Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Same Fight, Different Round
The NBA Players' Association recognized Allen Iverson with its first ever "Game Changer" award Thursday night in its first ever NBAPA Awards ceremony. It was a contrived lifetime achievement award given at an event nobody knew was happening, but Iverson's acceptance speech transcended the circumstances. The speech, like so many Iverson moments, was beautifully human.
There was always something utterly raw about Iverson during his peak years, the last pre-social media star. Today, only a decade removed from his prime, the game's top players talk about brand strategy and hashtag themselves into plasticity. It's safe and mostly fun, but we all know we're kidding ourselves. By using social media platforms available to everyone, athletes imply the illusion that we aren't all that different. LeBron goes to the juice bar, too! I wonder what else we have in common during the other 23.5 hours of the day?
Most of us never felt that way about Iverson. He lived an edgy life that made sponsors nervous and shared little in common with many corners of America. Iverson at times seemed like living performance art, a real-time show that made us uncomfortable, but always demanded the respect afforded to the genuine.
Sure, his game on the court was scarred by an over-reliance on dribbling and a vulgar usage rate. We often praise athletes by saying they carry teams to victory, but with Iverson, it was more of an accusation. As Iverson swirled through the lane like a corn-rowed Tazmanian Devil, his Philly teams lived and died forty shots and a cloud of crossovers at a time.
But Iverson the man represent something else — many something elses — during that period. And nothing better typifies those many somethings than his infamous "Practice" press conference.
We worship athletes, celebrities, and moguls who grind in the unsexy hours before and after everyone else in large part because we are unwilling or unable to. So imagine the knee-jerk revulsion as Iverson spat out his sheer disgust at the idea that his practice habits were up for review.
Instead, Iverson demanded he be judged by the unanimously consistent effort he put forth every game night, oftentimes in spite of the lingering injuries inborn to an 82-game season.
With this monologue, Iverson challenged us all. Should we measure a man by process or performance? Are we so sure the latter can only be achieved through the former?
It was brusque and garish and offended sensibilities. But, dammit, it was true.
That was always the sense we had of Iverson. While celebrity culture increasingly compels us to point fingers and demand hollow apologies when idols make mistakes, the rules of engagement for Iverson were clear: we all knew didn't care. Once we got past that, we could judge him fairly.
Iverson had the poor luck of timing his career between the shiny corporate juggernaut of Michael Jordan and the strategized positional fluidity of today's stars. In fact, we may look at the mid-2000s as an especially interesting time in American culture generally, the gap during which technology had already invaded our private lives before we were wise to its reach. Who knows how differently we would perceive Iverson had he arrived 10 years later with significantly more image savvy?
Toward the end of his short speech Thursday, Iverson alluded to his recent struggles with gambling and alcohol since his retirement. When he is asked how he is doing, Iverson said he almost always responds the same way:
"Same fight, different round."
Perhaps the circumstances of Iverson's particular fight are saddening, but his lesson is infinitely valuable. We all face different opponents fighting in different styles during our years, but each of us faces the same battle throughout.
We are challenged to be the best version of ourselves — our real selves — every time the bell rings. Beyond that, leave it up to the judges.