Aspen, Allen Iverson and the “Tanning Of America”


“Dude, is he wearing fu*kin’ sweatpants!?”

As Allen Iverson walked out of the Sixers’ locker room for his retirement ceremony in Philadelphia this a few weeks ago, his clothing was the first thing my friend noticed and rightfully so.  Sporting Johnny Cash all-black from head to toe, a Run DMC Fedora complete with imitation Gazelle Cazal glasses, sweatpants and sneakers, it’s nearly impossible to not still love Allen Iverson.

And here’s why- there are so many professional athletes who lay claim to the “only God can judge me” creed as the knee-jerk form of self defense against any judgments made against them, media or otherwise, but there are so few who actually live it.  The tales of Iverson’s drinking, spending and gambling have all been written, no need to rehash them all here.   But I think a point that goes missed is that for the majority of his fans these misfortunes only add to his legend and authenticity. This, of course, is sad.  But the truth is that most of Iverson’s off the court troubles represent the same on the court attributes that make him the greatest “pound for pound” player in NBA history- no concern for his health or well being, win at all costs and two middle fingers in the air to anyone who tries to tell him he can’t do it. Tell him at 5’10 he can’t lead the league in scoring and watch him do it, four times. Tell him he can’t spend $30,000 in one night and support twenty hangers-on, and then watch him do it (until he goes broke).  But if your life is on the line who are you going to pass the ball to? The guy who put his money in a safety net annuity account or the guy who has “Hold My Own” tattooed on his shooting arm?  (A tattoo that Lebron James also now shares on his shooting arm).

Of course you’re going to pass it to Iverson, because he’s the guy who’s going to take that shot with the kind of “I don’t give a fuck about tomorrow” attitude that only a certain few really carry with them.  It’s only cliche’ because it’s true — but Iverson really did play every single game as if it were his last. If you need proof of that look at his shot attempts- for a four year span in the NBA he took nearly 2,000 shots per season.  Iverson also had six seasons where he had over 1,000 missed shots which is tied with Wilt Chamberlain for the most in NBA history.  These are the stats of a player that just doesn’t care about what you think is appropriate.  No tomorrow, on the court and off, and that’s why Iverson will always be Philadelphia’s favorite.

And this leads into the “Tanning Of America”- a great four part documentary series on how rap music infiltrated and eventually came to represent American pop culture.  I couldn’t help but notice the exclusion of Allen Iverson, who is without a doubt the #1 “rap” athlete of all time (with Mike Tyson and Deion Sanders a very distant second and third respectively).   Iverson’s cultural influence is important enough to at least mention if you’re documenting America and white  acceptance of hip-hop culture. Every white girl I know under the age of thirty “loves” Allen Iverson.  My Jewish friend Dave, who’s probably the nicest person I’ve ever met, just bought a kitten and named him Iverson.  Somewhere along the way, Allen Iverson became the de facto black athlete that was cool for white people to say they liked.  Of course these people didn’t really follow his career and know nothing of things like the “bowling alley incident”, his high school football highlights or even the Tyronn Lue moment.  They just like him because he’s cool, and in this case they’re right, he is cool. Iverson was the first NBA player who covered nearly his entire body with tattoos.  With all due respect to Tim Hardaway, Iverson’s crossover introduced street ball to the NBA and his post game presser outfits almost single-handedly forced the NBA to institute a dress code.  One could make a case that the entire And 1 Mixtape phenonemon was really just a bunch of kids trying to be like Iverson.  These are all very “hip-hop” things. What’s important to note though is that Iverson’s eventual acceptance by the mainstream media (think white adults) took the same exact route as rap music did.   Some of the very people who were standing and cheering for Iverson on Saturday night were the same people who said he was a locker room cancer and that he was a selfish player.  But Allen Iverson didn’t change, you did.  And rap music didn’t change, you did.

For those of us thirty-somethings (and a few forty-somethings) who grew up admiring rap music and the athletes who embraced it, it’s these “I told you so” victories that we can’t help but enjoy so much.  This past Sunday as I sat to a dinner in Aspen, quite possibly the whitest town in America, I couldn’t help but feel a minor victory as Tupac’s “Hail Mary” played through the speakers.  I immediately took inventory of the room- all older white adults, some European, and not one person so much as picked up their head.  As the heavy base intro rolled out  “I ain’t a killer but don’t push me, revenge is like the sweetest joy next to gettin’ pus*y”, I found no irony in the moment.  For a life long rap fan these little slices of time are indeed a sense of revenge on the masses and establishment who told us our music would never be accepted.  I can’t help but feel slightly validated when these little occasions transpire.  We did make it, and it’s over, and you lost.  And whether you like it or not, we’re here-  let Nasty Nas tell it.

Of course rap music and hip-hop culture won a long time ago, but for those of us who spent years defending its worth it’s always nice to take a victory lap every now and again.  So is Allen Iverson wearing sweatpants?   You’re fuckin’ right he is.