By Kent Babb
Less than an hour before the 8 p.m. tipoff, Philadelphia 76ers employees are scurrying around the Wells Fargo Center, hoping this Saturday night unfolds as planned.
It’s late March, and the team is handing out Allen Iverson bobblehead dolls. Iverson himself is scheduled to attend, a rare public appearance for the 37-year-old former NBA superstar. He’ll be introduced during a pregame ceremony and then watch the game from Sixers chief executive Adam Aron’s suite. But Iverson isn’t here yet, and a troubling rumor is passing through the arena’s arteries: Iverson has missed his flight.
“He’ll be on time,” Aron says assuredly. “That’s all that matters.”
Three years after Iverson’s last NBA game, the spotlight has shifted from his play to his flaws. His refusal back then to play by society’s rules was seen as an independent player’s quirks, part of the character and the brand, same as his cornrows and tattoos.
Practicing with hangovers added to the legend. Skipping team functions and refusing to obey the league’s dress code was a man who wouldn’t be held down. And embarrassing defenders on the way to the basket, in the NBA and before that at Georgetown, was a nightly statement by the 6-foot, 165-pound guard: If a man, no matter his size, is determined enough, he can get the better of giants.
But Iverson isn’t a basketball player anymore. This is something most everyone but Iverson has accepted, and for years a question worried those closest to him: What happens when the most important part of a man’s identity, the beam supporting the other unstable matter, is no longer there?
For the past three years, as Iverson chased an NBA comeback, his marriage fell apart and much of his fortune – he earned more than $150 million in salary alone during his career – dissolved. Now, those who once ignored past signals have recognized that basketball may have been the only thing holding Iverson’s life together.
“He has hit rock bottom, and he just hasn’t accepted it yet,” says former Philadelphia teammate Roshown McLeod.
A few minutes before 8 o’clock, a black Suburban pulls into the players’ parking lot. At 7:59, the passenger door opens, and Iverson climbs out, shouting profanity. Then he notices Aron, who wraps his arms around Iverson. They walk toward the entrance, Iverson still shouting, for one more night under the lights.
“God gave him this great gift,” says Pat Croce, the former Sixers executive who selected Iverson first overall in the 1996 NBA draft. “But you knew one day, he was going to take it away.”
‘I worry about him’
Iverson stood during a divorce proceeding in Atlanta in 2012 and pulled out his pants pockets. “I don’t even have money for a cheeseburger,” he shouted toward his estranged wife, Tawanna, who then handed him $61.
The scene showed a stark side of a man who had captivated crowds, pushed boundaries, and became one of the NBA’s biggest stars. He did things his way, on his schedule, speaking honestly during news conferences and snubbing the professional sports establishment. Crowds connected with Iverson, who’d succeeded despite physical limitations and mistakes, such as a felony conviction at 18 for his role in a bowling-alley brawl in Hampton, Va., his home town.