By David Teel
11:20 AM PST, January 19, 2011
Allen Iverson's gentle tone of voice rarely changes. Even as he recounts the violence, poverty and drug abuse he has witnessed in his 17 years, the voice remains quiet, steady.
To an outsider, this calm is eerie. But the sad truth is, such blights are facts of life where Allen Iverson lives. You see enough, and you become numb.
But Iverson, perhaps the finest high school athlete ever to grace these parts, does not want our sympathy. He has come to grips with his best friend's murder. He accepts lacking some of life's luxuries and instead rejoices in the health of his infant sister, who almost died at birth.
What Iverson wants is our attention. He wants us to know he is not a lawless thug on the fast track to prison. He wants us to know he's determined to graduate from Bethel High School and take his wondrous basketball and football skills to college. And beyond.
Not that Iverson is an angelic recluse. His past is littered with academic neglect and confrontations with teachers and coaches. He is, in short, a street urchin with an attitude, even if he is a wispy 6-feet and 160 pounds.
Challenge Iverson, and you'll find out. He'll bump your chest and glare at you with wide brown eyes more intense than lasers. He means business. This is someone who, on the night he was charged with brawling at a bowling alley, with his normally stormy world turned downright chaotic, summoned the poise to score 42 show-stopping points in a basketball game.
What else to expect? Survival on the streets often hinges on having a poker player's composure and a steelworker's toughness.
``I call it living dangerously,'' Bethel basketball coach Mike Bailey said. ``I think he's destined for greatness because he loves a challenge. I just hope nothing tragic happens.''
``I do a lot of things teen-agers do,'' Iverson said. ``Sometimes I don't take on my responsibilities. . . . God gave me this talent, and I just want to use it. If I don't make it in life, my high school career was for nothing. I want to be the best. I want everybody to think that I am, to know that I am.''
The best. It is such an onerous tag, especially for a high school junior. But during the past nine months, Allen Iverson's talent and flair have captured the imagination of folks across the country.
He plays basketball at warp speed and above the rim, his pencil-thin legs launching him over helpless opponents. Parade Magazine today touts him as a first-team All-American, one of only two juniors named to the 10-member group.
With a football, Iverson moves like Michael Jackson on the dance floor, frustrating hordes of tacklers with his quickness, his mere presence enveloping the entire field. The Associated Press voted him Virginia's Group AAA Player of the Year.
When college recruiters in both sports see Iverson, they envision national championships.
``I was in Los Angeles, and they're talking about Allen Iverson,'' said Boo Williams, Iverson's summer league basketball coach. ``I was in Florida, and they're talking about Allen Iverson.''
They talk about him more in Hampton and Newport News. Walk the streets and ask the elderly and the young. They know.
``He's a legend,'' said Bob Bailey, the public address announcer at Bethel basketball games. ``I hang around the gyms and hear the kids talking about him. I think everybody who lives in Aberdeen and North Hampton who's 6 or 7 years old knows Bubbachuck.''
Bubbachuck. The nickname combines the names of two of Iverson's cousins. His grandfather gave it to him. At first Iverson disliked the tag, but he, and his community, have since embraced it.
When kids in Aberdeen gather to play sandlot football, they don't shout, ``I'm Art Monk,'' or, ``I'm Emmitt Smith,'' like most kids. Instead, they become ``Bubbachuck.''
But celebrities, be they children or adults, attract vicious scrutiny. Iverson is not immune.
The rumors, according to those close to Iverson, are the product of jealousy, fear and racism. Iverson himself acknowledges them. They say he's a drug addict and dealer. They say he's too old to compete in high school sports. They say he rarely attends school. They say he has no chance of meeting the academic standards of major college sports programs.
Iverson refutes the rumors, as do those close to him.
``He doesn't have a drug or alcohol problem,'' said Teko Winder, a star athlete at Bethel during the early 1970s. ``He has a living problem. He needs to know how to live.''
``You've got a kid who's 17 years old who doesn't make a penny for doing what he enjoys, and everybody wants to scrutinize and evaluate his life already,'' Bethel football coach Dennis Kozlowski said. ``People should let him be, let him grow.
``If he's able to go to college, get a degree and maybe go on to the next level athletically, God bless him. Then we can put him under the microscope. The publicity and notoriety at this level are what's damaging the kid because his perceptions become distorted.''
Iverson appears unaffected. ``They go in one ear and out the other,'' he said of the rumors.
But Gary Moore, who coached Iverson's youth football team and remains close to the family, said Iverson ``cried all night'' after a recent USA Today story that reported Iverson has never met his natural father and has a 1.8 grade-point average.
In fact, although Iverson lives with his mother, Ann, he has frequent contact with his father, Michael Freeman. Iverson's grades, according to law, are private, but his coaches and friends agree that the National Collegiate Athletic Association's 2.0 minimum grade-point average in core courses such as English and math is well within his reach.
``I guess it comes from me being from the streets,'' Iverson said. ``People figure I must be some kind of bad guy. . . . I'm just like every other teen-age kid. I go to parties, hang out and try to stay out of trouble. I watch whatever I do. But it's kind of tough. You don't know what people want to be with you because they like you as a person or because of what you are sports-wise.''
Said Williams: ``There's a misconception that he's a bad kid. He's just a very, very tough, competitive kid. He ain't no saint. He's not sitting next to the pope. But if you're in a war, you want him in your foxhole.''
Allen Iverson has seen most everything. He was raised in the projects of Newport News' East End, where danger is tangible, drugs are plentiful and life can be fleeting.
``I learned a lot by staying down there, about people and about life,'' Iverson said. ``At parties I've seen a lot of fights, a lot of shooting.''
On Feb. 14, Iverson was at Circle Lanes in Hampton during a chair-throwing brawl that sent three people to the emergency room. Iverson's presence immediately became common knowledge, the talk of eateries and classrooms.
Last Tuesday he was arrested and charged with three counts of maiming by mob and one count of assault by mob. Three others face the same charges for their part in the incident.
Before his arrest, Iverson said he was struck by a chair and did not retaliate.
Less than a month earlier, on Jan. 17, Iverson attended a party at the Hampton Coliseum Sheraton, where a former Hampton University student was shot to death.
``It was scary,'' Iverson said. ``I heard the gunshots. I got all my friends and went back upstairs because this was going on downstairs. I got my friends and made sure we didn't split up. Things like that can happen anywhere.''
Four years ago, it happened to Iverson's best friend. Tony Clark was 20, a former athlete and a high school dropout. He used to take Iverson to the basketball courts and watch him play. On weekends, Iverson often stayed at Clark's house.
When Iverson began neglecting his schoolwork, Clark sent him home. Two weeks later, Clark was dead, stabbed in the heart during an argument.
``I loved him like a brother,'' Iverson said.
``When Bubba found out, he went out there, and the bloodstain was still in the streets,'' Ms. Iverson said. ``He stayed home a lot after that. He wouldn't go anywhere. Tony opened Bubba's eyes. He'd say, `Stay in school. Don't end up like I did.' ''
Iverson has heard the same message from Winder, whose poor grades forced him to attend junior college instead of a major university. Winder had a brief fling in professional basketball, but his career was derailed by drug use. Winder escaped his addiction and is now a counselor at Alternatives Inc. in Hampton.
``I talked to him about the things that happened to me,'' Winder said. ``Hanging around the wrong people, doing drugs. . . . But Allen has so many folks trying to tell him what to do. He's got to be confused.''
Drugs, from pot to crack, were as common to Iverson's youth as the senseless violence. Even after fleeing the East End, Ms. Iverson recalls walking out the front door of her Brittany Apartment unit in Hampton one morning and being confronted by a crack dealer.
``I broke my lease and got out of there,'' she said. ``I wasn't going to raise my kids around crackheads.''
``That's what hurts the most, when you see someone you know doing drugs,'' Iverson said. ``When they do it front of you, that hurts worse. Guys I grew up with, I've seen them doing drugs. It's happening all over. We have to figure out something to do about it. It's ruining a lot of people.''
Iverson said he has never tried drugs. ``I drank beer once at a party,'' he laughs. ``It was nasty. It made me dizzy, and I hate being dizzy.''
The questions beg to be asked. What is Iverson doing at these parties? Why is he out until 1 a.m. with older people?
There are a myriad of answers. He grew up on the streets. He's as comfortable there as you are in your La-Z-Boy. His friends are on the streets. Plus, scores of other people in his community want to be around him. It's hip. It's cool. Allen Iverson is ``The Man.''
``I usually don't have a problem with him going to parties,'' Ms. Iverson said, ``because he's a popcorn-eating, soda-drinking child. I have no problem with him being out in the street.''
``I'm too much a social person to stay in the house,'' Iverson said. ``I can't do that. I think about the drug situation. If I'm in jail, I can't do what I want to do and reach the goals for what I want to do for my family. I don't want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.''
That's what frightens so many people. They see Iverson and think about Ben Wilson and Anfernee Hardaway.
Wilson was Chicago's top high school basketball player in 1984. He was a powerful forward, a national college prospect. But Wilson was an innocent victim of Chicago's mean streets. Standing outside a store near his high school, he was gunned down by a gang member who wanted to make a name for himself.
Ben Wilson was 17, the same age as Iverson.
Hardaway is from inner-city Memphis. His basketball skills have been compared to Magic Johnson's, and after a brilliant high school career, he signed with Memphis State. But he was academically ineligible as a freshman. After playing a pick-up game in April 1991, Hardaway and a friend were robbed at gunpoint. As the assailants fled, they shot wildly. Hardaway was lucky. The bullet struck his foot.
Surgery repaired Hardaway's injury, and as a junior at Memphis State he is a candidate for national player of the year. Twice he has made the dean's list.
``You have to surround yourself with good people, and then you have to listen to them,'' Williams said of Iverson. ``If you hang around with five millionaires, you'll be the sixth millionaire. If you hang around with five bums, you'll be the sixth bum.''
Williams has organized Hampton Roads summer basketball leagues for 12 years. He has ventured into the area's roughest neighborhoods, searching for kids looking to escape. He has seen a mother point a gun at her son; he has seen an athlete live with a parent who ran a crack house.
But such hardships do not preclude success.
Lloyd Daniels, heralded as the finest playground basketball player in New York history, was dismissed from several high schools. Nevada-Las Vegas attempted to recruit him, but Daniels was arrested in a Las Vegas drug bust before he enrolled. Daniels received treatment for his addiction and is now a rookie forward for the National Basketball Association's San Antonio Spurs.
Rodney Rogers grew up in the McDougald Terrace projects of Durham, N.C. His father died when Rodney was 8. His stepfather died when Rodney was in high school. His mother still suffers memory loss from a serious automobile accident five years ago. One of Rodney's brothers is deaf; another was jailed for armed robbery. Today, Rogers is a junior forward at Wake Forest, and pro scouts regard him as one of the nation's best players.
Allen Iverson lives in the Aberdeen section of Hampton with his mother and two sisters, 13-year-old Brandy and 14-month-old Iiesha. Although Iverson lived for a time with Moore, his youth football coach, he is devoted to his mother and sisters.
``I love my father to death,'' he said, ``but words can't describe how I feel about my mom.''
Ann Iverson arrived at Bethel High School in January 1975. She was 15 and pregnant, a product of the Hartford, Conn., ghettos, where she was forced to fight to defend herself about four times a week. She never heard the word ``contraception'' until after she was pregnant.
That June, Allen was born.
``I was a child having a child,'' she said. ``Bubba and I grew up together.''
At 33, Ms. Iverson still has some growing up to do, according to sources. They portray her as a mother with an undeniable love for her children, but someone who struggles to balance her life with theirs.
Ms. Iverson, opinionated, brash and fond of trendy clothes, has struggled to provide for her children. She has worked for Avon cosmetics and at Newport News Shipbuilding, but currently is searching for a job. She prefers clerical work.
``I'm trying to keep a roof over their heads and mine,'' Ms. Iverson said. ``Tight isn't the word for our money. If there's another word past tight, use it.''
If Allen Iverson ever signs a professional sports contract or lands a lucrative job, he will provide first for his mother and sisters.
``I have this dream car,'' Ms. Iverson said, ``a candy-apple red Jaguar. When he was 12, Allen told me, `Ma, I'm going to be the first Iverson to go pro. I'm going to get you that car, and your house is going to be better than Michael Jordan's momma's house.' ''
``She's a fun person to be around,'' Iverson said of his mother. ``She's not that old, so she still has a lot of kid in her. She's hard on me when I mess up. A lot of times when I know I'm doing something wrong, I think about her. . . .
``I'd like to have nice stuff like everybody else. Mom and Dad go out of their way to get it, but if they can't, I have to understand that. If I do what I'm supposed to do on the court, football field and in the classroom, maybe I can have some of those things.''
Ms. Iverson's last pregnancy was complicated. Iiesha was born nine days late in Newport News and, according to Ms. Iverson, had swallowed her own waste in the womb.
Iiesha was taken to Norfolk's King's Daughters Hospital, but doctors said she probably would not return alive. Ms. Iverson was allowed to hold her one last time.
But Iiesha was tough. She improved in Norfolk and later was taken to Georgetown University Hospital. She has been healthy since.
``She's got big hands and big feet,'' Iverson said. ``She looks just like me in the face. I can't wait to get home and play with my little sister. It's the first thing I do when I go through the door.''
If only Allen Iverson was as devoted to academics. His attendance record is spotty, as is his effort in the classroom.
The only class that truly has captivated Iverson is art. He has a natural talent for drawing, with caricatures of teammates and coaches his most common projects.
``I used to draw all kinds of things,'' Iverson said. ``Then I started doing cartoons. I don't draw realistic pictures anymore.''
High grades in art do not matter to the NCAA. Math, history, English and science count. Iverson blames his academic woes on ``being lazy. It was my fault.''
There are doubts whether Iverson will meet NCAA academic standards of a 2.0 grade-point in core courses and a 700 Scholastic Aptitude Test score, but not because he lacks brains.
``Allen is no dumb kid,'' Williams said. ``Allen can do college work, and he can get a degree. He may have to work a little harder, but he's no dumb kid.''
``He certainly has the ability academically and athletically to be whatever he wants to be,'' said football coach Kozlowski. ``He has to make the decision to commit himself. . . . Hopefully he can accelerate the maturity process. Sooner or later, he will have to pay for that immaturity.''
Kozlowski did not allow Iverson to play offense as a freshman because of chronic tardiness to school.
``My early years in school, I never took academics real seriously,'' Iverson said. ``As I got older, I heard about a lot of players who didn't make it. Not until the end of last year did I get really, really serious. I go to school now. It's crunch time.''
Iverson, according to sources, has had several run-ins with Bethel teachers. But Bethel teachers have been instructed by school administrators not to comment on Iverson.
Even if Iverson fails to reach the NCAA threshold, he still has three ways to make it into collegiate sports:
* Find a four-year college that will accept him with low scores and forfeit his first year of athletic eligibility. Schools in the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences, which include Duke, Florida State, Virginia, Wake Forest and Kentucky, won't do that.
* Improve his academic record at prep school for a year and then enroll in college.
* Attend a junior college for two years and transfer to a four-year school.
Alternate routes have led other star athletes of questionable academic credentials to success.
As a high school football star in suburban Los Angeles, Russell White failed to attain NCAA academic minimums. He has since become an All-America running back at Cal-Berkeley and is scheduled to graduate with a social welfare degree.
Rumeal Robinson was abandoned on the streets of Boston at age 12. He was a fabulous point guard, but he failed to meet NCAA standards and sat out his freshman season at Michigan. As a junior, Robinson made the deciding free throws in the Wolverines' national championship victory against Seton Hall. A year later, he graduated with an art degree. Robinson now plays for the NBA's New Jersey Nets.
Only a year ago, few saw professional athletic potential in Iverson, who learned his sporting lessons from older kids on the no-holds-barred blacktops and fields of Aberdeen and the East End. Sure, he was flashy and fast, and he racked up impressive numbers. But the only first-team All-Peninsula District honor he received was as a football defensive back.
This summer, Iverson went from local curiosity to national phenom. Playing for Williams' barnstorming Amateur Athletic Union basketball team, Iverson was voted the most valuable player at five different venues, including the national tournament at Winston-Salem, N.C., where Williams' team won the championship.
None of Williams' past players - current professionals Alonzo Mourning, J.R. Reid, and Bryant Stith included - had matched Iverson's performances.
``He's Kenny Anderson with a jump shot,'' Williams said of Iverson.
Anderson was first-team All-ACC as a freshman and sophomore at Georgia Tech before bolting early for the NBA, where he starts for the Nets.
Recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons said Iverson could become the finest high school guard ever.
Given his summer of basketball, some wondered whether Iverson would play football at Bethel last fall. He began preseason practice late and struggled in early games. But as the season progressed, Iverson became a dominant player at quarterback, defensive back and kick returner, and he led the Bruins to the state championship. He passed for 1,423 yards and 14 touchdowns. He ran for 781 yards and 15 touchdowns. He returned four punts, one kickoff and one interception for touchdowns.
Bethel needed to upset undefeated Hampton, then the state's top-ranked team, to make the playoffs. Against a defense that hadn't yielded a touchdown in four games, Iverson guided the Bruins to a 30-10 rout, Hampton's worst defeat since 1976.
In a 27-0 victory against E.C. Glass of Lynchburg in the state title game, Iverson passed for 201 yards, intercepted two passes and returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown.
``He's the most exciting player I've ever seen in high school,'' said an assistant coach at a major college football program. ``Offense, defense, the kicking game, he's in a class of his own. He dominates the game.''
Three days and one basketball practice after the state title game, Iverson scored 37 points in Bethel's season-opening victory against Kecoughtan. Seven times this season he has scored 40 or more points, and entering Saturday's Peninsula District Tournament final against Hampton, he was averaging 31.6 points a game.
But basketball season also has tarnished Iverson's reputation. He has received several technical fouls for taunting opponents. He was suspended for a game, which Bethel lost, for missing a practice.
When Bethel and Hampton drew a capacity crowd to Hampton University's Holland Hall, Iverson brought the house down with a 25-point first half. But he was benched for much of the second half after a disagreement with Coach Bailey during a timeout.
Such antics prompt questions about his relationships with coaches and teammates, all of whom perform in his shadow.
``He's not a bad kid,'' Bailey said. ``He slept through practice and mouthed off. I corrected behavior. I want to see those kinds of things resolved now. Too much is at stake at the next level.''
``He brings out the best in everyone else,'' said Xavier Gunn, who played both sports with Iverson. ``That's what he expects from his teammates, and that's what we expect from him. I wouldn't call it demanding. That's just how it is.''
``He's cocky,'' Williams said. ``That's what makes him as good as he is.''
Iverson atones for his behavior with performance. The night after his benching against Hampton, he buried five consecutive 3-pointers and scored 40 points to rally Bethel from a 20-point deficit to an 86-74 victory against Menchville. After a listless 8-point performance against Lafayette during which he received a technical foul, Iverson scored 40 or more in three consecutive games.
``He's always on the edge, testing how far the coach will let him go, how far the officials will let him go, how far teachers will let him go,'' said Bailey, the public address announcer. ``But that's his fire. I'm not sure he always knows how that comes across to other people.''
``A lot of people don't know that once the game starts, everyone is coming at me,'' Iverson said. ``When someone makes a smart remark to me on the court and I say something, people always pick up on what I say. . . . I just play hard. I like to stay under control, have a good time and make sure my teammates are having a good time, too. I'm not a one-man show.''
But make no mistake: When Iverson takes the field, or the court, he is ``the show.''
He smiles and contorts his face on the basketball court, reacting to each play, each call of the officials. He handles the ball like a yo-yo, creates plays at full-speed and floats above the rim.
The crowds respond like converts at a revival. When Bethel and Hampton met for the district title Feb. 16, more than 8,000 people crammed into Hampton Coliseum, and although Iverson shot poorly, he stunned the crowd with two alley-oop dunks.
The second was particularly outrageous because Iverson didn't have a running start. He posted his defender along the baseline, spun toward the bucket and somehow rose above the rim for a basket that had fans on their feet and buzzing for minutes.
``It's his show, his game,'' Williams said. ``He's an entertainer.''
On the football field, as he dances from sideline to sideline, Iverson points at opposing defenders, as if to say, ``You can't touch me.'' He celebrates after scoring touchdowns.
``He's developed a charisma that results in some of that ostentatious flair,'' Kozlowski said. ``The funny part is, he does it in practice, too. It's part of his personality.''
``I try to excite people,'' Iverson said, ``not by just scoring, but everything else.''
Williams compares Iverson's presence to Michael Jordan's and Magic Johnson's. If you're looking for a similar two-sport star, how about Deion Sanders? Shoe companies always are looking for their next marquee spokesman, and some, according to Williams, already are intrigued by 17-year-old Iverson.
``With the right decisions, he's a multi-millionaire,'' Williams said. ``It's a business now, and I don't think he understands that.''
Iverson dismisses talk of shoe deals, pro contracts, even his choice of a college. He hopes to play both sports in college, but he realizes the academic and athletic pressures would be intense.
``A lot of people think it's tough to adjust from one sport to another,'' Iverson said. ``But for me, it's not. I might have to pick one that's best for me, but I'd like to play both.''
If he plays football, it will be on offense. Iverson thinks he's too small to play defense.
``I can wait for the recruiting to happen,'' Iverson said. ``I haven't thought about it much.''
Like it or not, Iverson's recruitment is in full swing. He has been flooded with mail. Basketball and football coaches from across the country have watched him play.
Those coaches are scrambling to unravel the dynamics of Iverson's decision-making. They wonder who will influence Iverson most. His mother? Gary Moore? Williams, Kozlowski or Coach Bailey? Iverson's homeboys from the streets?
The perceived answers to those questions will dictate the recruiters' every move.
Despite the best intentions of all involved, Iverson is also the rope in a football-basketball tug-of-war. For example, Kozlowski would prefer Iverson to be in the weight room this summer preparing for next football season. Instead, Iverson is scheduled to travel across the country, and to Russia, with Williams' basketball team.
Football and basketball recruiters will attempt to convince Iverson to concentrate on their particular sport. Ms. Iverson believes basketball is her son's ticket.
If Iverson scores 700 or better on his SAT attempt this spring and projects a 2.0 grade-point, he could sign a basketball scholarship during November's early signing period. But since Iverson's fall weekends likely will be occupied by football, he would have no time to take the five paid campus visits prospects are permitted by NCAA rules.
The football signing period is next February, but again, Iverson, occupied by basketball season, will have had little time for campus visits. His decision likely will come in April 1994, during the late signing period for basketball. And he could sign then for football, too.
Moore said the sudden publicity and the appearance of college recruiters ``definitely caught Allen off guard. He was out there simply having fun, doing what he loved to do.''
``I first saw him at age 10,'' Williams said. ``I thought he was a good player. But I didn't see him as a can't-miss kid. . . . Kenny Anderson was a hero in New York at age 9. With this kid it's all of a sudden. There was no transition from anonymity to national figure. We had no time to prepare him.
``Now this kid's under a microscope, and we're asking him to handle it. If he missed practice two years ago, it was a missed practice. Now it's on the front page of the sports section. It's something he has to deal with. People will judge him on how he handles all this scrutiny.''
Iverson said, ``I haven't felt any pressure. I worked hard to get here. I wanted it to be this way. It's a tribute to the coaching staffs and my teammates. Without them, I wouldn't have gotten as far as I have. I owe it all to them and my family.''
Iverson may not feel pressure now, but as the time nears for him to make difficult decisions, everyone will want his ear. Sifting through the advice will be daunting.
``Allen sees it as, `I've got to do this, this and this. If I don't, I'm a failure because people already have my life planned for me,' '' Coach Bailey said. ``He doesn't have to go to college or be a professional athlete. What I want is for him to be a good person and a strong, strong rock in a family.''
``All he has to do is follow the Yellow Brick Road, because it's all out there for him,'' Ms. Iverson said. ``Me and him, we've come up hard, real hard. We've struggled. I hope he makes it, because I think he deserves it.''
Copyright © 2013, Newport News, Va., Daily Press