How Allen Iverson finally found his way home
- As Allen Iverson returns to the court for the first time in seven years, the NBA's best player calls him "a god" and the man he immortalized with a ruthless crossover wants him on his coaching staff. But what The Answer really wants to talk about is the winding journey back to his family, which could be his most important (and most surprising) victory.
The Capitol Records Building, a mid-century circular tower that looks like a stack of vinyl rising 13 stories into Hollywood’s powder-blue sky, has been the studio of choice for Beach Boys and Beastie Boys, Dean Martin and Judy Garland, Ryan Adams and Mary J. Blige. Artists come to use Nat King Cole’s piano, Frank Sinatra’s microphone, Paul McCartney’s mixing console. DJ Quik, upon hearing of the eight underground echo chambers buried 30 feet below the floorboards, looked for ways to climb inside. “History lives here,” Ice Cube says. “It walks around.” Cube is now an actor, an entrepreneur and a pitchman, but as he sits behind the mixing board in Studio B, he is forever the Compton kid with the Jheri curl and the khakis laying down an early track next to King Tee.
“I know how it feels when radio is ready for you to quit and retire,” he says. “ ‘Do movies, don’t worry about your music, go on with your life.’ But people don’t understand you still a B-Boy at heart.” Last April, Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his last NBA game, and Cube mourned Bryant’s career as if it were his own. “Just like that, it’s over, and you’re telling me he’s not a baller no more?” he says. “Sixty points and he’s not a baller? It happens every year. We see these dudes go through high school, college, win a championship, miss the playoffs—they become like our friends, like our cousins, because we know everything about them, damn near. And then all of a sudden they’re gone. They fall off the face of the earth, and man, I miss ’em.”
Most NBA megastars stay in the strobe lights as coaches, broadcasters or executives. But some just can’t bring themselves to wear the fitted suits or the fake smiles, and these are the ones Cube gravitates toward, the mavericks most comfortable on the blacktop despite its cracks. “I’m talking about the guys who aren’t going to change what’s inside,” Cube says, “and conform to what everybody wants them to be.”
With that, 42-year-old Allen Iverson bounds down the first-floor hallway in sweats and diamonds, past black-and-white photographs of Frank Zappa, Sam Smith and Alabama Shakes. His ubiquitous braids are hidden under a stocking cap and a minor league baseball hat. The fashion plate who refused to take the court unless every accessory matched, from headband to arm sleeve to Reebok Question, remains meticulously coordinated. Iverson says he is hungry, either for Taco Bell or Kentucky Fried Chicken, which calls to mind a memorable night in Milan, when a fancy restaurant with a three-month waiting list shut its doors for the privilege of serving The Answer. But come dinner time, Iverson wasn’t in the mood for fussy Italian, so he sent his security detail to fetch Big Macs.
Iverson is set on chicken this afternoon, but first he has to find something. “Where’s my jack?” he asks. His entourage, still formidable but significantly smaller than in the Philadelphia days, when his Cru Thik used to take over the TGI Fridays on City Avenue, appears bewildered. Jack? “Yeah,” Iverson replies wearily. “It means phone. I heard that from some young guys. I gotta keep up with the slang.” He finally locates his jack—Lord knows the number; it seems to change every few months—and heads to the parking lot, the Cru trailing behind him, in search of a Hollywood KFC.
“You never did know,” Cube says admiringly, “if he was an athlete or a rapper.”
In the music business, the immortals perform well past their primes, practically going from stadiums to convalescent homes. “But in basketball, once you turn 35, you can’t play anymore,” Ice Cube moans. “I don’t buy it.” They can’t play full-court, he acknowledges, and they can’t play 82 games. But what if they played half-court for 10 games, spread across 10 weeks, and the games were 25–30 minutes instead of 48? What if three players were on each team rather than five, easing congestion and contact, emphasizing skill over strength?
“I know what you’re thinking,” says Jeff Kwatinetz, a prominent entertainment-industry executive who works with Cube. “ ‘This sounds like a bunch of old guys doing some Harlem Globetrotter s---. No, these are smart guys with skills who can shoot. They just can’t run up and down the court for 82 games with John Wall.”
This summer Cube and Kwatinetz, along with former Raiders CEO Amy Trask and ex–NBA players’ association executive Roger Mason, are unveiling BIG3, a half-court three-on-three league with eight teams whose rosters read like a 2003 All-Star team: Kenyon Martin, Mike Bibby, Jermaine O’Neal, Rashard Lewis, Corey Maggette. But the headliner—and the player-coach of 3’s Company (somewhere, Larry Brown does a spit-take)—is Iverson, a subject of adoration throughout his career and concern after it, when reports circulated that his family and his finances were in jeopardy. “I know people have been worried about me,” he says. “You probably thought I was sitting in a corner in my boxers with a pistol in my hand ready to blow my damn brains out.”
Over 10 turbulent but transcendent seasons in Philadelphia, Iverson was an MVP, a four-time scoring champion and a seven-time all-NBA selection, but more significant, he was a streetwise icon before brand managers cheapened the term. “He represented what black kids were all about, and he resonated with every inner-city kid in the world who had a struggle,” LeBron James says. “Michael Jordan inspired me, and I looked up to him, but he was out of this world. A.I. was really the god.”
He used to tease his trademark crossover—“Here it come! Here it come!”—because nobody could stop it anyway. Before Iverson, measuring six feet at his highest cornrow, undersized guards who could really score were alien. “Little people were supposed to pass,” Isiah Thomas says, “and then go stand in the corner and wait for the big people to play.” After Iverson came Steve Nash and Chris Paul, Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and Wall. “A.I.,” Curry says, “is who I emulated.”
At All-Star Weekend two years ago, Iverson met Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas at The One Eighty, a restaurant 51 floors above downtown Toronto where the Stance socks party was held. “You have no idea how much I love your game,” Iverson told Thomas, before heading off to a spades tournament. “I thought Isaiah was going to cry,” recalls Brian Lee, former director of basketball at Reebok. “He said, ‘I felt confident before, but now I’m going to start killing it.’ ”
Modern sports culture is constantly conflating legacy with ring count. Iverson never won a title, but his size-10 footprints left an indelible impression. Today’s NBA is both an extension of Iverson, with all its trigger-happy guards, and a rejection, as teams avoid isolation, prize efficiency and analyze rest habits more than a newborn’s parents.
“You’d have to do a good job convincing me all that stuff matters,” Iverson sniffs. “I used to stay out until six in the morning, go to shootaround at nine and play that night at seven. I could do anything I wanted as long as I got a quick little nap before the game.” You give him 20 minutes and he’d give you 40 points.
“But the reason he fell off so fast,” says one general manager, “is that he didn’t take care of his body.” In his final four seasons, bouncing from Denver to Detroit, Memphis back to Philadelphia, Iverson could have reinvented himself as a sixth man, insta-offense for a second unit. As A.I. ponders such a job description, he looks as if he is choking on a chicken bone. “I stood on the fact that I would never—and I know this might be selfish in some ways—be just another player on the team. I felt I had to make an impact, win or lose. I had to be the guy who actually led the team to the victory. I couldn’t be the used-to-be.”
And so, as he watched contemporaries like Vince Carter and Paul Pierce embrace complementary roles, Iverson headed to Turkey, to China and then to an early retirement. The cushy landing strips typically reserved for washed-up jocks—TV studios and coaching gigs—did not fit. “I wanted to get as far out of the limelight as possible,” Iverson says. “I was mentally drained. I got tired of 10 questions, nine negative. Ten questions, eight personal. I got worn down. It felt like people were ripping my body apart, pulling every which way.” Some days he was thrilled to be done with basketball (“I’d rather not play,” he told himself) and others he was mournful (“I still really want to play, though”). Fans would tell him, “AI, come back!” and he’d think about the teams that weren’t calling. “Damn, I want to come back, but they don’t want me. And I don’t want to play for somebody who doesn’t want me.”
The transition might have been easier if Iverson had a desire to script a second act. “But this is not someone who is going to go searching for another career,” says former 76ers owner Pat Croce. “His career was NBA basketball player. Of course he’s way deeper than that, but he doesn’t know he’s deeper than that.”
After leaving the game for good, Iverson moved to Atlanta, then South Florida, then Charlotte. He played a lot of Monopoly, a little flag football (“Oh, everything hurt except my left arm”) and one pickup hoops game (“High school cafeteria, no AC, nothing bougie about it.”) He traded Fridays in Philly for Applebee’s, The Cheesecake Factory and The Press Box in Charlotte, fished, watched League Pass and occasionally queued up his old clips on YouTube. “You know how sometimes you can do a great move, but you get so excited you don’t make the shot because the move was so good?” he says. “I dig those plays.”
By traditional standards, Iverson did not accomplish much in the past seven years, except that he found his way home.
Allen and Tawanna Iverson live with the three youngest of their five children in Ballantyne, an upscale Charlotte neighborhood, next to a golf course he does not play. The house is large, according to friends, and the man cave adorned with Iverson’s framed All-Star Game jerseys and SLAM magazine covers. But it is nowhere near the size of his Villanova mansion. He shoots on a hoop in the driveway with his 13-year-old son, Isaiah, reminding the boy to pause before free throws. “It’s hard to take constructive criticism from dad,” Iverson laments. “He can take it from coach, but when daddy tells, he thinks daddy is being hard on him because he was an NBA player and a scoring champion. It hurts him. It’s like I’m telling him to clean up his room.” Straddling the thin line that separates guidance from criticism, Iverson sounds like a typical suburban father, which in itself is sort of a miracle.
Allen and Tawanna started dating when they were 16, prom sweethearts from rival high schools in Virginia’s Hampton Roads, and as newlyweds police were called to their house after a fight. Their relationship was notoriously volatile—“Sunday through Tuesday, ‘I hate you, die,’ ” says a friend, “Wednesday through Saturday, ‘I love you, come home’ ”—but somehow it endured until 2010, when Tawanna filed for divorce.
“You have to realize, first of all, that you’re the f--- up,” Iverson says, turning introspective. “If you were mature enough to handle being married, if you played your part, all those bumps in the road would not have happened. So you have to point the finger at Allen Iverson. My divorce was long, long, long overdue. It was overdue a year after saying ‘I do.’ Obviously, it went on 12 more years, and that was because she didn’t want to break up our family. Divorce was her last idea of what to do to try to get my attention. She tried everything else in the book, even counseling, and none of it worked. The one thing that caught my attention was looking at that piece of paper and seeing Iverson vs. Iverson. 76ers vs. 76ers. Georgetown vs. Georgetown. You look across that courtroom and see the person you love more than life itself, and you get the picture. As strong as I am, that was my vulnerable moment.”
Six-hundred pages of divorce documents—expertly synthesized in Not a Game, the riveting 2015 biography by Washington Post reporter Kent Babb—produced a disturbing portrait of Iverson as an irresponsible father and husband who abused alcohol and accumulated debt. Judging from the testimony, he was nearly destitute, telling Tawanna in a hearing that he couldn’t afford a cheeseburger. “She’s saying stuff, and I’m saying stuff, and her lawyer is saying stuff, and my lawyer is saying stuff, and it got so out of hand,” Iverson says. “We hurt each other. We wasted a lot of money. We put our kids through a lot, our family through a lot. And where did it get us? We’re right back here.”
The divorce was finalized in 2013, with Tawanna receiving custody of the children and Iverson a reprimand from the judge. At the end of the proceedings, Tawanna and Allen lived apart in Charlotte. “He was miserable, distraught all the time,” another friend says. “His only goal was to make things right with her.” The couple’s oldest son, Deuce, enrolled in the high school basketball program at ELEV8 Sports Institute in South Florida, and Iverson told Tawanna, “Let’s go down there, just you and me and the kids, and get away.” They spent six months in Delray Beach, six in Boca Raton. “It was nice,” Iverson says, “but it was lonely. No family, no friends, no nanny. We couldn’t get any time, me and her. We couldn’t go to dinner together, couldn’t go to the movies.”
They moved back to Charlotte, under the same roof, and Iverson tried to become a round-the-clock father for the first time. “I wanted to be there for the PTA meetings, for the homework,” he says. “I can’t sit here and tell you I’m the greatest dad in the world. But I’m home. I can do the things I didn’t do for my older kids. That’s the thrill for me now. That’s the rush I used to get from basketball. She doesn’t have to always be the disciplinarian. She yells and screams. That’s what she does. Me, I give them a look. They think I might do something. In actuality, I won’t, because I’m wrapped around their finger.”
Sitting on a leather couch at Capitol Records in late May, where he is shooting promo spots for BIG3, Iverson has finished reflecting on crossovers and fadeaways. What he yearns to discuss, it seems, is his ex-wife. He leans forward, eye contact unbroken, the Cru silent beside him. “Bubba Chuck will tell you what you want to hear,” Croce warns, employing AI’s first nickname. “But if he lets you in, you’re all in.”
When Iverson was inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer, he thanked 135 people through his cracking voice, some of whom say they barely knew him. “Did you notice what I did, though?” Iverson asks. “See, I got a few marbles left up here. I waited to talk about her until the end, because if I didn’t, I’d have lost it early. Being the emotional person I am, it would have gotten out of control, and I couldn’t play with my heart like that.”
Tawanna did not respond to requests for an interview, but several friends corroborated what Iverson claimed, that the couple is divorced but united. “We still argue,” Iverson admits. “In fact, we’re at odds right now—and here I am, acting like you’re my damn counselor—because I went home to Virginia for Mother’s Day, and after she went back to Charlotte to take the kids to school, I wanted to stay a little longer. She was like, ‘Bring yo’ ass home.’ I messed up. I was wrong again. It’s still happening. I used to tell the media, ‘When I’m 40, I won’t make the same mistakes.’ Damn lie. I still get cursed out for the same things I was doing 15 years ago. But we’ve learned that we can agree to disagree. And she’s still Mrs. Iverson, which is the title I always wanted her to have.”
In early June, Allen Iverson walked into Brayboy Gymnasium at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, alongside Mike Bailey. Twenty-six years after Iverson first played for Bailey at Bethel High School in Hampton—on the first day of conditioning, the 120-pound freshman wore an oversized T-shirt with baggy jeans and still ran a sub-five-minute mile, pulling his pants up every third step—he asked his old coach to get him back in shape for basketball season. “If I use the treadmill,” Iverson says, “I’ll just cheat.” For the first time since the 1993 state championship in Charlottesville, Bailey put Iverson through drills, simulating pin-downs and pick-and-rolls. Iverson asked for a Horns set, the double high screen that used to spring him in Philly. “You know what they call that now?” Bailey asked. “The Iverson cut.” He seemed to have no idea.
Bailey stayed in Charlotte for 10 days and left upbeat about his pupil’s outlook, on the court and off. “When he and Tawanna are together, and they are together today, I feel he’s safe,” Bailey says. “That’s what makes my heart feel good.” Others are more skeptical. “I think he really wants to be a good father, a good husband, and he just can’t,” says Babb, who interviewed dozens of sources for his book. “That’s the most maddening thing about Allen Iverson. You really want to trust him and pull for him and believe he’ll be consistent this time, but he lets you down. I never thought he was a lost cause because he made a life out of proving people wrong. The best thing about him was that he could bounce back. So I suppose it’s possible he could do it again, not probable.” According to Not a Game, Iverson earns $800,000 per year as part of a lifetime contract with Reebok, and the company will grant him access to a $32 million trust fund when he turns 55. But he signed a postnuptial agreement with Tawanna that entitles her to at least half the payout.
Iverson does not hold a formal job, but he works for the 76ers as an alumni ambassador, and team officials say he has been available and engaging. He is a spokesman for Stance and has endorsement deals with Upper Deck trading cards and Roots of Fight apparel. Last year Reebok released The Unworn, a blue-and-gold shoe Iverson was supposed to wear in Oakland for the 2000 All-Star Game. But in the locker room East players made fun of the garish Warriors color scheme, and Iverson refused to put on the kicks. His whims remain unpredictable, but he’s more reliable than he used to be. “I’ll put it like this,” says Todd Krinsky, GM of Reebok Classics. “If I used to shoot 35% from the field with him, I’m at 75%. We’ll never shoot above 90%.” Krinsky has noticed that Iverson is calling more lately, requesting sleeveless tees and basketball shorts for his training sessions.
Iverson was initially reluctant to join BIG3, but it sounded like fun, a chance to be The Answer again, if only for a little while. Sunday’s opening slate was a triumph for the league—15,177 fans filled Barclays Center in Brooklyn, including James Harden and LL Cool J, and two of the four games came down to the final possession—but it did not necessarily signal a renaissance for Iverson, who logged nine forgettable minutes in a 3’s Company win, the first coach able to limit his time and touches. He’ll be in Charlotte on July 2, Philly on the 16th. “They can see the guy they rock with,” he coos. But the schedule will wrap by September and Iverson will be left with more open dates. “I’d want him on my staff because he’d have the respect of everybody in this league right away,” says Cavaliers coach and former Laker Tyronn Lue, still famous for getting crossed over (and stepped over) by Iverson in the 2001 Finals. “You know, if I hadn’t defended him in that series, I’d have been out of the league. He made me.” Two-week road trips and early shootarounds may not appeal to Iverson, but he kept tabs on Isaiah Thomas throughout this season, texting him observations after games. “He’d help any young person in the league even if he wasn’t paid a dime,” says Gary Moore, Iverson’s manager, who discovered him at Stuart Gardens in Newport News when Iverson was eight.
Moore is hyped for BIG3, and not just because of the four-point shot or the first-to-60 format. “In terms of his drives, his cuts, his overall knowledge of the game, he has not lost a beat,” Moore insists. Nostalgia, a powerful seductress in pro sports, will attract an audience. Then Iverson will have to keep it, with whatever crossovers are left. Three-on-three half-court hoops was recently added to the docket for the 2020 Olympics, and who knows, maybe America will send 45-year-old Allen Iverson to Tokyo. But as he sits behind the keyboard with Ice Cube in Studio B, that’s not what he daydreams about.
“Do this,” he laughs, “and maybe somebody will give me a 10-day contract.”