Iverson’s generation of artists and athletes represented the first group of black people who had been raised entirely on the phenomenon of hip-hop in all its diverse forms, and their emergence on the scene made those cracks chasms. His contemporaries—Shaq, Kobe, Chris Webber, Ron Artest—all represented some aspect of this new paradigm, but Iverson, with his durags, tattoos, baggy clothes, jewelry, braids, and crossovers, embodied it in a form that couldn’t be denied. It was impossible to pay attention to Iverson and ignore the deep history of poverty and inequality that animated his every step. His flashy superhero alter ego of “AI” was glitzy gold over sandpaper, a facade of panache and pride laid over a foundation of pain. Iverson was the avatar of the tough gristle of black America that the NBA machine couldn’t digest.
The isolation-driven, flashy merger of basketball and hip-hop in streetball showed up in his game, and like many of his peers (and many black youth, including me) he even tried his hand at rapping in 2000. The result was terrible––a profane, misogynistic, homophobic blur of clumsy lines. The NBA was horrified, and pressure from its then-commissioner David Stern got the subsequent album canned. There were other things too. An ugly history of possible domestic abuse and neglect, drinking problems, and money problems. But, as is true for all hip-hop fans, my fanhood of Iverson was a careful, surgical resection of the resplendence from the reprehensible. For me and for many people like me, he was the scowling specter of a secret identity that had to be buried in order to succeed. Despite his considerable and numerous warts, Iverson was an icon to some part of us. Not a role model, but a persona who represented a kind of freedom to be that we may never have.
That freedom had become a full-on liability by 2005. After the infamous “Malice at the Palace,” in which multiple players fought each other and fans in an extended brawl, the league needed to change its image. Lingering unease about the “thuggishness” the NBA promoted via hip-hop spilled onto talk radio. Iverson wasn’t present at the brawl, but in the eyes of many, his presence seemed to hang over it. The subsequent dress code the league passed seemed to be directly targeted at him. No jerseys, no durags, no jewelry. And so the NBA closed the book on Iverson. I felt like it had closed the book on a part of me as well.
That dress code would in some ways hand official ownership of the NBA’s image to LeBron James, who’s been much more socially active than Jordan, but has adopted much of his careful balancing act between owning the PR advantages of hip-hop while keeping his distance from its rougher elements in wider society. The NBA today is a machine, a fully realized version of the American consumerist relationship with black culture. The deep roots of marginalization have tied blackness, basketball, and hip-hop together as tightly as soccer and samba in Brazil’s favelas. And just as soccer federations mine the global sport of poverty and marginalization for immense profit, so the NBA extracts, purifies, and sanitizes black culture and talent for a wider audience. Iverson was the diamond it couldn’t quite polish.