines,” Gervino, who was editor during Slam‘s early years and much of its prime, explains. “We were undersized, young, and looking for the guy who would match our sensibilities. Iverson represented the fearless underdog at a time when hip-hop was commercially exploding. The generation of players coming up through the NBA had the same cultural references the editors and writers of the magazine had. We listened to the same music, wore the same sneakers. When we would go meet Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or Michael Jordan, it felt like we were meeting the president. There was less of a disconnect between us and Iverson. He became our guy.”
Over the next decade, Slam and Iverson shared a deeply symbiotic relationship, whereby the magazine would try to report what it felt was “real basketball,” which meant frequent trips to Rucker Park, interviews with J.R. Rider and Latrell Sprewell, and lots and lots of Iverson cover stories. “If the world was saying white, we wanted to say black,” Gervino continues. “We were dripping with idealism. We wanted the greater world — the people who watched basketball who didn’t like hip-hop, we wanted them to see a fearless guy who had come from nothing. We were trying to say that Allen Iverson was a hero to a generation.”
Iverson’s endurance as a cultural icon will change with the politics of the country in 10 or 20 or 30 years, but it also, strangely enough, depends, in large part, on how Iverson’s life plays out from here. The details in Kent Babb’s report were grim and included an anecdote in which Iverson, facing his ex-wife in a divorce proceeding, pulled out the pockets of his pants and shouted, “I don’t even have money for a cheeseburger.” Tawanna Iverson then loaned her ex-husband $61. Now broke and battling severe alcohol problems, Iverson has one last big payday coming to him: about $30 million from a Reebok contract locked up in a trust that he cannot touch until 2030, when he will turn 55 years old. The central question about Allen Iverson has changed from “Will he ever play again?” to “Will he live long enough to claim his Reebok money?”
By our weird hero logic, the power of Allen Iverson’s image is inversely proportional to his fortunes in the future. I am thinking about what Scoop Jackson said about Muhammad Ali and how he became a set of ideas because the man, himself, mostly disappeared from public view in the late ’80s. The loss of his speech and those heartbreaking yet thoroughly edifying images from the torch lighting at the 1996 Olympics turned Ali into a tragic figure. The history of Western literature is one of rebels who came to untimely and awful ends. Fiction’s strict laws dictate that men like Ali and Iverson, who are more Rimbaud than athlete, must burn it all up in their youth. We are mostly powerless against these embedded narrative forces — it’s why all television shows have to be structured in the same way, why our favorite movies follow the same scripts. If Allen Iverson, then, is the rebel god for an entire generation of hoops fans who grew up with Slam magazine, we, through storytelling habit alone, will see him to his grisly end.
I do not mean that we are all rooting for Iverson’s downfall. Far from it. What I mean is that we will witness what happens to Iverson in the upcoming years and draw undue metaphoric meaning out of every missed court date, every brush with the law, every report that comes out and once again lays his ruin bare. Babb’s piece was the latest in a growing library of “Iverson in Winter” stories. There will be many more to come because the generation of kids who grew up with Slam have started writing from their post-Iverson points of view — and because sportswriting is mostly a sentimental, sloppy affair, whereby aging men and women paste the heroes of our youth up against the present. For those of us who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, Iverson, filtered through the pages of Slam, embodies pretty much every thought — both positive and negative — we had about basketball, inner cities, and hip-hop. Certainly, I do not think the celebration, and, some would argue, the fetishization, of players like J.R. Smith, JaVale McGee, and Zach Randolph would have happened without Iverson. Their “eccentricities” would have been called much worse things if Iverson hadn’t been there to sand down the edges, often at great personal cost.2
There’s an argument to be made here that all Iverson did was turn the condemnation of the “hip-hop” athlete, whatever that means anymore, into a spectacle and that no real progress has been made. In response, I would ask whether the era when sportswriters openly used the word “thug” to reference athletes they had never met was somehow preferable to today’s occasionally discomforting parade of fetishized NBA players. It’s an interesting argument, for sure, but one that feels extremely dated and almost beside the point right now. Nearly anyone who plays in the NBA now can be embraced by a large segment of the fan base. This, alone, seems like reason for celebration.
Iverson on the cover of Slam helped launch the throwback movement and gave his fans one iconic image to rally around and to build up our idolatry, no matter how dumb and misappropriated it might have been. Now that it seems Iverson’s life has taken on that expected tragic turn, the same people who wrested great meaning out of his rise will now try to find the hard lessons in his downfall.