E-Letter To ESPN.com and Sam Smith Re: "Why Iverson doesn't belong on Team USA"

Your article, "Why Iverson doesn't belong on Team USA" is by far, the most revealing article I have ever read about Allen Iverson. You, better than any other reporter I know of with such a limited word-count, show how important the sports media are in fighting the cultural revolutions that threaten to shake up this country at the bottom of the power pyramid.

Your article is so contradictory, that by the end, anyone who reads it can be assured that above any of the other supposedly nuanced aspects of your view of Allen Iverson, nothing resonates so much as the fact that you just don't like him. And rather than admit that his simultaneous display of immense ability, heart, insubordinance and Hip-Hop style violate your one-dimensional view of how a "successful" athlete should behave; you would prefer to deny this young man further honor, in a professional sense.

Now your thesis comes as no surprise, to me or Allen Iverson. In the new book written about him by Larry Platt, Only The Strong Survive: The Odyssey Of Allen Iverson, appears this excerpt:

It wasn't official yet, but it was in the air. Iverson knew it. Despite his being the league's scoring champ, the leading vote getter among Eastern guards for the all-star game and a first-team all-NBA player of the year before, rumor had it he would not be named to the U.S. Men's Olympic Basketball team for the games in Sydney, Australia.

If the rumor was true, odds were that the Buck's Ray Allen would fill the last available roster spot. Unfortunately for Ray, his team's schedule brought him to Philadelphia to face Iverson and the Sixers on the eve of the announcement that he'd beaten Iverson out for the spot.

...Few close to Iverson doubt that when he lit up Ray Allen's Bucks for 45 points in early January, he wanted to show the Olympic committee - which included the 76ers newly appointed general manager, Billy King - what a mistake they'd made. It wasn't just that Iverson scored at will. He also scored big baskets, late in a close game, to win it.

In the days that followed, the official Olympic announcement was made and the media crowded around Iverson's locker, asking why he thought he hadn't made the team. And why someone like Ray Allen - who had been chosen to do the public-service announcements for the Thurgood Marshall Fund - did make it. "I knew I wasn't going to be on that team," Iverson said. "With the question you're asking, you want me to tell you the reason you already know, and I'm not going to do that. Everybody knows. It's no big deal."

Someone asked, would it bother him if his past were held against him? "People are going to do that," he said. "It's not right, but it's something I kind of understand, that people would kind of be scared. After the things I've been through, I can't blame people if they say, 'Maybe he's not the right guy' but when they talk basketball, I'm the right guy. Simple as that."

You are a basketball writer, right? This is about basketball, isn't it? Allen Iverson's qualified acceptance of his own rejection doesn't extend to you, Mr. Smith, since you really are not interested in why he is the way he is, and since you really don't care what he has "been through." With you it is only what he is, devoid of context, that matters. Interesting, because you accurately state in your article that his youth imprisonment was "bogus." You also muse that an attitude that is a result of an unjust imprisonment may in fact be justified. But somehow, you subsequently have a problem with Allen Iverson's "attitude."

Is it just me, or have others found your conflicted and confused emotionalism toward Iverson to be striking, even unbecoming?

Rather than acknowledging the fact that Allen Iverson's earning of the NBA's Most Valuable Player (MVP) award; an Eastern Conference Championship with his Philadelphia 76ers; and NBA scoring titles would reasonably make him, on merit alone, a shoo-in for an all-NBA/all-star Olympic team - you manifest your uncontrollable "hating" of Mr. Iverson by trying to use the Olympic selection process as if it were the last means of disciplining and punishing a wayward youth. Your arrogant form of White paternalism is disgusting. The type of stuff that makes the most integrationist-minded Black men resent White men who style themselves as all-knowing advisers and counselors.

One of our most loyal viewers at BlackElectorate.com - A White man from Philadelphia - has tried periodically, for the better part of year now, to explain to us how important it is for Whites to feel that any acts of kindness or fairness on their part have been met by some symbolic gesture of reciprocity. When Blacks don't offer it up, they are accussed of being arrogant, rebellious, and disruptively defiant. He wrote to me earlier this year, "I do think that some of us white folk expect (or at least hope for) some kind of reciprocation when we reach out to someone of another race, although it's probably not consciously recognized as such."

He was speaking about Barry Bonds and the nature of his troubled relationship with sports writers.

Don't you recognize in your peer-group, if not yourself Mr. Smith, that much of the brouhaha with Barry Bonds and Allen Iverson partly grows out of an race-neutral, industry-wide dynamic where emasculated and insecure male sports writers are naturally intimidated by macho, muscle-bound and bravado manifesting men - Black, Latino or White who, in many cases can't remember the last time they put pen to paper to author an essay?

Pure "hating" is the result where the "nerds" obtain their years-delayed revenge on the "jocks." Of course, Mr. Smith, for the sake of argument you would be one of said disgruntled "nerds," who probably can't remember the last time they beat anyone in a game of one-on-one.

Imagine how problematic this syndrome can be when it is compounded by race. How about class-envy? Middle-class forty-something White intellectual sports writer (in his best Thinker pose) gets dissed during interview by Wealthy twenty-something Black athlete (in his B-Boy stance). Not a factor?

Now if you think I am being too blunt about the real world of sporstwriter-athlete relations in the locker room, played out on the pages of the sports sections of the big-city mainstream press, please offer a better suggestion as to how anyone should interpret your piece, which dives in and out of paternalism, social commentary, basketball analysis and reprimand. What gives?

You open up your article with the following introduction:

It seems Allen Iverson noticed the other day he isn't going to be on the USA Basketball team for the 2004 Olympics.

He thought right. He shouldn't be on the team.

And no, it's not about the cornrows or tattoos or the fact he doesn't own a hat or any clothing that fits correctly. You don't always get what you want. And you don't always get what you deserve. You can't spend a career with defiance being almost an obsession and then expect to be embraced by everyone. Perhaps it's not fair. But it is life.

Why should A.I. be accepted by the world when he's made a life out of rebelling against it?

With that type of greeting, why would any reader who knows basketball think to ask you anything other than, "what is your problem?"

What is it that gets so under your skin about Allen Iverson? Oh, I know, you can't understand how a man who has been arrested; doesn't like practice; wears tatoos and cornrows; listens to rap music; God forbid - even gets paid to rap in a sneaker commercial paid for by a multi-national corporation; allegedly carries a gun from time-to-time; and takes his childhood friends with him everywhere he goes could be so successful at his profession. Well, I think you can thank elite White America's penchant for uniquely correlating morality with Black professional celebrity (you certainly don't have these hang-ups with coked-up, reckless, arrest-prone White Hollywood) and the several generations of Black athletes from Jackie Robinson to Magic Johnson who cared as much about their skill level as what Whites thought of them, for influencing your delusion.

Allen Iverson doesn't care to indulge you in such an undertaking and considering that most Black men in the league still play the charade, you really should seek to absorb what Iverson represents rather than fight it tooth-and-nail, no? Or are you more threatened than you are enlightened, by this phenomenon that even has you referring to him as "A.I.?"

Are you a closet Iverson male-groupie, offended by the lack of attention he has given you in the 76ers' locker room over the years? Do you just need a hug or the slightest gesture of reciprocity? Is this article your way of crying out to him - part love letter part "hate"-mail?

Perhaps there is a real deep truth to your sentiment and the title of your article. If Allen Iverson is a microcosm of a generation of Black men; and you are microcosm of a generation of White men; then it is easier to see why you feel the way that you do. You are like one of those described by the reference made by Allen Iverson taken from the book excerpt - one of those who are understandably "scared" by what you see. You, in a certain way, have received the same rude awakening out of your delusionary state that your White liberal and conservative intellectual peers in the political press corps received, especially last decade, with the rise of Minister Louis Farrakhan. The White intellectual establishment were so comfortable (even if they have to hold their nose a bit) with the likes of Rev. Jesse Jackson and a traditional cadre of managed, non-threatening, and controlled Black leaders who want attention, access and approval from Whites as much as they want liberation for their people, that it reacted rather uncomfortably and emotionally with the arrival to prominence and growing influence of a Black leader that did not seem to care to woo them; or conform to their standards; or to mouth the prepared talking-points given to his peer group. Their emotional reaction back then, like yours today, impaired their intellect.

Yes, Mr. Smith I am saying, that in a real but limited sense you could learn something by comparing how your sportswriting peers have been fascinated and repulsed by Allen Iverson's emergence out of a sea of corporate-friendly, smile-for-the-camera NBA all-pros; with how White intellectuals have viewed Minister Farrakhan's popularity and success as a Muslim juxtaposed to the traditional Christian and civil rights leadership. Yes, if you think deep enough and with a clear head, you might see that there is something that Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan have in common with Julian Bond, A. Phillip Randolph and Benjamin Hooks. And, in a limited sense, there is something shared in common by cultural leaders - Minister Louis Farrakhan and Allen Iverson. In an article dripping with envy, jealousy and paternalism your brief but grudging concession to A.I - "Iverson is as tough a competitor as there is in the NBA. He ought to wear sneakers on his elbows, knees and face for all the time he spends being knocked to the basketball floor. He bounces back up and attacks again and again. His desire and determination are inspirational." - reads alot like the writing of White reporters, the day after the Million Man March, who seemingly observed in simultaneous disgust and awe nearly 2 million Black men peacefully gather in front of the U.S. Capitol, without violence, at the call of a supposed "anti-Semitic, anti-American, terrorist," Louis Farrakhan. Just as with Iverson's fearless and inspiring play attached to a love of demonized rap music and his all Black male entourage, something didn't add up for many Whites. How could someone depicted as so "ugly" be so successful in producing something so beautiful?

Don't hate Iverson because he's more beautiful than you, Mr. Smith. And his future is brighter. Or, because he doesn't care to genuflect before you like the majority of Black athletes today. I know it is hard for you, but don't player-hate, sir, when it is so much easier to simply congratulate. And don't be so quick to believe your own hype regarding Iverson. Much of it really is your unhealthy superficial reaction to his dress code, although you deny it, ("...it's not about the cornrows or tattoos or the fact he doesn't own a hat or any clothing that fits correctly").

Try and understand the paradoxical nature of his success. Get past the symbol and into the substance of who and why he is. Then you will understand what he represents, that so far only frightens and repulses you.

Read or re-read "Only the Strong Survive: The Odyssey of Allen Iverson". Or perhaps you can discuss your view of Allen Iverson with the book's author, a White man, Larry Platt, over a cup of coffee if you like. Find out what it is that he sees that you don't and why. I am discussing the book in depth, this month, with members of the BlackElectorate.com Book Club.

But, Mr. Smith, if you must insist in disgracing yourself, I will accept your advice that Iverson be left off of the U.S Olympic Team. The terms of his participation, if any were extended by you, would be too unreasonable. But again, history provides the best insight. Your words in 2002 regarding Mr. Iverson sound so much like those of the former Democratic Party Chairman Robert Strauss who, in 1984, said that "there is no place in the Democratic Party for Louis Farrakhan". Many Democrats - Black and White - recently said the same thing in the year 2000. The Minister had a great response, I thought, both back then, in the eighties and even more recently, indicating that he agreed with Mr. Strauss' judgement. The Minister stated, "There is no place for a free man on a plantation."

Perhaps Allen Iverson should tell you and the Olympic selection committee the same.


Cedric Muhammad

Cedric Muhammad

Monday, December 23, 2002