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Not a Game

The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson

About The Book

Shortlisted for the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing

“A searingly honest and intimate portrait of a captivating icon.” —Baxter Holmes, ESPN NBA reporter

Through extensive research and interviews with those closest to Iverson, acclaimed Washington Post sportswriter Kent Babb gets behind the familiar, sanitized, and heroic version of the hard-changing, hard-partying athlete who played every game as if it were his last.

Former NBA superstar Allen Iverson was once one of America’s most famous athletes: a trendsetter who transcended race, celebrity, and pop culture, and emerged from a troubled past to become one of the most successful and highly compensated athletes in the world. Now, his life and career come vividly to light in this “searingly honest” (Baxter Holmes) biography.

Babb brings to life a private, loyal, and often generous Allen Iverson who rarely made the headlines, revealing the back story behind some of Iverson’s most memorable moments, such as his infamous “Practice” rant, delving even deeper to discover where Iverson’s demons lurked. He drank too much, stayed out too late, spent more money than most people could spend in a dozen lifetimes—blowing more than $150 million of his NBA earnings alone.

His then wife Tawanna, seen often as the mild-mannered woman who tamed the bad boy, tried to keep her husband and family on the rails. But, as so many others learned on basketball courts, she was no match for the force of nature that was Iverson. Jealousy, meanness, and relentless eventually wore down even his biggest fans, teammates, and, eventually, even his most formidable opponent.


Not a Game



There he went, house to house, hoping he would find the little shit. It was Sunday evening, the sun setting in coastal Virginia, and Mike Bailey’s patience was eroding by the second. He should have known better. No doubt about it now.

Nope, Coach, he’s not here.

Sorry, Coach, you just missed him.

Bailey was the basketball coach at Bethel High School in Hampton, Virginia, a city on a peninsula that juts into the Atlantic Ocean, and after two decades he was familiar with the maze of teenage psychology. Now he was seething, played like a fool by a kid. These were the kinds of things that made him distrust Iverson, Bailey thought to himself, practicing what he would say when he finally found him. This was why the kid’s word wasn’t worth a damn.

Three days earlier, Iverson had asked to go home. Just one weekend, Coach. He wanted to see his mother and his friends. Bailey had gotten to know Iverson’s delicate family situation, and he knew the kid had a chance to do something amazing. Two years earlier, the coach first watched the eighth-grade point guard on the junior varsity team. He was so fast, driving to the basket with such ease. The kid was a blur, and the other boys could not move fast enough to get in front of him or put a hand in his face, and damn, there he went again. Iverson would have a chance at a college scholarship, Bailey just knew it, a rare opportunity to lift himself and his family out of here. But there was so much work to be done, a total construction job, and the first time he had met Iverson they argued about school absences. Ten of them, the policy went, led to sports ineligibility. Bailey told Iverson he had missed seventy-six days of classes. Nah, Coach, the kid corrected proudly, it was only sixty-nine.

After Iverson’s freshman year, Bailey had fallen for Iverson and his future enough that he and Janet, Bailey’s wife, had gone all-in: paying for Iverson to attend summer school, allowing him to live with them, and walking the high-wire act of Iverson enrolled in a session in which one absence meant failure and sports ineligibility—a high-powered train coming off the tracks. Now, with Bailey kicking himself for allowing himself to become so enchanted, the kid was nowhere to be found.

He searched, one house and then the next, his eyes scanning the sidewalks and playgrounds and alleyways.

Yeah, Coach, we just saw him.

Bailey turned his car toward home, and the next morning he walked into the school and saw Iverson sitting in class. Later that day, he noticed Iverson walking alone.

“Come here,” the coach demanded.

Iverson walked over, and Bailey pulled him into a dimly lit room, grabbing the kid by the throat.

“If you mess this thing up,” Bailey said, “I’ll kill you.”

• • •

SHE MOVED INTO Hampton’s Aberdeen district when she was still pregnant, fifteen years old, and a live wire. Look at her go, running through the neighborhood, which decades earlier had been part of resettlement legislation for some of the Virginia Peninsula’s black residents, and now it was a kind of community within a community. The neighbors appreciated the quiet, but here she came, bursting from her grandmother’s doorway yet again.

Her voice carried down the streets and through the windows, that round belly pulling up her basketball jersey. Ann Iverson kept running in the months after she celebrated her fifteenth birthday by going all the way with Allen Broughton, the boy she had met three years earlier in Hartford, Connecticut, the boy who seemed to never keep his distance from trouble, the boy Ann just could not resist. They had talked about it: first love, first kiss, first fuck—it all went together, didn’t it, and so when she felt she was old enough, he would tap on her grandmother’s back window at midnight of her birthday, and then they would go down to the basement.

Broughton had played basketball and earned the respect of men much older than him. Ann loved him, would fight for him, would do anything—and then he was just gone, not coming around anymore, even after the basketball trainer told Ann that her physical revealed she was two months pregnant. That would not stop her, though, from slamming doors and playing ball and bothering the neighbors. Then Ann’s mama died, and her grandmother, Ethel Mitchell, moved the family to the Virginia coast, quieter environs, the old woman hoped, for a granddaughter known around the streets as “Juicy.”

She went into labor in early June, and when her son came out she noticed the length of his arms. He was going to be a basketball player, she thought almost immediately, or at least that was what she would tell people she thought. She named him Allen after his daddy and her first love, but she would call him Bubba Chuck, combining two uncles’ names.

Ann found stimulation even in Aberdeen, and other times she brought the party to Miss Ethel’s house, the old woman trying to keep young Allen asleep or at least shielded from the ruckus in the other room. Bubba Chuck grew, and like his mother he liked to go fast, jumping on a ten-speed at four and five years old, roughhousing with his uncles Greg and Stevie in the backyard as Miss Ethel screamed for them to stop, for God’s sake, y’all gonna break that boy in two!

“They would sling the hell out of his little ass up against the house or something,” said Butch Harper, who lived next door. “He would take the hardest damn hit, and he’d pop right back up.”

Ann worked evenings at the shipyard, taking on daytime jobs as a typist and a forklift driver. Miss Ethel was looking after the kids, Ann and her siblings included, and it was up to Ann to keep the lights on. She worked most times, and even when she was off, she was not home—­another party to attend, even if the fun came back to Aberdeen or, later, their home in Newport News, a few miles northeast on the Peninsula. Often there was a man with her, Michael Freeman, who did mysterious things to make ends meet. Before they disappeared for the night or a few days, they put a ball in Bubba Chuck’s hand and watched him go, and when he was nine Ann called Harper, her old neighbor, and begged him to waive the rule that kids had to live in Hampton to play in Hampton, where Harper oversaw the Deen Ball Sports league. Ann was so excited about it, telling the other mamas and daddies at work about how her son was so good, he was going to play in the NBA, just wait.

One of those people in earshot heard the commotion one day, the enthusiasm common but the details intriguing. Gary Moore was a coach for Harper, working with football players, and he liked what he was hearing. He wanted to take a look at this little dynamo, and so he put nine-year-old Bubba on the field with eleven- and twelve-year-olds, pushing the ball between his arms, and—hot damn, look at him go! “He was kicking so much ass, man, it was ridiculous,” Harper would recall more than two decades later.

Moore vowed to Ann that he would do more than coach her son. He would look after him, protect him, shield him from the sharks that would forever circle him. He would see to it that he would be challenged and disciplined and sheltered. The way Moore looked at it, a kid with Bubba Chuck’s gifts needed to be nurtured and strengthened, mentally and physically, built from the ground up like a house meant to stand for all time. My word, Moore told Ann, just picture what that finished product would look like, and she smiled and hooted and shook her head, thanking God for giving her this baby, this gift who would use those long arms to lift them all up and carry them toward a much better place.

• • •

THEY ROLLED THE balls out at the Aberdeen gym, and off Iverson went during warm-ups, toward the basket, draining long-range shots from the wing, flying past the kids trying to guard him. Then it was time for practice to start, and Bob Barefield announced they were going to spend the next hour working on drills. A few workouts to teach proper mechanics and footwork, and when Barefield started the lesson, there went Bubba Chuck walking out the door.

Basketball was fun, not work, and practice to him felt a hell of a lot like work. So no thanks, he told the coach, and if this was what it meant to play for the youth league, then they could keep the damn youth league. Barefield was stunned, but he tried to be patient as he monitored a kid who needed constant stimulation. Barefield talked Iverson into taking a leap of faith with him, and the kid obliged. But Iverson saw himself not only as an athlete but as a multitalented youngster with more than just his speed and jump shot to offer the world. He liked football better anyway, and besides, he was going to be an artist or a rapper. He met Rahsaan Langford, a kid from the east side of town. Everyone called him Ra. He could freestyle with the best of them, turning everyday thoughts and dusty old memories into a stream of rhymes, spitting them on stoops and street corners and playgrounds, the words lightning fast like Bubba Chuck was with the basketball. Maybe for the first time in Iverson’s young life, he was jealous.

Ra was talented, the same as his new friend, and together they were going to make it out of Newport Bad Newz, they came to call it. Langford was quiet around strangers, but when he felt comfortable, he would brighten the room or the corner, keeping Iverson and the rest of their group laughing. And like Iverson, Langford and several other friends never wanted to go home. That was where Ann’s parties were, where drinking and drug use packed the hours, and Iverson would develop a habit that would later come to haunt him: Rather than spend the nighttime hours sleeping, he would stay awake, finding fulfillment or entertainment in other ways. Sometimes Ann would ask Bubba Chuck to run an errand for the group, and off he would go, once knocking on the door of a drug house and walking in as a police surveillance unit watched from out front. One of the officers, a former athlete at Bethel, called up Dennis Kozlowski, the high school’s football coach and athletic director, tipping him off that Iverson had entered a house filled with unsavory characters and had left with his hands full. The cops cut him a break, maybe the first time but hardly the last time an authority figure would look the other way, and Iverson walked home and delivered the package.

He spent his hours dreaming of a different kind of life and putting his imagination on paper—sometimes using whatever else was available when there was no paper within reach. Iverson once used the inside of his bedroom door as a canvas, sketching an image from above as Michael Jordan, his idol, glided through the air, the Chicago Bulls’ star flying toward the basket and his jersey flapping like a flag in the wind. Other times he would grab a ball, the noise in the other rooms too much, and dribble it up the sidewalks. Occasionally there were other boys on the playground, even in the wee hours, and other nights he would stand there alone, taking shot after shot by himself.

Other times he and Ra and Eric “E” Jackson and Marlon Moore, the young men Iverson would later identify as his all-important “Day-one friends,” would sit on a stoop or take a long walk. They were in it together, calling themselves “Cru Thik,” born and raised on the hard streets of coastal Virginia, but by God they would not die here, young and unfulfilled and, worst of all, poor. They passed the hours and made a pact: If any of them ever made it big, whether it was through rap or sports or something else, the group would never dissolve.

If one made it out, then they all would.

• • •

IVERSON WAS IN ninth grade when Kozlowski’s wide receivers coach entered his boss’s office and closed the door. Iverson’s school absences had already become a problem, basketball coach Bailey arguing with Iverson over the precise number of the dozens of times he had missed school. Now, even when he did make it to campus, he rarely arrived before eleven in the morning. Even early in the school year, he had missed the assistant coach’s early morning history class nine times; one more, the coach told Kozlowski, and he would have no choice but to fail Iverson, making him ineligible to play for the Bruins. Hold on, Kozlowski told his assistant, he would get to the bottom of it.

He called Iverson into his office, getting quickly to the point: “Allen,” the coach asked, “why the hell can’t you get to school on time?”

The kid seemed to not even realize he had missed class so often, but he explained anyway. Ann and Freeman, the man she met at the shipyard and who had begun attracting attention for selling drugs, now had two younger daughters, Brandy and Iiesha, and after Ann moved out of Miss Ethel’s house, there was often no one around to look after them. Kozlowski had heard things were occasionally bad at home; the lights occasionally shut off and, for a while, a broken pipe pushed so much raw sewage up through the floor that Iverson wore boots while moving from one room to the next. What his coaches had not realized was that Iverson making it to school at any hour was, many times, a small miracle. He collected enough pennies to call a taxi, then asked friends for a lift home to his house on Jordan Avenue, and other times he called a coach at four thirty in the morning and asked for a ride.

Even at age fifteen, he had grown used to waking up and being unable to find or awaken his mother, and if Brandy was to make it to school, it was up to him to get her there. But then if Iverson went to classes, who would watch Iiesha, who was born with a condition that afflicted her with seizures? Most mornings, Iverson saw Brandy onto the school bus and then sat with his baby sister until Ann came home, and only then would he wander to school himself.

Christ, Kozlowski thought, and depending on perspective this was either giving a young and talented kid a second chance because of unusual challenges or just another time Iverson was insulated from responsibility because of his skills on a football field and basketball court. Nevertheless, Kozlowski instructed one of Bethel’s security workers, a former high-jumper on Kozlowski’s track team, to take Kozlowski’s car—the Buick Reliant wagon, the coach pointed out, with “KOZ” as the license plate—and each morning stop at Iverson’s house, gathering the three children. He would then drop Brandy off at her school and bring Iverson and Iiesha to the high school, where the baby would spend the hours in the care of Bethel’s home economics class.

Iverson felt at home when the games began, the fields and courts the one place no one worried about him, and sometimes spent nights with friends, an attempt to find peace after the sun went down. One of Iverson’s mentors, a twenty-year-old former athlete named Tony Clark, allowed Iverson to stay with him some nights, imparting advice and wisdom into Iverson’s young mind. But then Clark’s girlfriend came over one night and stabbed Clark in the neck, Iverson running over and seeing his friend’s blood running in the street. Iverson watched as another boy took a bullet as they sat together on a porch, and it was said that in one summer, eight of his friends were shot to death.

Many times Moore offered a spare room and a ride from here to there. Iverson came to trust Moore, who years earlier had played football for Kozlowski. He was already in his late thirties, older even than Ann Iverson, and Moore projected himself as wise and thoughtful, a fatherly aura that Iverson was immediately drawn to, and Moore was among those who believed greatness was in his protégé’s destiny.

No matter the attempts at stability, Iverson moved around so often that he held precious the smallest reminders of comfort and peace. Before the family moved out of its house in Newport News, Iverson stared at the drawing he had done of Jordan, dreaming of someday controlling his own destiny, a gift that a professional athlete must surely take for granted. When they left the house, they gathered their meager belongings, packing them into trash bags and preparing for the next step—whatever it might look like. Iverson took a screwdriver to the hinge plate, pulling the door off its frame.

Iverson’s biological father, Allen Broughton, was serving a prison term, the first of several—including one sentence in 1996 for stabbing an ex-girlfriend—and the first time Iverson met him, it was with guards watching. The boy asked his dad if there was any way he could help him get a new pair of sneakers, and Broughton told Iverson that there was no way, sending the boy home shattered. But Ann came up with an alternative plan: She used that month’s rent money to buy her young son the shoes before a summer-league trip to Lawrence, Kansas, where one of the men who would stop to watch Iverson was a college coach named Larry Brown.

Ann maintained a relationship with Freeman, who attempted to be a father figure, but he also would spend most of the next two decades in prison, the investigations finally turning up enough evidence to convict him on drug charges. Iverson looked to Moore and his coaches as the stable men in his life, and when he and Bailey concluded their conversation about school absences, the basketball coach asked him a question whose answer was both revealing and heartbreaking, considering what Bailey had come to know about his young star: “What do you expect of me?” Bailey asked.

Iverson thought about it before answering: “Will you always be there for me?”

• • •

DURING SUMMERS, ANN Iverson trusted her son with Boo Williams, a former power forward at St. John’s who now ran his own Amateur Athletic Union team. Alonzo Mourning had come and gone through Williams’s system, moving on to Georgetown University and future stardom, and Iverson was his next project, a kid with so much talent and speed, and . . .

My God, Allen, do you ever shut up?

Fourteen hours. That was how long he talked, from Hampton to Memphis, teammate and future University of Maryland star Joe Smith going to sleep to pass the time in some way other than listening to Iverson’s impressions and jokes and continual wisdom, but when he woke up, Iverson was still jabbering. He was going out to Tennessee, where the new arena was a damn pyramid—had they seen it?—and Iverson was going to help them christen that place. Watch how many points he scored, how easy it would be for him to get to the basket, how many shots in a row he would make, and anyway, did anybody want to bet? Just a buck or two, chump change, come on. Coaches learned early on that Iverson was an incentive-based organism: Ask him to do something, and he was just as likely to do it as tell you to go fuck yourself. But add five dollars to the equation or a pay-per-view movie in the hotel room or pizza instead of some bullshit boxed chicken, and now you had a damn machine, eager, ready to please.

He bet on free throws and bowling and late-night Monopoly marathons, Iverson always the banker to see to it nobody would steal, always the one with the fat stack of phony money when the night was finished. But he had won, goddammit, and that was what mattered. Could he not dunk at age thirteen, flying through the air and going above the rim on a regulation goal? “We don’t play that YMCA shit,” Harper said much later. Had Iverson not scored thirty points three games in a row at the AAU nationals in Winston-Salem, North Carolina—not just in each game but by halftime, propelling him to the top of the national recruiting rankings? “What he did will never be done,” Williams would recall, “and I’ve been in this thirty-two years.”

Iverson was going to show them in Memphis, too, he kept telling them, the teammates and coaches in that little van feeling trapped inside a cloud of Iverson’s nonstop chatter. Damn, did the kid not sleep? Did his batteries never run low? Fuck nah, he replied, did Michael’s? Did Mike’s batteries ever run low? He hoped not, because he was ready to play Mike now, leave him in the dust.

Whatever, Williams told him. Michael Evans was a solid player: Not just the best point guard in eastern Virginia but one of the best in America. Keep practicing, Allen, and maybe in a year or two you’ll . . .

“I wasn’t talking about no Michael Evans,” Iverson crowed.

“Who are you talking about, then?”

“Shit, I’m talking about Michael Jordan!”

They rolled their eyes, and when they finally rolled into Memphis and that pyramid, Iverson and the Boo Williams under-sixteen team tore through the competition—well, most of it—and finished second. Iverson was named most valuable player, and that was great and all, but that meant it was time to go home: another fourteen hours of Iverson Radio, all the hits from today and yesterday, and commercials for tomorrow. That was some bullshit, he said early in the drive, talking about the second-place trophy, threatening to throw the damn thing out the window as they plowed down Interstate 40.

“Allen,” somebody said, “will you shut up if we stop somewhere for dinner?”

He smiled, something in it for him now, and for a long time he did not say another word.

• • •

BAILEY TOOK HIS hand off Iverson’s throat in that darkened back room, the kid’s eyes finally returning to their normal size. Bailey came to understand his star player’s challenges, or at least he tried to understand them, but he also made it clear he, Bailey, would not be played. More than that, he would not allow Iverson’s questionable support system—and the destructive lessons and twisted sense of normalcy he had come to accept throughout his upbringing—to derail such a promising future.

Iverson saw toughness as strength, writing off those who took it easy on him as soft and a mark to take advantage of. The easier you took it on him, the harder he made life on you. So Bailey began taking inventory of all things Iverson, collecting intel from friendly teachers and monitoring Iverson’s grades as they were posted. At the end of his freshman year, he took a D and would need to attend summer school. Iverson’s mother, though, could not afford the tuition, and so Bailey made Iverson a deal: Live with Bailey and Janet, his wife, for those three weeks, sharpening his focus and completing his requirements, and the Baileys would pay for the summer session. Iverson liked an incentive, didn’t he, so here it was, like it or not.

Iverson agreed, and the first four days had come and gone without incident. Then by Thursday evening, Iverson’s mind began to wander. No matter the actions and intentions of those surrounding him, those who had known him and believed in him since the beginning would always be dear. And no one was more precious than Ann, no matter her own bad behavior, because she had always seen greatness in her son. Iverson wanted to spend the weekend at home, but Bailey balked at the idea.

“Allen,” he had said, “we had a deal.”

The kid smiled, though, showing a kind of charm that would later make him into an international icon and charismatic pitchman. Beneath the toughness was a sweetness inside, one that prevented those who cared deeply for him from ever writing him off, and Iverson kept chirping at his coach. He reminded Bailey that one of his coaching principles was trust—trusting teammates to do their jobs, developing on-court trust that assignments would be completed, trusting coaches to put players in the best possible positions.

“Why don’t you trust me?” Iverson had asked.

The words ate at him, but Bailey held on, tired fingers gradually popping free of the ledge. Iverson was relentless. He caught his basketball coach walking around a corner. “Coach,” the kid said. “Trust.” He saw him in the kitchen and in hallways. “Trust,” he said, again and again, and fine, Bailey said, agreeing to allow Iverson to spend the weekend with his family—but only if he was back by Sunday.

Then, of course, Sunday had come and gone, Iverson nowhere to be found and Bailey making his way through Hampton and having no luck. Then there he was, and Bailey snapped. “I’ll kill you,” he said, reaching deep into Iverson’s soul. For the next ten days, Iverson had perfect attendance at summer school. If Bailey spoke with Ann, she would align herself with the coach and not her son. No matter how she carried on, Ann rarely questioned the motives of those who made her son’s future a priority. And she had taught her son pride: While Iverson lived with the Baileys, they noticed him rise early and ask to borrow an iron. He worked the shirt’s creases and edges, draping it over his shoulders and turning to reveal a hole in the back. There was nothing he could do about the hole, he figured, but he refused to attend school with a wrinkled shirt. “Whatever he had,” Mike Bailey recalled, “he valued tremendously.”

Iverson and his coaches still clashed occasionally, a look into the future, and Bailey threw him off the varsity team three times before the storms passed and Bailey sent him back into the lineup. Kozlowski required that all players wear a suit on game day, and when he learned that Iverson owned no suit, Kozlowski spent five hundred dollars for his quarterback to be outfitted in a two-piece; by the next year, one of Ann’s houseguests had stolen the suit from Iverson’s closet, and Koz­lowski bought him a replacement on the promise that Iverson would attend the Newport News Daily Press’s Athlete of the Year banquet on time. Iverson, with Moore as his chauffeur, arrived at seven fifteen for the six o’clock banquet.

The day before Virginia’s Group AAA state championship football game during Iverson’s junior year at Bethel, he organized something of a walkout. Kozlowski had called for a practice, and it was cold and snowy, and Iverson did not feel like practicing in such weather. Iverson, the Bruins’ starting quarterback, approached Kozlowski. “Coach,” he said, “everybody’s sick. We shouldn’t be out here.”

It was a note Iverson would play many times throughout his NBA career, someone he cared about having come down with a mysterious and sudden illness. Then, a day or so later, it was gone and Iverson would return to practice, pulling on his green and gold. But this time Kozlowski swatted away his star player’s excuse, moving forward with the walk-through, a half-speed tune-up scheduled to last an hour. Punt team! Kozlowski called, and Iverson took his place as the return man. The kick went up, and the coverage team ran toward him, positioning their feet to close down the avenues the quick Iverson usually tried to exploit. But as they approached Iverson, he just stood there. One more time! called Kozlowski, growing annoyed now. The punt went up, then downward, then into Iverson’s arms, and he stood there again, refusing to return it. Kozlowski threatened to bench Iverson, going so far as to have the backup quarterback warm up and take a few snaps, but Iverson and Kozlowski both knew the old coach was not going to gamble away his chance to win a state championship to underscore a life lesson for his junior quarterback. In sports, the game results prevail, and years later, Kozlowski would show little regret for allowing Iverson to play, because on a wall near the bar in his home’s trophy room was a plaque from the Bruins’ 27–0 win against Lynchburg’s E. C. Glass High School.

Iverson, naturally, scored one of Bethel’s touchdowns on a punt return. When a local reporter pushed a microphone into his face afterward, Iverson tugged at his stocking cap and smiled. “I’m gonna go get one in basketball now,” he said.

• • •

TAWANNA TURNER ASKED Kim Woodard if she could come over that night and meet the boy who played football with Kim’s boyfriend, Tim Johnson. Was he the one on TV always running his mouth? Who did he think he was? Tawanna was hesitant to say it out loud, but she wanted to know.

In fact, she did not say much of anything out loud. Tawanna was quiet, and he was brash. She kept to herself, and he always seemed to have his crew close by. He was an athlete at Bethel High, and she was the manager for the girls’ basketball team at Hampton’s Kecoughtan High, fetching water and towels for the players, some of whom were Tawanna’s friends. She was, as Iverson would later tease her for, a water girl. They could not have been more different. But they were both juniors. They were both sixteen. And opposites attract, don’t they, and besides, here they were because they were friends with some of the same people, Kim and Tim, wasn’t that funny?

Kecoughtan had a half day of school, and Kim set it all up. Tim asked Iverson to come over and meet the girl with the hoop earrings and the quiet way. What the hell, Iverson thought; beats going home for the night. They talked for a while, Iverson quiet now and Tawanna chattering, talking about how her daddy called her by her first two initials, “TD,” like a touchdown, and insisting she had dated only one athlete before, and maybe she wanted to someday be a fashion designer or maybe an artist, leave this rat-hole town, and eventually Kim and Tim disappeared into the other room. Tawanna and Iverson talked for a little while longer, and then Iverson’s hands started working, and then their pants were off, and anyway, it happened fast. When it was over, Iverson smiled at Tawanna, who smiled back. Would she come see him play sometime? Would she cheer for him even when Kecoughtan played Bethel? Could he call her his little water girl?

Iverson told Moore about her, the light-skinned girl from the other school. Moore listened as the puppy love unfolded, giving Iverson shit about it, but no, Gary, this was for real. Moore nodded and rolled his eyes, but then Iverson asked her to his junior prom, and when he stopped at Moore’s house before picking her up, he was a wreck. Was his bow tie straight? How about these shoes, are they okay? How was his hair and his breath and his tuxedo, and no shit, was Moore sure these shoes worked? Moore put his fingers on the bow tie, adjusting it. He looked Iverson in the eyes, telling the kid that everything was working just fine. This, he told him, was a match made in heaven.

• • •

HIS BOYS SAT behind the bench at Bethel games, Langford and “E” and Marlon following him across town when the Bethel gymnasium could no longer accommodate the crowds. Kozlowski worked out an arrangement with Hampton University, which allowed the Bruins to play their home games at its 7,200-seat Convocation Center, though even before games against rival Hampton High, there were two thousand spectators turned away because entry would cause a fire hazard.

“Coach, we’ve got a problem,” a police officer said to Kozlowski before a packed game, shortly before tip-off. Ann, in all her glory, and Iverson’s two sisters were outside, raising hell because they could not get in. Kozlowski kicked three fans out so Ann and the girls could enter, and they soon took their place behind the Bruins’ bench, too, the Bethel star’s mother telling anyone within earshot that her baby was gonna get rich and buy her a red Jaguar one day. Iverson had emerged as a full-fledged star, named by the talent scout Bob Gibbons as the nation’s top basketball prospect, sure to make his college choice among heavyweights Duke or Kentucky or Kansas or Maryland. But then again he loved football, too, and as a quarterback and defensive back, the recruiting analyst Tom Lemming suggested he and a New Orleans quarterback named Peyton Manning were the top two high school players in America.

The town spilled into the Convocation Center, most everyone trying to catch a glimpse of Virginia’s newest favorite son. Moore, a Hampton University employee, pushed his way through the crowds, and Tawanna came to watch her new boyfriend, too—marveling then at how Iverson was more than just a talented player; he insisted on doing things his way. Iverson bickered with Bailey sometimes, usually if the coach tried to compel Iverson to pass the ball more often. “Coach, stop telling me how to play all the time!” Iverson shot toward Bailey during the game against Hampton High, and in exchange Bailey benched his star. The next game, Iverson refused to take a shot—nothing but passes. If Tony Rutland found him wide open near the wing, Iverson held the ball a moment and then passed it back. If he had a clear path through the lane, nope—he popped it to the outside, and the Bruins eventually trailed by twenty points. “Looking back,” Bailey said, “probably today coaching somebody like Allen, I wouldn’t say ‘pass the ball.’ ”

In February 1992, Iverson and the Bruins were about to make good on Iverson’s vow to win the Virginia basketball championship. Bailey, despite his occasional frustration, believed that Iverson had learned from his past mistakes; that the risk of him messing up his future was now mostly behind him. Nonetheless, the coach stayed on him, pushing Iverson and checking in on him. But now that Iverson was a junior, Bailey saw a talented youngster not just finding his way out but pushing through so many barriers that had been placed in front of him.

On a Thursday night, the evening before a game, Iverson was bored. Like usual, he did not feel like sleeping. A little before midnight he asked a few friends what they were in the mood for. One of them suggested they go bowling.

About The Author

Photograph by Jonathan Newton

Kent Babb is a Sports Enterprise Writer at The Washington Post, which he joined in October 2012. His work was included in the 2013 edition of The Best American Sports Writing, and his long-form journalism has been honored eight times by the Associated Press Sports Editors, including first place in feature writing in 2005 and 2010.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (June 21, 2016)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476778976

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Raves and Reviews

"A searingly honest and intimate portrait of a captivating icon, but also a cautionary tale for any young star. Kent Babb captures the complexity of Allen Iverson from all angles in a fascinating must-read for all sports fans."

– Baxter Holmes, ESPN NBA reporter

“Allen Iverson was impossible to ignore, a one man hurricane, on the court and off; equal parts dynamic and depressing. With Not a Game Kent Babb brilliantly tells his story and it's a tour de force like AI himself.”

– Dan Wetzel, National Columnist, Yahoo Sports and New York Times bestselling author

“Babb’s thorough storytelling empathetically ebbs and flows between Iverson’s trials and triumphs, connecting the dots while taking the reader on an emotional truth-seeking ride of nostalgia, hope, and exasperation . . . . Not a Game is engrossing and definitely to be read and discussed.”

– Shana Renee Stephenson, founder and editor-in-chief,

“Allen Iverson’s is a life unfathomable to most. With Not a Game, Kent Babb questions the enigma that is The Answer, taking readers into a world most don’t know — and, quite frankly, most don’t want to know — exists in America.”

– John Valenti, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and author of Swee’pea, the story of New York City basketball legend Lloyd Daniels

"For better or worse, Allen Iverson has the uncompromising "my way" persona. Kent Babb eloquently, and at times poignantly, captures Iverson's swagger—raw and flawed, regal yet real."

– Benjamin Hochman, sports columnist, The Denver Post

“This is more than just great sports writing, this is writing at its best. Babb strips away the public persona of iconic superstar Allen Iverson to tell a stunning story of triumph, tribulation and ultimate tragedy. It’s a must-read about a complex hero who had it all for too short a time.”

– R.G. Belsky, author of The Kennedy Connection and The Midnight Hour

"Babb delves deep into Iverson’s inscrutable soul. This is a sad but fascinating read.”

– Publishers Weekly

“It pricks the skin and provokes a response.”

– The Washington Post

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