In a little less than six weeks, my girlfriend’s grandmother is going to celebrate her 86th birthday. She is of German descent (Pennsylvania Dutch, to be exact) and was born and raised in a dilapidated old coal town in north-central Pennsylvania. She served as an Army nurse in World War II and continued in that profession through the 1980s. She is mother of one, grandmother of four, and recently exulted in the birth of her first great-grandchild. She taught Sunday school in a Protestant church for decades and, even at her advanced age, makes it to services and Bible study multiple times a week.
She loves the subdued affability of Charlie Rose and Larry King, but can’t stand the demagoguery of Judge Judy and Bill O’Reilly. She’s a firm Democrat, but not for any political, social, or ideological position that I can discern; it’s more of an issue of tradition. Her folks were Democrats, so she’s a Democrat, and her progeny better vote Democrat. It’s that simple. Socially, she’s rather conservative, but what person born in 1920 wouldn’t seem a bit parochial to an ‘80s baby like myself? When my girlfriend, whom I’ve lived with for three years, and I visit her family in her hometown, we sleep in the same room, but we pull the two double-bed mattresses apart and sleep on them side by side, as a respectful gesture to her grandmother’s sense of morality. Hey, respect due.
Excuse the inherent presumption, but in my estimation, for a female octogenarian, she’s also a hell of a sports enthusiast. Give her a call on any fall or winter weekend afternoon and you’re not likely to get much of a conversation. After two or three polite minutes of distant chatter, you’ll invariably get the “OK, I have to go. I’m watching the game.” Calls on spring nights elicit a similar response. Two years ago, my girlfriend called her grandmother on a late-May evening and got through a few awkward moments of conversation before suddenly saying, “OK, bye. I love you,” hanging up, and then turning to me with a bewildered look on her face to ask, “Who the hell is Dwyane Wade?” Grandma doesn’t play when it comes to the game.
Grandma can talk anything from NASCAR to golf, but her true affections are college football and the NBA. Beyond those being her favorite sports, they are also the arenas of her two favorite sports figures. The first is Joe Paterno, the cantankerous coach who inspires the geriatric crowd with his competence in the twilight years. That makes sense. Joe is an affable asshole who wins over the public primarily by not losing.
The second icon isn’t that easy. He doesn’t neatly fit in any conception of fandom for a person like Grandma. Her second sports love is Allen Iverson.
I’ve never had an explicit conversation about Iverson with Grandma, but she’s been more than clear. In one of my first meetings with her, I found her sitting on her couch watching a Sixers game. I was surprised by her viewing selection, but since I knew very little about her at that point I thought it best to quietly sit and watch. Allen pulled a few of his patented “I’m going to give the ball up with 20 seconds on the shot clock. You, collectively as my teammates, have about eight seconds to make something happen. If you don’t, I’m going to demand the ball back and do my thing with the final 10 or so seconds. Understood? Good!” plays. At the end of the third successive play of this sort (he scored on two of the three), a time-out was called. I watched silently as Grandma shook her head in disbelief. I steeled myself for the imminent diatribe on team play, selfishness, hip-hop attitude, Larry Bird, yadda yadda, et cetera, et cetera. I didn’t know this lady, and I certainly had no plan of arguing with her, so I prepared myself to suck it up. She shook her head for a few more moments, finally turning to me, saying, “Allen is such a bad boy … He’s one heck of a ballplayer.” Her look of consternation quickly morphed into a sly grin as she continued to shake her head through the car and credit-card commercials.
All I could muster was, “Yeah, he is.”
That moment solidified the concept of “the wisdom of age” for me. In a concise, clear, and eloquent manner, this Great Depression survivor stated the feelings of many a Sixers fan. Some may not understand Allen Iverson. Others may understand him all too well. Some may question the most elemental aspects of his character, while others may revere him as an iconoclast. Some may see him as an immature coward who hides behind do-rags and tattoos, while others may find a greater truth in those same accessories. Beyond all this polarization about Allen Iverson the individual, there’s a game much bigger than the man. And, to paraphrase Grandma, you don’t have to get him to get him.
On the momentous occasion of Allen officially being removed from the trading block1 in the least secure phrasing possible (Sixers general manager Billy King: “I expect him to be on the roster at the start of training camp”), let’s attempt to deal with this matter with a measure of intellectual and emotional honesty. No matter what tautologies are bandied about by the basketball intelligentsia to justify the trade of Allen Iverson, it’s all hogwash. You don’t trade arguably the most prodigious scorer of a generation (who, contrary to our expectations, has shown no indication of slowing down) for on-court basketball reasons. It has never and should never happen. I did absolutely zero research in coming to that conclusion, because doing the research would be as futile as attempting to justify a cosmically geocentric view. There may be some compelling available evidence to take into account, but it’s a dumb argument and I’m busy.
If Allen Iverson is traded, it will not be because the Sixers aren’t winning. It won’t be because of dwindling home-game attendance. It won’t be because his presence, along with that of Chris Webber, is potentially stifling the development of Andre Iguodala. If—and, based on the measured and guarded denial of Billy King, when—Iverson is traded, it will be because of a rejection of Allen Iverson the man. The decision will be moral and value-based, as opposed to pragmatic and basketball-based, as it’s often sold. It will be because Allen walks around the Wachovia Center blazed out of his mind. (I’m pretty certain that “late for practice” is code for this phenomenon.) It will be because, although the “posse” has been scrubbed, he still has serious connections to underworld figures in Hampton and Newport “Bad” News, Virginia. It will be because some perceived psychic, spiritual, or “professional” deficiency makes his continued tenure in Philly untenable.
I don’t find it objectionable that he may be traded for any of these reasons. They are all valid in their own way. At this point, my allegiance to him is already separate from my allegiance to the Sixers. I got over Barkley leaving. I can get over him leaving, too. What I do find objectionable is the need to denigrate the man’s game.
Like Grandma said, he’s a bad boy, but a hell of a player.
1 Due to the inherent racial and economic dialogue present in the very dynamic of the modern NBA, wouldn’t it be wise if Team Stern used their incredible powers of persuasion to PC-up the term “trading block” a bit?