To Hold On Tight We Must Let Go
The days are not good for Allen Iverson. The one-time beacon of personal integrity, triumphal dysfunction, and "fuck the world" stylistic rights currently sits out in the cold. He's hoping some team will look past his recent disappointments, figure several accelerated half-lives have made his legacy less radioactive, and give him a chance to make a roster like a blaxploitation Kevin Costner character. So perhaps now is not the time to launch an entirely new critique of AI.
However, the rise of Twitter has me rethinking that foundation of Iverson's NBA being: his authenticity. Allen Iverson, above all else, was his own man, did what he wanted, and forced the world to accept him on this own terms. This was where he picked up momentum as a hip-hop icon, which is to say, while others screamed "thug", he simply brushed them off as ignorant or sheltered. There's a tendency, even a need, to separate AI the world-historical figure from AI the athletic performer. In both cases, however, Iverson exemplified "realness"—perhaps to a pathological degree, but nonetheless in a way that informed the direction of the league and the players who came up idolizing him as much as Jordan.
Hence, as much as we speak of the post-Jordan days, I myself had become accustomed to the "post-Iverson" age. In this (gulp) dialectic, there seemed to always be a hard edge, or uncompromising bluntness, to be reckoned with. There was Jordan's universal appeal, met head-on by Iverson's populist bluster. The players spat out of this maelstrom were some combination of the two; Allen Iverson came to symbolize a mish-mash of unapologetic ghetto roots, "wrong way" ball, not taking shit from no one, and a wary intelligence that could often be its own worst enemy. Carmelo Anthony, post-Iverson because he was hood plus Magic Johnson's effervescent charm; Gilbert Arenas, idiosyncratic and disruptive as a player and person, but writing his own script with all the whimsy of a Saturday morning cartoon.
Jordan was a sales pitch, Iverson a doctrine. Except that, at the risk of offending a bunch of people, Iverson's persona was itself a posture. This may sound pedestrian, or simplistic, but at what point did we decide that Iverson (or Tupac) wasn't, to some degree, faking it, putting it on, selling us a bill of goods based around a very deliberate refusal to play by the rules? AI was certainly faced with difficult circumstances, and had to make tough decisions about what path to follow. And yet over the long haul, it became as opaque a guise as Jordan's Sphinx-like mask. They may have been polar opposites, but their inflexibility and predictability ultimately made them two sides of the same coin.
Should we bemoan the fact that, in the age of Twitter, authenticity is no longer about any iteration of “the struggle,” or truce between the two sides, but the possibility that individual athletes be both accessible and undeniably themselves? The stakes may have been lowered, and yet better a feed like Rudy Gay’s inform our sense of athlete “realness” than AI’s on-message scowl. Relaxation on its own is empty, taking a stand indefinitely is its own kind of blandness.
Incidentally, anyone who’s seen Iverson in the locker room, or otherwise with his guard down, knows that dude would be a monster on Twitter.