One big question for Answer
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Allen Iverson put the "nil" in nihilism.

Given that, the question now is, where does a Thug Lifer go, when Thug Life is the only life he knows?

Straight to hell?

What do the 76ers do with him in the meantime?

The legal case against Iverson? "It ain't even a question," said Road Dog, trying his best to sound like Ja Rule. And he's right. What case?

It's not about this particular case, 14 counts of air, smoke and mirrors Iverson caught after chasing after his wife (who he allegedly threw out of the house buck naked) to her cousin's apartment. The resident occupants, complete ciphers without Iverson to kick around, say he was packing heat. In his waistband. They think.

Nobody's proved this, or even found a piece. Without any proof he was packing there's no case. Even if it's proved he had a gun but didn't pull it, there's no case. And everybody on the night cophouse beat knows it.

Any lawyer could tell us this is dead air, a nothing case, and several Philadelphia lawyers have tried.

This isn't a case. It's an episode of "Cheaters."

This isn't a case. It's a waste of taxpayer money -- as if taxpayer money isn't being wasted enough lately. Nine big strong, competent, Philly detectives, to serve one search warrant? Two of them could've gone over to Al Unser Jr.'s house, don't you think?

Road Dog thinks so. Says the old double-standard, the old in-and-out, in-and-out, is being applied to Alley I., with gusto. And yeah the sky is blue, Dog. So what? Get back in your cage before somebody sends nine cops over to serve a warrant on you.

There are larger issues here than this one case. It's not a question of whether the Iversons will have remorse and reconcile. There's not any question that Alley I. will beat it. The question is, what then?

Iverson's already doing life. In his own private hell.

He's a Thug Lifer.

If it ends well, it'll be an upset, greatest comeback he ever pulled off. It's all good to amuse and entertain Philadelphians of all colors and ages, which you did, Allen Iverson, as the star scorer of the Sixers. It's all good that your sneaker has become the sneaker du jour, and that you are helping Reebok put a headlock on Nike. It's all good that your Iverson jersey is the best selling NBA jersey, more than Shaq's, more than Kobe's. It's all good that you, A.I., are an anti-hero to thousands if not millions of disaffected youth. Only those disaffected youth are eventually going to pull the studs out of their noses and tongues and leave their youth behind them. Reebok will find some other horse to ride. Another guy's jersey will sell.

What do you do then, when Thug Life is the only life you know, and the rest of life begins to pass you by?

***** ***** *****

Alley I. is a Thug Lifer, and if you asked him, he'd probably say he's damn proud of it. Just to not have any hope. Just to be obstinate. It's not a stage he's going through anymore. It's him. It might be the end of him or his career one day, and sooner than he thinks.

Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson was spotted talking with an unidentified older woman outside his house after holding a gathering for family and friends Sunday night.
The end has a habit of coming sooner than we think.

Iverson reminds me of Tupac, the supremely talented rapper/actor who had Thug Life tattooed on his body, and who eventually died young trying to live up to an image of something he really was not -- or at least he didn't start out that way, not deep down. I didn't feel that when I met him. Back then he was just a shy kid with a group called Digital Underground out in the Bay Area. The next time I saw him, on TV, on the 6 O'Clock Bad News, I asked, "Who is that guy?"

Tupac was spitting at cameras and loudly screaming "Thug Life!" and acting like jail was no deal to him. Thug Life had caught him up. If he was to be ground up as part of a social compact he couldn't understand, then he'd revel in it. Others not only approved of this, and his music, they sort of reveled in it too. Of course, they could put it away when they were done listening to his music. Just like they can put Alley I. out of sight or mind when he's done playing for a season.

Even the superb poet Nikki Giovanni, a professor at Virginia Tech and social icon, wears a "Thug Life" tattoo, and has a sincere love for Tupac Shakur. But she didn't have to go for a ride with Suge Knight. Neither did I. Neither did you. That's the difference.

Nathan McCall is from Iverson's home, Hampton Roads, southern Virginia, where nihilism and life come pretty cheap; poor, hardscrabble, ill-educated, un-funded -- no wonder they ball so hard down there.

The youth there, ballers or not, learn Thug Life from TV, videos, rap albums, society at large, us. The poor there are like the poor everywhere; they know they're unwanted. And without an older person responsible for them to translate life, many of them never figure out that it doesn't matter if they are wanted or not.

It's not up anybody else. It's up to them.

Nathan McCall's book, "Makes Me Want to Holler," drew a bleak, accurate picture of the nihilism of black youth in Hampton Roads. Not that black youth from southern Virginia invented nihilism. It is a staple of all young people. French intellectuals, depressed men in their 50s, and writers specialize in it. But young black men are who we are targeting, and limiting, and jumping on, with both feet, and much glee.

What about it?

Exactly. Up to them to do something about it. Period.

At the beginning of his career, McCall asked what I thought of Iverson. I said everybody from Bruce Hornsby to Spike Lee to John Thompson said he was the truth; once I saw him, my eye was drawn to him, because I'd never really seen anything like him on the court. Isiah and Stockton were the best 6-foot players I'd ever seen, but Alley I. was right there with them, and maybe better. More electric.

McCall said, "No, I mean, do you think he can make it?"

"In the NBA? He's totally pure. An All-Star."

Allen Iverson
The real question about the Answer has never had anything to do with basketball.
"No, I mean, in life. You think he can make it?"

At the time, I didn't quite understand the question, even though I know Road Dog, and as an ex-teenager and a former black youth myself, I know something about nihilism. I just said, "... I don't see why not."

I saw in McCall's expression that he wasn't so sure.

I remember when Tupac was just a member of the Digital Underground out in the Bay Area. I remember meeting him. He was so shy he could hardly look me in the eye back then. Next time I saw him, he was spitting at a television camera, catching cases left and right, and guns were around.

Rings a bell for me now.

Handguns are not symbols. If around, they are not exactly going to keep people from getting shot. Once Tupac was caught up in the Thug Life, he acted like he reveled in it all. The role he played in "Juice" was homage to Jimmy Cagney in "Angels With Dirty Faces." Only he tried to live it, somehow. But you don't live that life. You die it. Cue Suge Knight.

I've been told Patrick Ewing tried to jack up Alley I. in a NBA locker room a couple of years ago, told him to straighten up and fly right. Or at least try. Charles Barkley tried talking to him. John Thompson tried talking to him. Pat Croce tried. Larry Brown tried. Billy Knight tried. But a Thug Lifer figures nobody knows the trouble he's seen; trouble was invented just for him. Nobody knows him, nobody but another Thug Lifer. Nobody else has been through the hell they've been through, or faced a society that didn't want him, hated him, forced him to its margins.

Oh, no? Sure they have. All those men have been in the same or similar situations, of being the Outsider, one way or another. But they made it to the inside, and so has Allen Iverson, only he can't see it, doesn't realize it, or doesn't want to. The men who would be surrogate fathers have gotten frustrated with Allen for thinking the world had a special crucible just for him. He's too young to be bitter, but he was. And it's true, nine cops would not be sent to Ken Lay's house to serve a search warrant, but then, you and I wouldn't be given until Tuesday to turn ourselves in on 14 counts including four felonies, just so that our lawyer could take his time getting back from vacation.

And so it's time to move Allen Iverson, not merely for the sake of the Sixers, but for his own.

Alley I. either grows up or he doesn't.

Might as well start right here, right now.

Dig, Allen, and recognize: you're a commodity. As you are handling your business now, you're not going to get any better as player. You've reached your top end. You are what you are. The best you can do is maintain it, especially if your offseason workouts consist only of a few charity games and chasing your wife's Escalade around the seamier parts of Philadelphia.

If it's like that -- then you ain't going to get no better.

Tupac Shakur
Once rapper Tupac Shakur started living the Thug Life, he entered a dangerous downward spiral.
Charles Barkley has said it off the record. The Sixers should trade you now. Isiah Thomas has said it, that you are best suited as one of two or three scoring options, rather than the primary one who gets offended if the offense goes through anybody else.

On your next birthday you'll be 28, and with the kind of game you have, based on being much quicker than anybody else, and being able to spring higher than anybody else your size, any fall-off or deterioration of physical skills and you will begin to drop like an anchor -- unless you do a 180 and stop reacting like a Thug Lifer every time you have an argument with your old lady, or some quasi-friend of your old lady's cousin, or coach, or some soon to be ex-teammate, because how dare he argue with you, or just some guy at a traffic light shooting you a bird, or whoever.

Practice? Practice is the best place for you, if every other place is the death scene from "White Heat."

"Top of the world, Ma!"

Charles Barkley was in his eighth year when he was traded to the Phoenix Suns, and in many basketball ways, he can relate to Alley I. He too was undersized for his position, or at least under-heighted. His back was deteriorating by the time he got to Phoenix. But Phoenix worked out for Charles, all the way to the Finals against Jordan and the Bulls in '93, all the way to Game 6 in Phoenix, all the way to Thunder Dan Marleje pulling the string on one last baseline jumper, because Jordan was in his head.

What's in Allen Iverson's head?

Whatever it is, it ain't visions of sugar plums.

Whatever it is, it's got nothing to do with hoop.

Whoever it is, they're screaming.

Allen Iverson
Although applauded by the media during the 2001 NBA Finals, Iverson never really changed.
Iverson is a Thug Lifer in a career death spiral.

I don't blame him, I don't absolve him from blame.

I just know this would make me want to holler, too.

Allen Iverson has to realize the clock is ticking on his version of Inner City Blues. He has to understand the sand is running out of the hourglass for him, just like us. Worse than for us. We've got somewhere else to go. Hey Allen, check it out. In the end, you are just ... like ... us. You might not want to admit it. Lord knows we don't want to admit it. But it's not up to us. It's up to you. You need a new road, a fresh start.

Can you get one in Philly?

Can you get one at all?

Up to you. Not us.

Like that overly giddy Philly detective Lt. Michael Chitwood said, before you got served, "Stay tuned."

Chitwood ... Chitwood ... say, wasn't that the name of the star player in "Hoosiers"? ... Hey, heard about LeBron James? The Truth, they say. Better than the Answer. Adidas, Reebok and Nike are fighting over him already. ... Hey, the Europeans are coming. ... Hey, heard about O.J. Mayo? Only 14, and the Answer ...

See Allen? Life goes on. You're right. Nobody cares.

The question is -- do you?

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."



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