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Wrong Answer A new biography argues, dubiously, that Allen Iverson is a "heroic moral exemplar" among today's athletes

When Allen Iverson was chosen as the first pick of the 1996 NBA
draft, an ecstatic member of his entourage whooped, "I am getting
f---ed up tonight!" No big deal, you say? According to Platt, the
ecstatic partyer was Iverson's mother, Ann, who also claims, in
all seriousness, that her son was conceived without intercourse.
(Allen's father, Allen Broughton, begs to differ.) The point,
Platt argues, is that unless you can imagine your mother making
remarks like that, you probably shouldn't be too quick to judge
the moody superstar.

On this score Platt is completely convincing. Not everyone could
have survived an upbringing like Iverson's. On the one hand he
was a disadvantaged ghetto youth, surrounded by violence and by
poverty in his hometown of Newport News, Va. ("I ain't
underprivileged," he proudly growled at a coach who tried to get
the scrawny kid to take advantage of his school's free-lunch
program.) On the other hand he was often spoiled rotten by
coaches and cronies who saw him as their ticket to glory. This
weird duality reached a climax when he received an unduly harsh
five-year prison sentence for his alleged role in a 1993
bowling-alley brawl, only to be granted a conditional release
after less than four months by Virginia governor L. Douglas
Wilder. No wonder that during his freshman year at Georgetown,
coach John Thompson described him as a "child who gives you a
bucket of milk and then kicks it all over you."

This is the Allen Iverson we know today--the one who, a teammate
once said, plays every single game as if "he's got a Ford motor
up his butt," but when criticized by his coach for missing
practices, asks with genuine bafflement, "How the hell can I make
my teammates better by practicing?"

Though Platt provides a well-researched, amusing character study,
he stumbles badly in arguing that Iverson is--get ready, now, for
these are Platt's actual words--a "heroic moral exemplar."
Indeed, Platt contends that May 15, 2001, the day Iverson was
presented with the MVP trophy, signaled a new era in sports.
"Suddenly," he writes, "gone were the days when a black athlete
had to be deferential and nonthreatening in order to be loved."

This is beyond wrong; it is outrageous. One wonders if Platt
would be willing to tell Bill Russell, Julius Erving and Charles
Barkley, to their faces, that they were "deferential and
nonthreatening." And what precisely has Iverson done to earn the
title of moral exemplar? Platt cites as an example of his
defiance that he was the first basketball star to wear cornrows.

It's an all-too-common, media-driven mistake: style over
substance. A real moral exemplar makes sacrifices for his fellow
human beings. Muhammad Ali was one. He sacrificed the heavyweight
championship rather than partake in a war he believed unjust.
Curt Flood was another. He sacrificed much of his baseball career
to pave the way for the sports salary system that has made
Iverson a millionaire. These African-American heroes may not have
had cornrows, but they fought the Man, won and are admired for it
to this day.


COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS (BOTTOM) HISTORIC? Platt calls Iverson's 2001 MVP selection a turning point for blacks in sports.

ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE: The Odyssey of Allen Iverson by Larry Platt
(Regan Books, 259 pages, $25.95)