BASKETBALL URBAN LEGEND: Allen Iverson was sued over his nickname of “The Answer.”
An under-reported part of the lives of many athletes is the time before they became prized college recruits. This is the time that players grow (or sometimes fail to grow) from being promising young athletes into becoming “stars,” and in the case of many of these players, they come from environments where they need help from more than just their families or else their promise will not even have a chance of being fulfilled.
This unique arrangement often leads to a number of “family friends” who become involved in young athletes’ lives, giving them and their family financial support. Many of them do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Some, though, likely are thinking of what happens when said athlete becomes a wealthy professional. It is nearly impossible without mind reading to tell one group from the other.
In any event, this interesting type of relationship was at the center of a 2003 lawsuit between Allen Iverson and Jamil Blackmon, the man who came up with Iverson’s famous nickname “The Answer.” At issue was whether Blackmon should be paid for his coinage of the nickname.
Allen Iverson’s mother, Ann Iverson, was just 15 years old when she became pregnant. She had moved from the ghettos of Hartford, Conn., to live with her maternal grandmother in Hampton, Va., after her mother died. Young Allen’s father, Allen Broughton, was still living in Hartford.Ann visited Hartford with her baby but decided she did not want to raise her baby in such a bad neighborhood, so she returned to Virginia and Broughton was out of Ann and Allen’s life for good.
Making things more difficult, Ann’s grandmother passed away soon after Allen was born. Ann and Allen moved in with her boyfriend, Michael Freeman, in an apartment on the east end of Newport News, Va., not much better of a living situation than the ghetto Ann left behind in Connecticut. Ann and Freeman had two daughters, one of whom, Iiesha, had problems with seizures. They had a difficult life. Michael lost his job in 1988 and, driven to desperation, was arrested for dealing drugs in 1991. This was a time period where Jamil Blackmon began to have a major role in Iverson’s life.
The two had met in 1987, but during the early 1990s, Blackmon gave the Iversons financial support, including allowing them to stay in his own home during the periods where things were bad at their own. He helped Iverson get academic help in high school to make sure that he would be able to play college basketball. Finally, in June of 1994, with Iverson set to attend Georgetown University on a basketball scholarship, Blackmon came up with an idea. Iverson’s nickname would be “The Answer,” as he was going to be the “Answer to all of the NBA’s woes” (remember, Michael Jordan was not in the NBA in 1994). Later in that night in June, after telling Iverson the nickname, Iverson agreed to pay Blackmon 25% of whatever money he made off of the Answer nickname.
Iverson went on to become a star in Georgetown for two seasons before leaving school after his sophomore year (a rarity for students in John Thompson’s Georgetown basketball program). His sister’s medical problems played a significant role in Iverson deciding to go to the NBA after just two years of college. Iverson was selected with the first pick in the 1996 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. Right before the draft, Iverson worked out a deal with the sneaker company Reebok. Iverson and Reebok decided to model Iverson’s shoe line around “The Answer” nickname.
At this time, Iverson reiterated to Blackmon that he would pay him 25% of whatever money Reebok paid Iverson for “The Answer” shoe line. Then Iverson told Blackmon that apparently “The Answer” was already in use as a trademark, so they wouldn’t be doing the line after all. Of course, soon afterward, the line of shoes did start and it was, indeed, named “The Answer.”
During Thanksgiving of 1997, Iverson once again reiterated that he would give Blackmon 25% of the Reebok deal. Roughly a year later, Iverson once again told Blackmon he would give him 25% of the Reebok deal and this time even told Blackmon that he should relocate to Philadelphia so that he could reap the benefits of the deal and so Iverson could compensate him for his earlier financial support of the Iverson family.
As you might have guessed from the fact that there was a lawsuit, Blackmon was never paid 25% from the Reebok deal. Blackmon filed suit against Iverson claiming basically three main things. 1. That Iverson misappropriated the idea, 2. that Iverson breached their verbal contract and 3. that Iverson was unjustly enriched by using Blackmon’s idea. As to the breach of contract issue, besides the fact that the contract was never formalized, Blackmon runs into a problem with the idea of consideration. For a contract to be valid, both sides must give valuable consideration. Iverson obviously would be offering money as his consideration. Blackmon, though, cannot say that it was the nickname, since he had already given the nickname to Iverson by the time the contract was signed. You cannot use past consideration as the basis for a contract. On that alone, Blackmon fails on the breach of contract issue.
The judge in the case, Mary McLaughlin, wavered a bit on the idea misappropriation issue. You see, for an idea to be misappropriated, the idea that is allegedly misappropriated must be a novel one. McLaughlin is never sure in her decision whether “The Answer” was a novel idea. She is unsure if a nickname could ever be considered “novel,” since athletes always have nicknames. However, she basically leaves the issue unresolved because she has other issues with Blackmon regardless of whether the nickname was novel.
For instance, was the idea misappropriated? For an idea to be misappropriated, case law dictates that the idea must be used to the detriment of the plaintiff, typically as a competitor. Since Blackmon had no way of using the nickname himself, then Iverson could not have misappropriated it. That plays a role in the final cause of action - unjust enrichment. Again McLaughlin debates whether the idea is even a novel one (she never fully resolves that issue) but then she once again points out that Iverson could not have been unjustly enriched over the nickname since the nickname was A. used for years before it was monetized, so by then the idea had become just an accepted part of Iverson’s playing career and B. the only reason anyone bought “The Answer” products was not because of the nickname, but because of Iverson’s performance as a basketball player and his fame from his basketball skill. Therefore, it was not “The Answer” that made money, it was Iverson who made “The Answer” worth anything.
The judge did note that Blackmon did have an argument that Iverson induced him to move to Philadelphia, and if he had pursued that claim, he might have won, but he would only have received reliance damages (the amount of money he was out of pocket by moving to Philadelphia) and since that was nothing compared to what he would receive from the percentage of the Reebok deal, Blackmon did not even pursue that argument (the court would not have been able to even hear it unless he was out $75,000, which seems unlikely).
Therefore, Blackmon lost on all of his claims. It really gives you a picture of how contract law works. It is not a matter of “good” or “bad.” You could argue that it was “bad” of Iverson to promise Blackmon money for years that Iverson never gave him. Heck, I’d imagine you would have a pretty compelling argument that it was, in fact, a “bad” thing for Iverson to do.
However, contract law is just about the contract and whether it is enforceable or not and Blackmon never had an enforceable contract with Iverson.
The legend is...
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