It's almost yesterday's news. Iverson. One of the greatest scorers in NBA history. A top-notch player by anyone's standards. An athlete of the highest order; a man of skill, a poster boy for one of the greatest professions on earth. And in the recycling bin, buried in the sports page, is a story of his ultimate unraveling last week: his wife filed for divorce, the Philadelphia 76ers relieved him of his duties, his drinking problem was exposed, and like others -- like me -- gambling claimed his soul.
Although sometimes a controversial figure in the NBA, Allen Iverson, AI, had it all. Big money, a marriage to his high school sweetheart, five beautiful children, and a promising career even for a mature and seasoned player. This year, however, the decline was obvious. He warmed the bench more than he was allowed to warm our hearts. And behind it all, behind his questionable value to the team where he spent many of his professional years, the demon was busy organizing a total dismantling of everything he worked so hard to achieve.
Like Iverson, I, too, had it all. Money, family, luxuries, and an exciting future. Like Iverson, I took the road less travelled ...the path to doom. The good life was not good enough anymore, something was missing. For me, excitement came in the form of an occasional bet on the golf course, a visit to a casino, a friendly card game. When the excitement of that wore off, I turned to betting on the very games I officiated, in violation of my employment contract, and as I partnered with characters in the underworld, in violation of federal law. Like Iverson, it cost me everything: my job, my family, my freedom.
In prison, in a place I like to call rock bottom, I started my healing. My treatment continues, and I am working toward piecing together my life.
The NBA offers a culture coveted by many. But along with the meteoric salaries, stellar opportunities and a collectively enormous ego comes temptation. Temptation to live life above the law. Drugs, alcohol, weapons, and gambling are just a few of the sirens that call out to some players, some coaches, some owners, and in my case, some referees. Like the rest of society, high-stakes, high-pressure lifestyles can often be offset by some harmless involvement in controlled substances and illegal behavior. When it stops becoming casual involvement and transforms into an addiction, the NBA, the employer, steps away, directing its efforts at maintaining their image and soothing the media.
The NBA launched an initiative in 2005, NBA Cares, stemming from a need to behave in a socially responsible way, by creating community outreach in order to donate time and resources to the underprivileged. It decided that it could capitalize on the visibility and popularity of its athletes in order to affect social change -- and it has been wildly successful, both for the community and for the NBA's image. But what happens in the NBA when one of its own ambassadors falters, when he or she ceases to become an example to others, when one of its 'employees' fails him or herself by succumbing to addiction -- specifically, gambling. So far, it has failed to step in, to help, to extend an 'outreach'.
The AI story, one of many of its type, is a real opportunity for the NBA to embrace its own people, in the same way it has committed to the community. This tragedy, oft repeated, challenges the organization to behave like a parent to a child and step in, help, and give guidance. Instead of handing out punishment and turning its back, the NBA needs to devote resources to identifying these problems in their early stages and to provide the opportunity for players, coaches, refs, or secretaries, to seek help and to battle the addictions, to save lives and livelihoods. Lives like Iverson's, his high school sweetheart's, and those of his five young children.
This is not yesterday's news; it's today's opportunity and tomorrow's success. C'mon NBA: do the right thing.