Allen Iverson was thirsty the night before the test that would determine how often he saw his five children, but more than that he was restless.
His six-bedroom mansion in northwest Atlanta was a prison now: an empty, 7,800-square-foot jailhouse with one inmate, and Iverson could not stand the silence. It was late December 2012, and months earlier his estranged wife had moved out, renting an apartment in nearby Suwanee and taking the kids with her. She kept saying she wanted a divorce, but this was not the first time she had said that. Wasn’t even the first time she had filed. Iverson told himself she would be back, because no matter how drunk or belligerent or violent he got, no matter the hour or condition he staggered home, Tawanna had always come back, filling these walls with life and sound — just the way Iverson liked it.
Now, though, it was silent. Uncomfortably so. Iverson had not played in the National Basketball Association in nearly three years, and his last game of any kind had been an exhibition in China two months earlier — a quick paycheck to keep the lights on and the creditors quiet. The house carried a second mortgage now, and in less than two months it would be foreclosed and later sold at auction. But for now, it was home, even if it no longer felt much like it. The previous day had been Christmas, songs and voices filling the air, but now on this Wednesday evening, it was quiet again, and Iverson was stirring. Maybe he would go out for a while. He liked the bar at P.F. Chang’s because it was familiar and close, five miles from his house, and there was valet parking and cold Corona.
One drink wouldn’t hurt, would it? Just to take the edge off. Maybe two.
THE NEXT AFTERNOON, he walked toward the doctor’s office near Hartsfield airport, assuming he had sobered up enough to beat the test. Iverson had more than a drink or two the night before, but it was four in the afternoon now, plenty of time for the alcohol to pass through his system. The problem was, Iverson had always underestimated his own metabolism, even before he was thirty-seven years old. His face was puffier now, his midsection and arms softer than they had been when he was named most valuable player of the NBA in 2001, when he led the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals and Iverson’s determined play announced to the world that an athlete and man cannot be judged on appearance alone.
Back then, he could stay out until the wee hours, a friend helping him into his Atlantic City hotel room after a marathon night of gambling or Tawanna leading him up the stairs and into the bed, and still function well enough to make it to the arena in time to drop forty points, breaking some fool’s ankles with his crossover dribble and then slashing toward the basket as he bounced off bodies almost twice his size. But he was pushing forty, and the years had been unkind. He drank more now, and the hangovers were less eager to loosen their grip. The booze made him edgy, more impatient and profane, and sometimes he would piss on the floor in front of the kids or, if Tawanna looked at him sideways, drag his high school sweetheart up the stairs by her hair or dig the toe of his Timberland into the top of her bare foot, grinding like he was putting out a cigarette. Sometimes he reminded her of his connections and how inexpensive it would be to have her killed; Iverson estimated her life was worth maybe $5,000.
She believed he was an alcoholic, and no manner of plea or threat would keep him home and sober. Tawanna spoke to his mother, Ann Iverson, begging her to talk sense into her son. She hounded Gary Moore, Iverson’s childhood mentor and now his personal manager, asking him to say something because he might not listen to most people, Gary, but you know he’ll listen to you. She cried and asked gently and, when that did not work, she showed her teeth and asked angrily, slinging a champagne bottle against the wall and threatening to take the kids and the rest of his money if he did not stop drinking and throwing their future away. He told her he could stop any time he wanted, but he would not be told to do anything; that was never the way to get Iverson to do anything. And so she did as she said, filing for divorce in 2010 before baiting Iverson into signing a lopsided postnuptial agreement before she moved back in one last time. She filed again in 2012 and hired a high-profile divorce attorney, telling him that she did not trust Iverson around their children. Not when they had been newborns, when he had blown off major events because he was too drunk—including the birth of his first son—and certainly not now that things had worsened. One of the court’s first rulings was to order a substance abuse evaluation and gauge how severe the problem really was. The assessment by the substance abuse doctor, Michael Fishman, would go a long way in determining custody and visitation for the children.
The test was simple, and all Iverson had to do was not have alcohol in his system for one day. He had scheduled the appointment carefully, factoring in his hatred of mornings, and asked for a window late in the afternoon. Four o’clock it was, and now he entered the office and greeted the workers, two of whom could still smell alcohol on his breath from the night before. A while later, Fishman swabbed the inside of Iverson’s mouth, and his saliva showed that even now, so many hours after that final drink, his blood-alcohol content was between .06 and .08, the latter number indicating that, according to Georgia law, Iverson was still too drunk to even drive himself here. Then Iverson filled a cup with urine, and at 6 p.m., he still had enough booze in his system that the test showed his BAC was .05, suggesting to Fishman that on a most important day, with alcohol as the matter in question, Iverson had either gotten himself so shit-faced the night before that he was still drunk as afternoon turned to evening, or he had kept on drinking that afternoon.
Iverson’s test results made Fishman’s assessment easy, and when Iverson finally met with the case’s guardian ad litem, a court-appointed investigator and mediator, at the Fulton County Superior Courthouse—he had blown off their first appointment and called at the last minute to reschedule the second—she noted that Iverson “smelled remarkably of alcohol.” A different doctor had also smelled alcohol on Iverson’s breath during yet another evaluation.
In February 2013, about six weeks after his substance abuse test, Dawn Smith, the guardian ad litem, took the witness stand. She had interviewed Iverson several times by now, and during her testimony she pointed out that a man whose penchant for dramatic plays at dramatic moments had made him one of America’s most famous athletes was now wilting in his personal life—a time when, more than ever, he needed to be clutch. “People, in my experience, when you’ve got a guardian doing an investigation,” Smith told the court, “they try to, you know, act their best, do their best job at parenting. So in the midst of this, he still wasn’t able to step up despite the scrutiny.”
DURING THE MONTHS that followed, friends and teammates from Iverson’s life as a basketball icon tried to separate fact from fiction. How could he fall so far, so fast?
They read the reports in the newspapers and on gossip websites. Could Iverson really be broke, only a few years removed from a career that earned him more than $150 million in playing salary alone? Was it true that he and Tawanna, Iverson’s high school sweetheart and that gentle soul they had come to know as the woman who had tamed the NBA’s bad boy, really split up? Had his spending and gambling and drinking—especially the drinking—really gotten this far out of hand, that it seemed to now be on the verge of ruining Iverson’s life? “Nobody can save Allen at this point except Allen,” said Henry “Que” Gaskins, who in 1996 had been assigned by Reebok to help shepherd Iverson into adulthood and superstardom. “He’s got to first admit that he needs to be saved. I don’t even know that he feels like that’s the case.”
After the divorce was final, with the judge convinced enough of Iverson’s instability that she granted Tawanna everything she had asked for, Iverson continued his desperate attempt to return to the NBA. He waited for the phone to ring day after day, assuming a franchise would come to its senses and bring back a former star who believed he still had something to offer. Iverson, for so long seen as an athlete who refused to accept his own limitations, was now nothing more than a sad and broken man unwilling to accept the truth—a truth many of those closest to Iverson had known and tried to ignore for years: Basketball had been the only thing holding Iverson’s life together, and now basketball was gone. “God gave him this great gift,” said Pat Croce, the former Sixers team president and the man who oversaw Iverson’s selection as the NBA’s top overall draft pick in 1996. “But you knew one day, He was going to take it away.”
The days became weeks and then months, and the silence ate away at Iverson. The phone did not ring. Tawanna did not return. Friends did not come around. The divorce judge had decreed that Iverson avoid alcohol for a year, an attempt at returning a once-dazzling life to the rails. A life addicted to noise and stimulation had gone quiet, and so three or four nights a week he drove to Cumberland Mall in northwest Atlanta, parking on the shopping center’s north side.
He walked past the fountain, through the revolving door at P.F. Chang’s, and past the host’s station. Along either side of the aisle were tables with families and laughing friends, and straight ahead was the crescent-shaped bar, where a pair of televisions were usually tuned to sports highlights. Comfort waited only a few strides away.
Sometimes diners recognized him, and Iverson occasionally smiled as a stranger snapped a photograph. Other times he wore a floppy hat and sunglasses, taking his normal seat and ordering the night’s first Corona, his eyes finding highlights that no longer included him, tipping the clear glass bottle upward and trying like hell to hide from an unsympathetic world.
The last of the Philadelphia 76ers’ exit interviews was supposed to have been completed in the morning, and here it was afternoon when Coach Larry Brown’s phone finally rang. Allen Iverson apologized, saying he had run late, promising that he would be there at three o’clock.
Sure, Allen, Brown told him, and sure enough, when the hand hit the three on the coach’s watch, Iverson still nowhere to be found, Brown got up, left his office, and headed for his car. He had just pulled out of his parking space when Iverson pulled in with a friend.
“I’m here!” Iverson shouted toward Brown, who had criticized his best player’s practice habits earlier in the 2001-02 season.
“My time is just as valuable as yours,” Brown said, his patience gone, “and I’m not waiting for your ass.”
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼“Ah, Coach,” Iverson said with a smile, and sure enough, Brown put his car back in gear and returned to his space.
They stood outside the team facility, Brown telling Iverson it was clear he respected no one’s schedule but his own. Iverson grew defensive, and soon they were both shouting. Billy King, the team’s general manager, found his way outside and tried to referee.
“So are you gonna trade my ass?” Iverson finally asked. Brown shook his head, promising Iverson that he would be back in Philadelphia in the fall, pain in the ass that he was. And, yes, Brown would return, too. That was all Iverson needed to hear. He wrapped his arms around Brown, who slapped his star player’s back. Brown was relieved but drained, but King and Iverson were excited. King suggested holding a press conference, and Iverson agreed.
With a few hours to kill, Iverson left with his friend. “I assume he went and fooled around somewhere,” Brown said, tipping his hand upward like a bottle.
When Iverson returned to the facility, King greeted him, noticing that something was different from a couple of hours earlier. “If we had thought that he was drinking or whatever,” King said, “we ’d have never done it.”
But the fuse had already been lit. King took his place near a wall, and Iverson glided toward a table. Neil Hartman, a reporter for Comcast SportsNet, relayed to a studio anchor that Iverson had arrived. “He’s starting right now, Michael. Let’s go,” Hartman said into his microphone.
Hearing the words, Iverson dropped his voice into a newsman’s baritone, mocking Hartman—“He’s starting now, Michael, llllet’s go!”—and taking the first swing during what was about to be an unforgettable main event.
Go again, Iverson said, shaking his head. One more time.
Dean Berry, a walk-on guard at Georgetown University, shrugged and nodded, bringing the ball back toward the half-court line before Allen Iverson’s sophomore season. Georgetown’s practice was finished, but Iverson never wanted to go home — so he begged teammates to play two-on-two or even one-on-one.
Most were exhausted and ready for a nap or a plate of pasta. Berry, a student of the game who had come to Washington, D.C., to test himself at one of America’s best basketball factories, was always up for it. When he was in high school, he watched videos of Tim Hardaway and John Stockton and how one telegraphed move seemed to always give them a cushion. Their crossover dribble was effective, and Berry wanted to learn it. He hit rewind and then play, seeing how Hardaway dribbled the ball high and let it float in his hand as he leaned in one direction and then broke the other way; rewind and then play, watching again and again. Berry took his lessons to the playgrounds, trying each of his heroes’ moves, loving how it dared a defender to come get the ball and then, in a flash, he was gone.
They were playing pickup one afternoon at Georgetown’s McDonough Gymnasium when Iverson asked about it. How the hell did Berry keep getting so open? It drove Iverson crazy: Someone at Georgetown had finally found his weakness. He could not defend Berry’s crossover.
“Hey,” Iverson called over. “You gotta show me that.”
Berry obliged, and he waited for Iverson to tighten his defensive cushion. Then it was time. A hard bounce to lull Iverson into thinking this was it, but this one a bluff. The first one, always a bluff. “You want that person to believe that you’re going to the right, but first you must believe it,” Berry recalled explaining to his student. Iverson nodded, telling himself he would not fall for it this time.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼So Berry took his time, slowing things, making Iverson wait for it. When Berry saw Iverson leaning, he hit him with the big dribble, the big lean, the big move, the big — fuck! He was gone again.
One more, Iverson kept begging, determined to stop it first and then learn it himself. Berry took the ball toward center court, starting the drill again. Rewind and play, again and again, rewind and play.
Allen Iverson had arrived in Philadelphia a simple man, of simple tastes, and in private he remained that way. He was thoughtful and caring, even if occasionally he hid that side of himself. He was not perfect and did not claim to be, but he was more good than bad, more hard worker than among the blessed, and in the city he now called home, there was some commonality in that.
“This city don’t take no bullshit,” said Aaron McKie, a Sixers teammate who was born, raised, and educated in Philadelphia. “You can’t fool these people.”
Iverson would stay at T.G.I. Friday’s, his favorite Philly nightspot, until the staff playfully kicked him out, and then he went to whichever bar would have him or, shit, who was up for a run to Atlantic City? Then he would arrive late for shootaround the next day or spend the first quarter of afternoon games suffering the alcohol shakes. His teammates rolled their eyes and waited for Larry Brown’s head to explode, wondering how the hell Iverson did it. He didn’t sleep on the team plane, and God help anyone who did. There were spades to be played and money to be made, so wake up, Aaron, wake up, wake up, wake up!
“A.I., give me a half hour, man,” McKie would tell him, his head resting on the airplane’s wall.
“Ah, man, fuck that!” Iverson would reply, and if McKie kept his eyes closed, Iverson sat there and threw popcorn at him until McKie had enough.
“Heck with it,” McKie said finally, reaching for the cards. “Come on, man, let’s go.”
He never lifted weights, barely stretched, and ate like hell, and before games he would sit in the players’ family lounge until a half hour before tip-off, wearing a tank top and making plans for after the game. Then he would run downstairs and slide on his number-three jersey, and five minutes before the public address announcer introduced him—“a six-foot guard from Georgetoooooooown” — he choked down four hot dogs, all the fuel a high-performance body needs.
Iverson dived across the floor or hurdled the scorer’s table to chase loose balls, craned his neck upward to get in the face of any opponent who challenged him, and talked back to anyone who dared stand in his way. Then he’d drop fifty points, tearing through the lane and cupping a hand around an ear as the arena went berserk watching its new favorite son.
“Here’s this guy getting beat up and knocked down underneath the rims by these behemoths, and he gets right back up and looks them in the eyes and keeps on going with a smirk and a smile,” said Pat Croce, a Philadelphia native and former 76ers president. “And we just fuckin’ loved that.”