Basketball's Bad Boy, Looking Good

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson is the ultimate summer romance. The handsome guy you see across the pool or the park who looks a little scary at first because he's all tattooed, or sitting on a motorcycle or something. His skill and passion are renowned. He looks right at you and smiles. Sunlight glints off his perfect teeth and jewelry. He'll be gone in a week or so. You're infatuated.

Normally, you don't follow sports. The last time you watched any professional basketball, the players' hair and pants were really short. Then last week, you saw a photo of Iverson in his cornrows, tattoos and long baggy shorts. He looked about 15. What's happened here, you wondered, and switched on Game One of the NBA playoffs with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Obviously late to the party, you watched him play, and you, too, were mesmerized. Short and slight compared with the other players, Iverson was all over the court, scooting around and through them, shooting over and over, missing and making those incredible 3-pointers. He was the poor, frenzied rebel messing with the expensive, high-performance machines.

Most of all, he was the only player who looked happy about being there. He seemed just as delighted to help a teammate score.

On a break, you learned he is 26, the father of two children, transformed by basketball from impoverished ghetto youth to multimillionnaire celebrity player. You heard him interviewed, talking about how much he's matured. How basketball has made him a better father, person, husband. He looked the interviewer straight in the eye.

Suddenly you schedule time for the series, like you did with the Watergate hearings, "The Sopranos," and the gymnastics portion of the Olympics. Whenever you have watched sports before, you've never cared who won. Now, you--who were born and raised in Los Angeles--are rooting for the Sixers. You are rooting for Iverson.

You are not alone. Almost everyone, women especially, seems to be captivated by the energetic scrapper. "Isn't he something?" your 88-year-old mother asks over lunch. "He reminds me of my brother Willard," she says.

"He makes Kobe and Shaq look like big babies," says your neighbor Beth, during your evening walk. You are sure she means no disrespect to the Lakers' Bryant and O'Neal. Beth knows a lot more about sports than you, and tosses you a slight curve about Iverson. "His friends used to come to the games and throw gang signs at the referees." You put that rumor on hold.

Part of Iverson's appeal for you is that he's an underdog's underdog, even though you always hated sentimental sports films like "Rudy" with the "never give up" message shoved down your throat. Sometimes in life, you've learned, it's best to give up. We call it moving on. Still, at a time when you and most people you know have had to give up one dream after another, it feels great to watch Iverson give it his all. He beat them in Game One. He might do it again. Maybe there's hope.

But Iverson's charisma, you start to understand, is more complex than that. In fact, it might not be related to basketball at all. There are plenty of great ballplayers, solid Boy Scouts, without his sexy joie de vivre, vulnerability, unpredictability and excitement.

Psychologists, themselves hooked on the series, suspect a volatile mix of opposites--rebellious bad boy-playful sprite--that make Iverson appealing to women. "My wife loves his eyes," says psychologist Bryan Nichols. "He can look very vulnerable. It adds to the sense of authenticity."

Men, on the other hand, like to see out-sized courage in an average-size body. "Guys are measurers," said Santa Monica psychiatrist and author Marc Goulston. "With Allen Iverson, the message to most men is with a lot of hard work, determination and not quitting, he's almost reachable. With Shaq or Kobe, even with a lot of work, they're from another planet."

None of this would work were Iverson 6 feet, 6 inches tall, Goulston said.

In the end, of course, our perceptions have less to do with Allen Iverson himself than with our need to see those qualities in him. "Our desire to turn our celebrity athletes into heroes may be much stronger than their actual ability to be heroes," Goulston says.

Indeed, one reason you fell so hard for Iverson this week could easily be that you weren't paying attention before. Now that you've zeroed in, you quickly find out:

At 18, he spent four months in prison after being arrested in a Hampton, Va., bowling-alley brawl. The Virginia Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in 1995. Two years later, he pleaded no contest to a gun charge. Police found marijuana in his car.

His arrogance earned him a nickname "Me, Myself and I-verson" and his basketball life was so troubled, he was almost traded last summer.

Last year, he apologized for lyrics from his unreleased rap CD that contained derogatory references to gays and women. He refused to change the lyrics and defended his right to use them.

"He wears his blackness on his sleeve, in his style, and manner of speech," Nichols says. "He says, 'I am who I am, and no apologies.' A lot of people love that. Even in the black community there are people who don't like that. Some of what he is is somewhat crude."

You realize you've been having a fling with someone you don't know at all. Real people tend to be like that--they hardly ever stay in the neat boxes you construct for them. Off the court, he might not be all that adorable. In person, 6 feet is actually pretty tall.

But never mind. In recent weeks, Iverson's playoff exposure and chastened image have brought him various offers from people who make a living taking advantage of summer romances like yours. After the season is over, you might still see him around, pitching cereal, soft drinks or cell phones.

You know it ought to be over soon. Still you can't quite let go. Besides, you never know, if he sticks around, it might turn into the real thing.

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