The afternoon heat rising from the asphalt made a griddle out of the court, and the bouncing basketball made that dull squishing noise a ball makes when it isn't fully inflated. There were no fans, college coaches or recruiting experts in sight, just a hopelessly overmatched opponent trying to play defense in a game of one-on-one. These were modest trappings for the best high school basketball player in the nation, but that didn't matter to Allen Iverson. For the first time in days, he smiled as though he didn't have a care in the world. "Back off, Ma," he said as his mother, Ann Iverson, reached in for the steal. "You're getting lipstick on me."
These casual summer games are all that Iverson, a 6'1", 165-pound guard who has been favorably compared with Isiah Thomas and Kenny Anderson, can play at the moment. The 18-year-old Iverson was convicted last week on three felony counts of maiming by a mob, charges stemming from a Valentine Day brawl in a bowling alley in his hometown of Hampton, Va. Because Judge Nelson T. Overton has imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on him until he is sentenced, on Aug. 18, Iverson can't participate in the summer tournaments in which he built his reputation last year. Even if he doesn't go to jail—he could get five to 20 years on each charge—he may not be able to play his senior year at Bethel High, and his college career is in obvious jeopardy.
"Sometimes I wonder how everything got so messed up," says Iverson. "All I wanted to do was play basketball, and now I'm in the middle of all this mess."
Caught in the middle is exactly what Iverson has been for months: in the middle of the legal system; in the middle of the summer basketball system, with all of its intrigue and rivalries; in the middle of the recruiting wars; in the middle of family and friends who clash over who is most responsible for his success and who will have the greatest influence on his future.
During Iverson's two-day trial in Hampton circuit court, prosecution witness Steve Forrest, 22, testified that Iverson began the altercation at the Circle Lanes bowling center when, unprovoked, he began swearing at Forrest and his friends. According to Forrest, as he stood facing Iverson, someone hit him from behind. A melee ensued, with some people throwing chairs and others throwing punches. Brandon Smith, an employee of the bowling center and a fellow student of Iverson's at Bethel High, testified that he saw Iverson hit a woman in the head with a chair and that Iverson eventually hit him with a chair as well.
Iverson told a much different version on the witness stand, saying a white man at the alley had triggered the incident by directing racial epithets at him and then hitting him with a chair. Iverson testified that a friend of his pulled him away and that they left the alley as soon as the brawl began. Iverson's supporters have remained steadfast in saying that his troubles are due mostly to jealousy over his fame. "He's a victim of his talent," says Gary Moore, who coached Iverson's youth-league football team and remains a close friend.
Iverson is considered more than just another blue-chip prospect. Indeed, most of the leading evaluators of schoolboy basketball talent think he could be a player for the ages. "He's the most physically gifted guard I've ever seen in high school," says Tom Konchalski, a veteran recruiting expert who publishes a newsletter on East Coast high school basketball.
"You have to start talking about people like Isiah Thomas and Nate Archibald when you talk about Iverson," says one college coach who wished to remain anonymous because NCAA rules forbid coaches from publicly assessing a high school player's skills. "He might be the quickest guard I've ever seen, quicker than Kenny Anderson. Give me my pick of Anderson, [Cal's Jason] Kidd, any of the top guards who have come out in the last dozen years, and I'd probably have to take Iverson."
Iverson plans to play only basketball in college, but he has been nearly as successful at Bethel High as a quarterback, defensive back and kick returner. Tales of the exploits of Bubba Chuck (Iverson's nickname is a combination of the names of two of his uncles) in football and basketball are well known around the Chesapeake Bay area. He led the Bethel basketball and football teams to state titles last season and won the state player of the year award in each sport. Three days after the state championship football game, in which he threw for 201 yards, returned a punt for a 60-yard touchdown and intercepted two passes, he scored 37 points in the basketball season opener.
In a way, Iverson's difficult summer can be traced back to the glorious one he had last year. Players' reputations are increasingly made not during the school year but during the summer, when the nation's best can be evaluated in head-to-head competition at various camps and tournaments around the country. Last summer Iverson turned in an eye-opening performance at the Nike summer camp in Indianapolis and was named MVP at five summer tournaments as a member of Marcellus (Boo) Williams's summer league program in southeastern Virginia. He forced recruiting mavens to take their hyperbole to new heights, but his rise may have been too swift.
"He's almost an overnight sensation," says Williams, who also coached NBA players Alonzo Mourning, J.R. Reid and Bryant Stith in his summer program. "One summer no one knows who you are, and the next, you're the Number One player in the country. With Alonzo and J.R., everyone knew they were going to be great from the time they were in eighth grade, so they could slowly be prepared for the pressures they were going to face. With Allen, it happened so quickly that there was almost no time to prepare him."
But there is one aspect of stardom that Iverson and his supporters seem to have grasped quickly—the expectation of special privileges. They have come to take VIP treatment so much for granted that they no longer consider it out of the ordinary. They expect things to be done for them, and they usually aren't disappointed. Iverson's trial conflicted with this summer's Nike camp, also in Indianapolis, a gathering of 130 of the top high school players in the country, but he never doubted he would attend. "I knew something would happen," he says.
Something did. One of the leading lawyers in the Hampton area, Herbert V. Kelly Sr., came forward to defend him free of charge, and Nike, which pays round-trip airfare to and from the camp for all the players, went the extra mile for Iverson, paying his fare to fly back from Indianapolis on July 8 for the beginning of his trial the next day, and then flying him back to Indy for the tournament all-star game on July 10.
"As far as we're concerned, this is still America, and Allen is innocent until proven guilty," said Nike camp director Rich Sheubrooks two days before Iverson was convicted. "If we had said to Allen, 'Oh, you're in trouble, we're washing our hands of you,' what kind of message would that have sent him?"
Instead, the message Nike sent was that if you're a good enough basketball player, obstacles will magically disappear. Even if Nike had the noblest of intentions, bankrolling Air Iverson could only have hurt him from a legal standpoint, making Iverson appear to be a spoiled athlete who didn't realize the gravity of his situation. Prosecutor Colleen Killilea drove that point home in her closing argument at the trial by borrowing the Nike slogan. "Now," she told Judge Overton, "it's our turn to just do it."
Why did Nike go to such lengths for Iverson? One reason has to do with the nature of the summer basketball culture. Players are like chips, and whatever league, camp or tournament amasses the most valuable ones wins. The Nike camp overlapped with the Converse ABCD camp in Ypsilanti, Mich., which is run by former Nike summer impresario Sonny Vaccaro, so players could not attend both. The unspoken motivation for Nike's shuttling Iverson back and forth is that if it hadn't, Vaccaro would have stolen him for his camp. "Competition leads to excess in summer ball," says Konchalski. "If Sonny hadn't been out there, Nike would have had much less incentive to do what it did."
While Nike had its reasons for giving Iverson the red-carpet treatment, Iverson had far less motivation to go to such lengths to play in the tournament. No one would have blamed him if he had chosen to concentrate solely on his trial. But he wanted to play basketball, and there was simply no one in the Iverson camp to tell him no. Even more troubling, no one seems to think attending the Nike camp was a bad idea, even in retrospect.
Several large egos are tied up in Iverson's athletic exploits, not the least of which is his mother's. When Allen returned from Indianapolis on the eve of the trial, he told his mother that Nike would not fly him back for the all-star game if he was convicted the next day. So, at the end of the first day, when the trial was held over from Friday until Monday. "I went and gave Bubba a hug, because I was the happiest person in that courtroom," says Ann. Allen was still on trial but he could play in the all-star game.
Ann was 15 when she gave birth to Allen, and the two of them have in a sense grown up together. She is fiercely protective of him and his sisters, Brandy, 14, and Iiesha, 20 months, raising them as a single mother with a budget that barely covers' the necessities. She is currently unemployed. She is also intolerant of people who she thinks are trying to gain greater influence over Allen than she has, which is why she and Moore have had their share of tense times. "Gary Moore tends to take too much credit for Allen being where he is," Ann says. "He seems to forget that Allen has a mother."
Moore has been described as Iverson's guardian in some reports, which, as Ann is quick to point out, is not the case. Allen lived with Moore for three months during his sophomore year, an arrangement that, according to Moore, was to give him a chance to take Allen under his wing. According to Ann, her son lived with Moore because she had moved to an apartment in a different school district and wanted Allen to continue to attend Bethel.
What's more, Moore brought in Kelly to be Allen's lawyer without first consulting Ann. That still rankles her. "The Gary Moore situation has been touchy lately," says Ann. "Gary is not a one-man team when it comes to my son. I'm weaning him from Allen just like I weaned my babies."
The rift between his mother and Moore is not lost on Allen. "There are times I wish things could go back to the way they used to be, when nobody thought I was all that good," he says. "Seemed like there was a lot less hi worn about then."
Where Ann and Moore agree is in their belief that Allen is just short of being a saint, which doesn't quite square with the record. Besides his current legal difficulties, he has had run-ins with his high school basketball coach, Mike Bailey, and he has a history of confrontations with his teachers. Iverson admits that he has had academic difficulties, too, including chronic lateness and absenteeism, and he's spending most of July and August in summer school. "Show me two teachers who say they've had problems with him, and I'll show you 10 who say he's a great kid," says Moore.
Clearly, many college coaches are willing to take a chance on Allen's character to gain access to his basketball talent. Virginia assistant coach Brian Ellerbe attended the first day of Iverson's trial. George Washington assistant Eddie Meyers told the Newport News Daily Press, "Unless he's behind bars, we're recruiting him. It's as simple as that."
It's not clear whether bars are in Iverson's future. As a first-time offender, he has a good chance of escaping a jail sentence, but he's not taking anything for granted. "I'll admit that I'm worried about how things will turn out," he says. "I know I'm not guaranteed anything."
Surely no one has covered himself with glory in this affair. Not Iverson, who, besides his felony convictions, is guilty of making some poor choices as well. Not Nike, which set a bad precedent in becoming Iverson's personal travel agency. Not Iverson's friends and family, who cannot help him correct his mistakes as long as they remain blind to them.
But maybe Iverson has learned something from all that has happened. If he truly realizes that he is not guaranteed anything—not shoe company largesse, not an easy way out of trouble, not a college career—he could yet bring an uplifting ending to a troubling story.