Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Only the Strong Survive by Larry Platt

The Answer in basketball, Allen Iverson poses more questions for most people. He is the highly lauded sometimes point guard, sometimes shooting guard for the Philadelphia 76ers. He is a cultural icon, and he is the subject of Only the Strong Survive by Larry Platt. In the book, Platt traces the story of Iverson, born in Newport News, Virginia to 15-year-old Ann Iverson. He learned early that he would have to be in charge of his own future and that sports could be his way out. Iverson grew up with his mother, younger sisters, aunts, uncles, and other relatives. Living in abject poverty, Iverson showed early potential at basketball that thankfully for the Iverson clan, caught the attention of others.

The childhood that Platt shows is one in which a group of people, from basketball coach Boo Williams to remedial teacher Sue Lambiotte, worked very hard to help Iverson realize his potential. Iverson struggled with the call of the streets, where the only way to make money was through selling drugs or robbing people, and the call to make something more of himself. After a brief moment in high school when Iverson was arrested for a bowling alley brawl in which he still claims his innocence, Iverson righted his path.

His mother, a now legendary figure among people who have followed the rise of this star, traveled to Georgetown University and convinced John Thompson to give her son the opportunity to play basketball. Iverson played for Thompson only two years before he made the leap to the National Basketball Association, the first player Thompson coached who left early.

Iverson joined the Philadelphia 76ers where he was supposed to be the savior of that beleaguered team. The first year did not go so well, but Iverson led the Sixers to the playoff in only his second season, which was a dramatic turnaround for the team. Iverson again found two people who would help to right his path. Pat Croce, the high-energy physical therapist made multi-millionaire who served as team president, and Que Gaskins, a Reebok executive who became close friends with Iverson, helped ensure that The Answer made it everywhere he had to be and that his life went the right way.

The problem was never Iverson himself. The problem, for those who see it as a problem, was that Iverson could never leave the call of the streets behind. Regardless of where he went or how much money he made, he would always be from the streets, and he was not willing to give that up. It cost more in social status than anything else because others, like future Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, could not understand the social forces that were part of Iverson. Brown could not reconcile the player he saw and liked at practice with the player who was constantly at the center of controversy, mostly over actions his friends had taken.

Iverson brought glory to Philly, but he brought chaos with it as well. The one area of his life where he does seem to have things under control is with his wife. Iverson and his wife, Tawanna Turner Iverson, met in high school and began dating. She stayed with him through all of the problems, and the couple now has four children together, Tiaura, Allen II (Deuce), Isaiah, and Messiah.

Platt brings Iverson to life the way that no writer has done. While Platt does not apologize for Iverson, he does his best to explain the athlete to audiences. Instead of accepting that Iverson is a bad guy who will never be good, the way many members of the media have done, Platt digs deeper and finds that Iverson is a man with a big heart who is trying to make the right decisions. For him, though, those decisions center around his being loyal to his friends, taking care of his family, and being true to himself. He does that in a way that few in the public light do, and he has taken flak for it.

Iverson, for his part, seems to brush off most of the rumors and bad press as part of his lot in life. Though he does not like it, he does accept it.

By Julia Mercer

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