|Team USA has wrong Answer|
By Larry Platt
Special to Page 2
After the debacle that was the John Thompson-coached 1988 Men's Olympic Basketball team, a decision was made that was in keeping with tried and true American values. From then on, we'd refrain from sending lesser roundball talents to the Olympic games; instead, we'd pay homage to the American notion of merit and send our best players to take on the world.
So now it's 11 years later and one of the best players of a new, less deferential, generation is wondering just what it all meant. If we decided after 1988 that our best would represent us, why all the handwringing now about whether Allen Iverson will get the chance to represent his country in Athens next year? His coach is the 2004 coach, and his general manager is on the selection committee, and yet they've let Iverson -- a one-time league MVP and two-time scoring champ -- twist in the wind.
Why? Iverson, for one, knows that any hesitancy to name him to the team isn't a decision being made on the merits. "I know it has to do with my image and not my game," he said recently, when asked about the brewing controversy over his possible Olympic diss. "Ask any of these guys out here, they'll tell you I belong on that team. I feel like I'm the best player in the world -- I know I'm one of the 12 best."
If Iverson is passed over, the selection committee will be asking you to believe precisely the opposite: That he is not among the 12 best at what he does. This just days after none other than Shaquille O'Neal called him "one of the five best players ever" on national TV.
Privately, Iverson is letting people know that he wants to be on the team, but that he won't kiss ass to be selected. He's heard the reasons for his possible exclusion, and recognizes them as smokescreen material.
The unthreatening Allen, the NBA's choice to do public service announcements for the Thurgood Marshall Fund, was cut from Michael Jordan's "crossover" mold. Iverson was the corn-rowed, tattooed playground player who owed more, stylistically, to Tupac Shakur than to Michael Jordan.
"I knew I wasn't going to be on that team," Iverson said. "It's not right, but it's something I kind of understand, that people would be kind of scared ... But when they talk about basketball, I'm the right guy. Simple as that."
Then, as now, Iverson was making a meritocratic argument in his defense. When the 2000 snub came down, he reacted as he always has in the face of adversity, by using it to fuel his on-court game. Just before the Olympic committee made his exclusion official, he lit up none other than Ray Allen for 46 points. Then he exploded for 50 points against the NBA's newest Great White Hope at the time, Jason Williams.
It was part of a lifelong pattern of motivation: Pyschologically, Iverson has always needed someone to stick it to. Often, as a pro, that foil was Larry Brown; he'd take to the court determined to show his nagging, doubting coach just what a warrior he was.
In high school, it was no mere coincidence that Iverson scored 42 points in a pressure-packed playoff game on the very day he was arrested and arraigned for his part in a bowling alley brawl. Even then, in order to summon his genius, he needed a "me versus the world" outlook. It is a personality trait common among kids from ghetto upbringings who manage to succeed, who come from a hardscrabble world where nothing good ever just "happens," but must instead be fought for.
Seen this way, to Iverson, excellence can only be achieved by way of conflict, by proving someone wrong. The subtext, of course, is race; in "showing them," a ghetto-born overachiever not only shows up whoever conveyed today's real or imagined insult, but everyone who ever doubted him.
Well, he's doing the same thing now, raising his game to a new level (shooting over 50 percent from the field since the all-star break) just as the powers-that-be decide his Olympic fate. As he has implied, their selection process appears motivated by PR, as opposed to basketball concerns.
The irony, of course, is that excluding Iverson from the Olympic team isn't even smart PR. The NBA and the likes of Larry Brown are so wedded to the Jordan "crossover" model of athlete marketing, they haven't noticed that, in the new global NBA, Iverson's hip-hop persona actually makes better business sense than the blandness of Kobe Bryant, dubbed "Karaoke Jordan" by the cultural pundit Dr. Todd Boyd. After all, both Kobe and Shaq have lost lucrative sneaker deals; Iverson's Reeboks, like his jersey, outsell all challengers.
Iverson's global popularity was something Reebok discovered the summer after his controversial rookie year. The sneaker company sent him on a three-week promotional tour of South America. Whether in Chile, Brazil or Santo Domingo, Iverson-mania reigned.
"Man, I got crazy love like this all around the world?" a stunned Iverson asked Que Gaskins, his business mentor, as he gazed upon a packed, screaming, gyrating crowd on five levels of a Chilean mall, kids and adults alike jockeying for a glimpse of the American ballplayer and newly minted hip-hop icon.
"Fusionism is way more than skin color," Gaskins says. "It's about attitude, about the elimination of cultural boundaries and stereotypes." If the NBA is smart, Gaskins suggests, it would hold Iverson up as a fusionism success story by naming him to the ultimate international competition.
How hot is Iverson globally? So much so that a photographer from Japan has moved to Philadelphia, the better to get shots of Iverson for a string of Japanese "AI" magazines. His name is Yoshi, and Iverson has allowed the foreigner into his posse's inner-circle, where he clicks away, servicing a rabid audience on the other side of the globe.
If Allen Iverson is passed over for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, it will be a missed opportunity -- and not just for him. It will be bad for the game, because, as Iverson himself suggests, it will fly in the face of a traditional American value: merit.
And it will be bad for the NBA, because, in Iverson, the league has an asset -- warts and all -- that can truly attract and hold an increasingly youthful, vibrant worldwide audience.
Larry Platt is editor-in-chief of Philadelphia Magazine and the author of "Only The Strong Survive: The Odyssey of Allen Iverson" (Regan Books).