Summer is here, the Wingfoot Summer League awaits all eager participants and, most importantly, there is no other organized basketball on offer to any of us other than the WNBA. So, while we all wait for the chance to commence preseason hill sprints in Barnett’s Park (I tell you, no coach had me in better shape for a preseason than Darren O’Neill), you might be interested in a bit of summer reading.
Two of the biggest stars of recent years, who briefly coincided in the NBA, are Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson. The two men are the subjects of recent biographies by journalists.
First, the greatest to play the game, and subject of the earlier book: Michael Jordan: The Life. Roland Lazenby has previously written a biography of Jerry West and books on Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant, and is among the most respected of sports journalists. This book is the product of literally decades of research. The depth of detail that Lazenby goes into is obvious from the earliest chapters. Lazenby takes us back to 1891 and the small town of Holly Shelter in Pender County, not too far from Wilmington, NC. There, Michael Jordan’s great-grandfather Dawson Hand was born to Charlotte Hand and Dick Jordan, later adopting the surname of his father. Lazenby describes the racial tension of Jim Crow-era North Carolina and the brutal discrimination that people of dark complexions suffered. The Hand family were, however, light skinned, indeed members of the family had been slave holders. Through this era, the character of Dawson Jordan, or “Dasson” as his great-grandson would call him, was formed.
Dawson Jordan passed away in 1977, but had lived long enough to know Michael for fourteen years. Jordan, Lazenby notes, described his great-grandfather as “tough”, a trademark trait of the family that would exemplify his own life.
Lazenby, entirely conscious of the continuing racial tension in North Carolina throughout Michael Jordan’s life, describes the formative years of the man who would go on to become one of the world’s greatest sportsmen. The events will be familiar to anyone who witnessed his Hall of Fame induction ceremony: his rivalry with his older brother Larry for his father’s affection; watching future coach Doug Collins in the 1972 Olympics; being left of the varsity roster during his sophomore year in high school; his battles with other NC high school stars like Anthony Teachey; his recruitment to the University of North Carolina despite his affection for North Carolina State University and its former star David Thompson; the 1982 National Championship; being the third pick in the draft; his gambling habits and the huge sums of money he won and lost on the golf courses and card tables; his feud with Isiah Thomas; his relationship with Magic Johnson; that with Bulls general managed Jerry Krause; and that with Phil Jackson, the coach who finally figured out how to put Jordan’s incredible skill set to work to win three consecutive championships. Twice.
It seems as though there is not a person even loosely associated with Michael Jordan who has not been interviewed by Lazenby for this book. Coaches, team-mates, friends, friends of friends, family are all featured throughout.
The picture of the man emerges: his unwavering desire for success, his frustration when things don’t go his way, but this book does not depict a Michael Jordan who picked fights with his team-mates, such as the infamous episode with Steve Kerr (pages 530-531). Kerr’s thoughtful reflections on his relationship with Jordan illuminate the 1995-1998 section of the book; though Jordan’s treatment of Jerry Krause during this time, as Krause attempted to balance the books and maintain a competitive balance on the court, could well be interpreted as bullying, another interpretation is that Jordan was trying to do right by those he cared about the most: namely Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson. Indeed, as is often overlooked, it was Jackson’s effective dismissal by Krause and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf that played a hugely significant role in Jordan’s second retirement. We then witness Jordan’s treatment by Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, who effectively cut the then 40 year old Jordan at the end of the 2003 season. We are reminded that despite his incredible talents, Jordan could not quite achieve all the goals he set out for himself, particularly the ones that in hindsight seem almost foolish: namely turning around the cumbersome Wizards franchise.
The ability to realize when it was time to give up also evaded the mercurial Allen Iverson. In Kent Babb’s “Not A Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson”, we indeed follow the rise and fall of one of the greatest turn-of-the-century players and one who redefined the image of the NBA player. Babb reminds us throughout that, prior to Iverson, cornrows, tattoos, and shooting sleeves were not commonly seen on the bodies of NBA players.
In contrast to the Lazenby book, Babb chooses to skip over much of Iverson’s young life in Hampton, Virginia. He does emphasize the personal struggles that “Bubba Chuck” went through before finding some solace in sport. In particular, the drug problems his mother Ann went through are detailed, withe the image of a young Iverson visiting a dealer to acquire more product for his mother reminding us that there were several occasions when things could have gone terribly wrong for the man who became known as “the Answer”.
As with the early years of Michael Jordan’s life, Iverson also experienced serious difficulties overcoming racism in his home state. In particular, the short time he spent in prison after a racially-charged fight at a Hampton bowing alley in February 1993, which saw the 17 year old Iverson charged as an adult with maiming by mob, a rarely used Virginia statute which was introduced in the aftermath of the civil war to protect African-Americans from lynchings. Iverson was sentenced to 15 years in prison, 10 years suspended. None of the white men at the bowling alley were charged. Governor L Douglas Wilder, the first African-American Governor of any state since Reconstruction (post civil war), granted Iverson clemency after reviewing the case. Babb then details Ann Iverson’s visit to Washington, D.C., where she met with iconic Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson Jr., and begged him to give her son a chance. Iverson duly grabbed the chance with both hands.
Babb emphasizes the paternal role that Thompson assumed in Iverson’s life, the influence over the young guard greater than that any NBA coach could exert. The inability of NBA coaches to keep Iverson under control would ultimately become one of the great “what ifs” of the modern NBA. What if Allen Iverson had actually cared about practice? What if he hadn’t enjoyed a few too many beers and a late-night lifestyle? What could that impossibly tough body have achieved if Iverson had treated it better?
Throughout this book, the turbulent relationship that Iverson had with his ex-wife Tawanna peppers the narrative. Tawanna, just like Ann Iverson, is portrayed as both a beneficiary of Iverson’s extravagant lifestyle, and a victim of his extravagant behavior, which often descended into violence and psychological abuse. Iverson is alleged to have threatened to have Tawanna killed, claiming he could have the job done for $5000. The Iverson divorce proceedings are recounted in detail, notably an episode in 2002 where Allen is alleged to have chased Tawanna around Philadelphia with a gun.
Throughout the book, however, Iverson’s incredible humanity also comes through. When his high school friend Rahsaan Langford was shot dead in October 2002, Iverson committed to financially supporting Langford’s three children – a commitment that Tawanna, who continues to administer the Iverson finances, continues to this day. Iverson’s humanity is also evident as he commemorated journalist Phil Jasner, who died of cancer in 2010, before one of the thirty-odd games he played for Besiktas in Turkey. Again, his relationship with Lorry Michel, the long-time Georgetown trainer, depicts a man capable of incredible caring.
In these snapshots, Babb emphasizes the kindness and caring that Iverson was capable of, but never deviates too far from the image of a man seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction. His turbulent relationship with coach Larry Brown, with whom he made his only NBA finals in 2001, the poisonous relationship with Detroit coach Michael Curry, the hard line that coach Lionel Hollins adopted towards his demands to start when in Memphis – all the while Iverson’s lack of desire to “practice” (the infamous rant is covered in some detail, along with Iverson’s self-effacing humor in reprising the incident on several occasions, not least when paying tribute to Michel) and his strong push to continue to enjoy long evenings in the bars and casinos of the cities he visited. Babb provides some evidence that Iverson was indeed drunk during the “practice” rant and that the rant overshadowed the announcement of his new contract signing.
Also significant, Iverson’s financial struggles are covered in detail. His multiple cars, a habit he developed at Georgetown when he received a free car “to be paid for later”, an action that immediately challenged his amateur status and disappointed John Thompson greatly, his huge mansions and the spending habits of the people in his life; Iverson taking care of a huge entourage in a classic tale of “athlete gone broke” as covered in some detail in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Broke” (Another documentary, “No Crossover”, focuses on Iverson himself and the bowling alley incident). Even the $32m that is claimed to await Iverson upon the occasion of his 45th birthday (Iverson just celebrated his 40th last week) in a Reebok trust fund has apparently half-or-entirely been signed over to Tawanna, who, again, continues to maintain the Iverson bank accounts.
“Not A Game” does not make as happy reading as “Michael Jordan: The Life” for many, obvious reasons. Jordan continues to make millions from his deal with Nike whilst Iverson, despite being the image responsible for the second most successful shoe line in basketball history, struggles to make ends meet. Jordan’s legendary gambling, covered in some detail in the Lazenby book, was not as detrimental to his finances as Iverson’s generosity and frivolous spending. The legends of Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson will not be seriously challenged by either book, rather they serve as deeper insight into two of the most iconic players of recent NBA history.