As part of a wholescale dedication to improve myself, I’ve made a concentrated effort to read more this year. So when my birthday came along the other week, you can imagine how thrilled I was to get the new Allen Iverson book alongside the latest volume of Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga. What could go wrong?, I thought at the time. A biography about my absolute favorite athlete ever, the six-foot-zero man who cared greatly about the outcome of every regular season he played, making a sports fan out of 12-year-old me through sheer passion for the game? This will be a great, happy read indeed.
Yeah, not quite.
In Kent Babb’s take on Iverson’s life, Not a Game, the Washington Post writer alternates chapters between the Philly icon’s young playing career and his present-day struggles. Throughout, Babb paints a cautionary portrait of a man consumed by depression, substance abuse, and fits of violence, who changed the game of basketball on a cultural level but never fully lived up to his potential due to an inability to mature until it was too late. Upon finishing the book, here were five things that stuck out:
1. It’s Not a Pretty Picture.
Babb himself admits in the acknowledgements section of his book that, without Iverson’s side of the story, Not a Game is an incomplete work. (He reached out to Iverson but never heard back, which sounds about right given Iverson’s pattern of behavior outlined throughout the book.) And Iverson is certainly given his humanizing moments, particularly through his relationship with a member of the Georgetown training staff. Even so, the anecdotes from former teammates and coaches, associates like Reebok employee Que Gaskins, and – most devastating of all – the official testimony of Iverson’s ex-wife, Tawanna, throughout their divorce proceedings, are damning enough on their own. Though Babb himself admits on the final page that he found himself disappointed in Iverson throughout his research, mostly due to the way he treated Tawanna, the narrative he constructs here depicts a man broken enough to earn sympathy, yet stubborn enough to warrant criticism in equal measure.
2. Drunk or not, the “practice” rant isn’t nearly as fun anymore.
Babb heavily alludes to Iverson being drunk during his infamous “practice” rant in 2002, thanks in large part to the testimony of Larry Brown, though Iverson has disputed this since the book was released. Such behavior certainly falls into place with the rest of Babb’s narrative, but drunk or not, it’s hard to watch the press conference again in the same light. It’s just disheartening, knowing the discomfort and mortification that close friends, teammates, and Pat Croce experienced during the event, and you feel for Iverson having to (albeit, in good humor) recite his instantly synonymous line for the entertainment of others for pretty much the rest of his career. Amusing as it was, it was also a fairly vicious example of the media making light of the very real and troubling struggles of a depressed human being.
3. The Sixers could have been good for a lot longer if Allen Iverson was a different person.
The way Babb tells it, aside from maybe his rookie season and his first year in Denver, 2000-’01 was pretty much the only time that saw Iverson focused and determined throughout the course of an entire NBA season. Brown, Croce, and others lament what could have been if Iverson had only been able to change a few things about his lifestyle and attitude. But he couldn’t. “What could have been” scenarios are simply symptoms for any depressed individual, especially one with substance problems. Rather than lament a successful, multi-year Sixers’ playoff run that could have been, it would be better for Iverson to take those hard memories and use them to motivate any treatment he may or may not need.
4. There are a strange number of simple basketball facts that Babb gets wrong.
Babb never bothers to explain what the extent of his basketball fandom is, and you can argue that, given the larger story he’s trying to tell about Iverson’s personal life, extensive knowledge of the game isn’t a requirement as pertains to this biography at all. But when you’re trying to construct such a critical narrative about an athlete, it’s not helping your case when you’re clearly not doing simple fact-checking about details of the game itself. Babb rarely goes into great depth about Iverson’s games themselves – appropriately spending more time on behind-the-scenes practices – but he does open Chapter 13 by setting the stage for overtime of Game 1 of the 2001 Finals. The pass that will eventually lead to Iverson’s infamous step-over of Tyronn Lue is delivered to him, but in Babb’s version of the play, Iverson “caught a pass from Vernon Maxwell, the Sixers’ point guard.” Maxwell wasn’t even on the roster that post-season, having been put on waivers and signing with Dallas in December 2000. The Lue pass was delivered by Raja Bell.
Later, when detailing the 2006 trade that sent Iverson to Denver, Babb describes Andre Miller, one of the pieces the Sixers received in the trade, as “a talented young point guard.” Miller was certainly talented, but by December 2006 he was 29 years old, soon to turn 30, and an eight-year NBA veteran. If by “young” Babb meant “less than a year younger than Iverson himself,” he was accurate, but despite Miller’s career longevity, an outlier in itself, a 30-year-old point guard should never be described as “young” when evaluating a trade. Finally, when recounting the exit interviews Larry Brown conducted after the 2001-’02 season, Babb lists George Lynch as one of the exit interviewees, even though the Sixers traded Lynch to Charlotte at the beginning of that season. Speaking of George Lynch…
5. George Lynch was a long-time forward for the 76ers.
Lynch, “a long-time forward for the 76ers,” was re-introduced that exact same way at least the first three times he was mentioned. I kept finding this amusing. (Though this, also, isn’t entirely accurate. Lynch was only on the team for three seasons.) By the end of the book, you may or may not think of Allen Iverson differently, but you’ll definitely know who George Lynch is.
In the end, it’s easy to see why Iverson took so long to officially announce his retirement. Though Babb’s book is decidedly not about basketball itself, he makes it clear that the basketball court was the one place where Iverson was at peace with himself. You can’t come out of the reading experience without hoping he finds some way to stay connected to the game that fuels him. Babb’s story ends on a cliffhanger, on a life in transition, and one hopes that Iverson is able to write his own, happy ending.
I hope some can see past the alleged behavior depicted here, even though some of it is undoubtedly disgusting. But I’m rooting for A.I. now more than ever; as Babb frequently reminds us, the Allen Iverson Sixers fans fondly recall from his glory years was simply an overgrown kid who loved drinking at TGI Friday’s after games, playing monopoly with friends, and reminding Tyrone Hill how much he looked like Skeletor. Not A Game will almost certainly be remembered as a cautionary tale for young athletes, but it’s also a healthy reminder to fans how human each athlete they admire truly is.