Saturday, April 22, 2017

Chronicles of an Aging Gheorghie: Memory Lane, Bubbachuck-style

The latest from Dave Fairbank takes those of us who grew up in Virginia and/or spent any time near the Peninsula on a journey back in time. Most of us were too dumb and/or lazy to realize that we could've driven 20 minutes to see one of the greatest athletes of all time do his thing.

I’m reminded of my advancing age regularly, in ways large and small. Failing hearing, inability to pull a name I know, celebrity I’ve never heard of, random ache, technology advance that leaves me flummoxed. (Editor’s Note: I don’t know whether it was me or Fairbank who wrote this opening sentence, because it’s as true for me as it is for him.) The most recent came this week in a newspaper column from longtime compadre and fellow keyboard jockey David Teel, writing about Allen Iverson and the prep all-star hoops game he hosted in Hampton Roads last night.

A paragraph midway through the piece began, “Iverson, 41, said he’s always amazed when younger people approach him in airports, restaurants and hotels.”

Allen Iverson, age 41? Can’t be right. Wasn’t it just the other day that I was chasing his spindly ass all over the Virginia Peninsula? Or watching him careen through Georgetown and the NBA? In 30 years as a newspaper hack in Newport News, Va., I was fortunate to see an absurd amount of homegrown talent. Alonzo Mourning, Pernell “Sweetpea” Whitaker, Michael Vick, LaShawn Merritt, Percy Harvin, Aaron Brooks, Ronald Curry, J.R. Reid, Joe Smith, Terry Kirby, Chris Slade, baseball’s Upton brothers. Dozens just below them in ability. But Iverson remains the damnedest athlete I’ve ever seen.

The first time I saw Iverson was in a summer league game run by local AAU hoops impresario Boo Williams. It was the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in high school. Local basketball types said I needed to check out this guard from Bethel High. One evening I ventured to Hampton and the outdoor courts where Boo used to stage league games. I settled onto the metal bleachers, one of several dozen people in attendance, and located Iverson.

Holy shit. The kid was a lightning bolt, a revelation. He was impossibly skinny – 5-10, 5-11, maybe 150 pounds. His team pressed on defense. Or maybe it was just him. He harassed the dribbler, then when the kid picked up his dribble and tried to pass cross court, Iverson darted back, rose up as if he were levitating and intercepted the pass. Scooted downcourt and laid it in. He got from Point A to Point B and covered ground more quickly than anybody I’d ever seen. A 15- , 16-year-old kid. Honestly, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. I’m sure I sat there with my mouth hanging open for the next 45 minutes.

The legend only grew from there. Bethel basketball game became events. People lined up to get inside. Folks were turned away and I’m certain that fire codes were obliterated by the crowds that did manage to get inside Bethel’s gym. They started holding games at the Hampton University gym, Holland Hall, which held a couple thousand people, because it was a bigger venue. They held games periodically at the Hampton Coliseum, an 8,000-seat barn, and thousands attended. Guaranteed draws: The Dead, Phish, and Allen Iverson.

Iverson was virtually unguardable in high school. He was quicker, faster and more fearless than anyone lined up against him. He got anywhere he wanted on the court. Even in AAU and summer ball, when teammates and opponents were better and often national-caliber, he was nearly always the best player on the floor. His running mate at Bethel was a kid named Tony Rutland, an excellent player himself who had a solid career at Wake Forest. A couple times a game, they would run a backdoor play where Rutland on the perimeter threw an alley-oop pass and Iverson dunked effortlessly. Bethel won a state championship in 1993 with Iverson, Rutland and a handful of role players.



This was months after Bethel won a state football championship, with Iverson at quarterback and defensive back. That’s the thing most folks don’t know or don’t remember. He was an amazing football player in high school. As difficult as it was to corral him on a basketball court, imagine him on a football field. He wasn’t a great passer, but he was practically impossible to tackle. He rarely absorbed a solid shot, he extended plays and he was a nightmare for opposing defenses. The late Joe Paterno, pre-Jerry Sandusky scandal, routinely attended coaches’ clinics in Virginia and had some success recruiting top-shelf prospects in the state. I asked him once, years later, about some of the best prospects he’d seen, and the first person he brought up was Iverson, who he said would have been a terrific college football player.



Iverson didn’t have a senior year in high school. He was convicted for his part in a bowling alley brawl in Hampton in 1993. He did time at a local work farm before former governor Doug Wilder commuted his sentence. It’s hard to convey how polarizing a figure he was at that time, in our little corner of the world. Some viewed him as a victim, others as a thug. Not much middle ground.

Anyway, Iverson did the alternative school thing to graduate high school (a different post all its own), and wound up at Georgetown with John Thompson. His college debut was Nov. 27, 1994, versus defending national champ Arkansas in Memphis. He made only 5 of 18 shots and committed eight turnovers against the Razorbacks’ 40 Minutes of Hell defense. But coach Nolan Richardson was sold.

“I ain’t never seen anything like that in my life,” Richardson said that day. “I’ve been to three calf shows, nine horse ropings, … I even saw Elvis once. But I ain’t never seen anyone do what Iverson does. We doubled him, trapped him and he broke it. I’ve never seen anyone that quick with the basketball.”

Iverson became an All American and went on to be the No. 1 NBA draft choice in 1996. He was Rookie of the Year and 2001 MVP, when he dragged a mediocre Sixers team to the NBA finals. He was unapologetic and indomitable. There’s a famous Sports Illustrated cover of him – scowling, shirtless, tatted up, hair in cornrows, holding two flower bouquets, with the title “Love Story”, about how he and his notoriously demanding coach, Larry Brown, finally started to get along. Guessing that David Stern and the NBA office weren’t thrilled with the image, but that was Iverson.

He scored more than 24,000 points and averaged 26.7 points per game for his career, despite barely scraping 6-feet and weighing a buck-sixty-five. He is arguably, pound-for-pound, the greatest scoring guard in NBA history. He was rightly inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame last year, first ballot.

And now he’s 41 – he’ll be 42 in June – and inspiring a new generation of players, who hear tales from their dads and uncles and dig up his videos on YouTube. That’s the thing about Iverson. Words don’t do him justice. You had to see him. The quickness, the speed, the fierceness, the passion, the will. There was no one like him. There may not be another.

Still, Allen Iverson. Forty-one? Man, we’re gettin’ old.

31 comments:

rob said...

my daughter's on a school trip to manhattan today to see a play. that's cool, and all, but it meant that i had to take her to the school to meet the bus at 4:30 am. kids suck.

Marls said...

I think the ruling in US v Fishbine lets you keep those airline tickets, Rob.

rob said...

funk it up, fishbine!

Mark said...

Can't wait to read this. Iverson is one of my all time favorite athletes to watch. Was lucky enough to see him play in the NCAA tourney in Tallahassee and again in the NBA playoffs against the Magic.

zman said...

Ilie Nastase just guaranteed that adidas will never reissue his eponymous shoes. Which is too bad, only from a footwear perspective.

Mark said...

Good piece by Dave. Always happy to have him as a guest here. I'd love to hear his thoughts on Percy. One of my top 5 favorite Gators of all time regardless of sport (I was always more of a Percy guy than a Tebow guy during their time in Gainesville) as I understand he was a phenomenal HS athlete.

A couple other thoughts:

- funny to look at that picture of Iverson and think how "tatted up" people thought he was. He wouldn't even be in the top 100 NBA players in terms of tattoos nowadays.

Unrelated- If the Magic continue to be a dumpster fire of an organization much longer (solid bet), I may need to become a Bucks fan. I'm falling in love with Giannis and Thon Maker's looking pretty attractive too.

Mark said...

The Iverson documentary is playing on one of the Showtime channels right now. The high school highlights are mesmerizing.

Dave said...

i'm going to have my younger son read this. an inspiration for little scrappy athletes the world over.

TR said...

How did Alonzo Mourning not make that list of great Hampton Roads peninsula athletes?

Mark said...

First name he mentioned.

Dave- familiarize yourself, and your son, with Earl Boykins.

Mark said...

Kawhi Leonard is so damn good. He could be DPOY for the next 6 seasons. And he averages 25+ a game.

TR said...

Kawhi's 4th is approaching stupid greatness level. Scored 14 in a row in the 4th, if my vodka-addled brain is counting correctly. And his defense got it all going.

I like Doris Burke and Ryan Ruoco more than most announcing pairs.

TR said...

And he throws up a quasi-airball as that comment hits. #mush

Shlara said...

I love AI
Never saw him play at Hampton Coliseum but did see a Dead show there.

rob said...

i saw r.e.m. there, then watched clarence get into a fight in post-show traffic. that was a good one.

Mark said...

And now kawhi take some over the OT. My. Gawd.

Mark said...

Takes over. Dammit.

Mark said...

That was fun.

TR said...

Kawhi is the shit. I don't care that they lost. His gennies were swinging big all night.

zman said...

I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw Molly Hatchet.

Mark said...

NBA playoffs are on and I'm toggling between El Clasico and Euroleague basketball.

Shlara said...

ugh--the Pacers are forcing me to watch to the end of this game....

Mark said...

Ronaldo's latest hairdo is awful.

zman said...

NBA playoffs are on and I'm seeding my lawn (I live to spread my seed) and putting down Scott's Step 1, then power washing the gum off my walkway and the brake dust off my cars' rims. I'm soooooo old

Mark said...

El Clasico was as entertaining a sporting event as you're likely to see this year. Wow.

On a field full or world class players, Marcelo was the best guy out there. Until he wasn't. Messi is amazing.

rootsminer said...

I was driving my kid and teammate back from a soccer match in Richmond today and couldn't find a radio stream of the match. I let them watch it on my phone in the back of my sweet ass minivan. The color commentator was amazing - kept me highly entertained most of the drive home.

Mark said...

My wife was sitting in the couch working in her laptop during the second half. She audibly chuckled numerous times after various exclamations by Ray Hudson. He's lively and animated for sure.

rob said...

as i noted on twitter, ray hudson said after the second messi goal, 'you could drop a tarantula down his pants, and he'd still stay cool'. ray hudson is the best. his joy for the game is authentic and contagious.

Whitney said...

Joanie died???

zman said...

Yesterday.

rob said...

joanie died, chachi is a trumpkin. sad world.