[A version of this appears in the new issue of Slam Magazine]
It starts with the cornrows. When I think back on the 2008-2009 NBA season, I don't think my first thoughts will stray to Lebron James' ascension to the MVP throne, Dwyane Wade returning and surpassing his old form, Kobe clawing for that championship, or Shaquille O'Neal finding the fountain of middle age. I won't remember the rise of Dwight Howard or the fall of Yao. I am going to remember the cornrows.
Allen Iverson's cornrows, to be exact. Over All-Star weekend, the player they call the Answer had them untangled braid by braid. Once pulled out and shaped up, AI, in that unfamiliar Detroit Pistons uniform, looked like just another baller. It was those cornrows, fully blown out, that gave Slam Magazine its most iconic cover. The cornrows were the anti-authoritarian crown on the old king.
For the last decade, AI -- his neck tattoos, his reckless arrogance, his audacious extremism -- has dominated the discourse on and off the court. But after the first season of his career in which Iverson averaged less than 20 points and was asked to come off the bench, many are saying that his era of irreverence is done. After a season in team-oriented Detroit where AI was deemed a problematic chemistry killer -- and the man he was traded for from Denver, Chauncey Billups, got more good ink than the Pope's papyrus -- the media told us that the wheel has turned. Now the king has been deposed by age and circumstance and our sports world is, quite frankly, blander for it.
It was AI who became the first "little man" drafted number 1 overall back in 1996. And he was just getting warm. It was AI the rookie who signaled a new period in 1996-7 when he crossed over Michael Jordan himself and then said afterward, "My heroes don't wear suits." It was AI the superstar who earned four scoring titles, an MVP, and dragged a mediocre 76er team to the 2001 NBA finals. It was also AI the superstar who said about the NBA dress code, "Just because you put a guy in a tuxedo, it doesn't mean he's a good guy. It sends a bad message to kids. If you don't have a suit on when you go to school, is the teacher going to think you're a bad kid? I never wore a suit going in any park I ever went to when I was coming up. I just came from Japan, where I saw thousands of kids; all of them dressed like me, from the biggest guy to the smallest. It's just not right. It's something I'll fight for. I promised I wouldn't get up here and try to destroy anybody trying to make that [rule], but it's not right."
The moment that the Answer, the ultimate one-on-one (or at times one-on-five) baller joined the directionless Pistons, it was that our Hero Misfit had become merely a misfit. With him goes an era of seeing an NBA player at the heart of debates that have far transcended the world of sports.
The AI debates don't merely challenge the artificial divide between sports and politics: they openly and proudly mock them: what effect does "hip hop culture" have on the game? Why is one man's entourage another man's posse? How do we explain the dress code, the age requirements, the media scrutiny, and all the latent -- or even open -- hostility between new jack players and the commissioner's office, the press, and the people NBA commissioner David Stern calls "The ticket buying fans"? AI was at the center of all of these storms. And he did it with style and substance: the most dominant six footer in NBA history with the tats to match.
Now the league is being led by Lebron James, repeatedly praised for his "poise and maturity", the contrast with AI rudely below the surface. It is led by Chris Paul, rebuilding New Orleans one assist -- and one glowing story -- at a time. It's being led by Kevin Durant who tells the press he loves the new dress code. The big NBA story of the summer was about whether or not Lebron James is too image conscious, after seizing a videotape of being dunked on at a Nike camp. The story that received no play was Iverson breaking down and crying while giving out awards through his scholarship program.
As one commentator noted, "Whether you're a fan of his or not, it's shocking to see one of the toughest players in the game just bawling."
Now, Iverson is looking for a team to get that second chance. The opportunities are narrow but maybe we shouldn't bet against AI just yet.
Stern prays that the era of antipathy is done. Ratings are up, stars are appropriately telegenic, and even in these tough economic times, the future for the league has legs. But for those of us who believe sports has a great deal to teach us about life, for those of us who like it a little more rough rugged and raw, we should hope for a full-scale comeback from the man who delivered the Answer, before we could even articulate the questions.