Since late November a Word Doc entitled “Iverson Post” has been sitting on my desktop staring back at me waiting to be run. It was written by our own Austin Burton immediately after one of the most frustrating experiences of his professional career. Dealing with NBA athletes in general can often times be an exercise in frustration; patience that stretches beyond most normal human bounds is many times required in order to make even the most minor of interviews or photo shoots happen.
Austin’s experience with Allen Iverson over two days in L.A. though was unbelievably trying, even for a subject as legendary in his elusiveness as A.I. After Austin’s ordeal, he penned the following piece – maybe for the site, maybe for the magazine, or possibly just to exorcise the whole experience from his system. With news today that the Sixers are severing ties with Allen for the rest of the season, it seemed fitting to run Austin’s piece this afternoon, as he had front row seats to the beginning of the end of Allen Iverson’s basketball career. Check out Austin’s story in its entirety after the jump, it’s a must read.
The Artful Dodger
Sometimes my job allows me a front-row seat to a life people dream of. Not my life, necessarily, but the lives of those I cover. Working for Dime has allowed me to almost wreck Randy Foye’s car, to watch Lance Stephenson grow up from a boy into a man, to have the best view of Dwight Howard’s “Superman” dunk and see first-hand how much more famous he became that same night, to recount the surreal scene of Michael Jordan and Michael Bivins playing a game of pool while “Poison” played in the background.
Back in November, I was witness to another bit of history. I was right there for the beginning of the end of Allen Iverson’s professional career.
When the Memphis Grizzlies went on the now-infamous weeklong West Coast road trip that would include the quiet beginning, turbulent middle, and disappointing end to A.I.’s tenure with the team, I was scheduled to be in Los Angeles that Thursday for a Dime cover shoot with Iverson. At least that was the plan.
In a business where few promises are made and even fewer kept, two promises were at play here: Dime had promised to give Iverson the cover of the issue that would hit newsstands in December; and Iverson’s people promised to give us Iverson for up to an hour in a studio at the W Hotel in Westwood, where the Grizzlies were staying before a Friday game against the Lakers and a Saturday tip against the Clippers.
It had been three years since A.I., who graced the first cover of this magazine, had been on our front page. Three years, four teams, two trades, thousands of points, millions of dollars made worldwide by people not named Allen Iverson via Allen Iverson’s influence. Always a favorite of the Dime staff, the drought had little to do with the man’s stature in the game, but more with the logistics of making an Iverson cover happen. Truth is, securing A.I. for a photo shoot and one-on-one interview was often like securing an oil-slicked alley cat in your arms when your skin’s been coated with Vaseline. Horror stories are abound in the publishing industry of Iverson showing up four to eight hours late to shoots, blowing off interviews at the last minute, delivering less than 10 minutes when at least an hour of his time was promised.
One such story comes from the Dime archives. Years ago, a shoot/interview was planned with Iverson at a Boston hotel while he was on the road with the Sixers. Come show time, no Iverson. After one hour had passed, then another, then another, finally we were able to reach one of A.I.’s guys. Eventually our contact had a proposal: For two thousand dollars cash, he could convince A.I. to come down and pose for pictures. When he was told that wasn’t going to happen, he then told us Allen was at a casino in Connecticut and couldn’t do the shoot anyway.
Now I found myself in a hotel in L.A., waiting for Iverson. We had a studio rented from 2-5 p.m., just one of a long list of expenses incurred by this adventure. Cell phone on his ear while wearing a practice uniform, Iverson got off the Memphis bus at 2 p.m. A team employee asked A.I. when he’d be ready for our shoot. “Not right now,” he said, but he did imply it would happen soon. He’d let us know.
Cool. Assumption says he’ll take a shower, maybe grab a bite, maybe take a power nap – NBA players are loyal to nothing if not their sleep. So then a half-hour passes. Then another. Then another. Around 3:30, I ask my contact with the Grizzlies about Iverson’s whereabouts. He’s in his room, I’m told, but his manager doesn’t know when he’ll be out.
Another half-hour. More calls are made, texts are sent. Now it’s close to 4:30, and I get the word. Iverson’s manager says it’s not happening today, that a “personal issue” has surfaced. No details are given.
Now it’s time for us to make concessions, so this whole trip isn’t a waste: Tell A.I. he only has to come down for a few minutes. Tell him he doesn’t have to do the interview today. Tell him he can wear his pajamas if that’s what he has on. Tell him we’ll buy him the drink (or three) of his choice.
Iverson’s camp doesn’t budge.
I talk to the manager: “A personal issue came up. It was unforeseen, it’s a family thing,” he says. “So we’re not able to do the shoot today. … I’m sorry … We’ll make it up to you guys … I understand you flew people in to do this … You guys have always been good to us and done right by us … I wish I could make it happen … We just can’t do it, sorry.”
One more thing before getting off the phone: “When everything comes to light, it will all make sense.”
And that’s it.
At least for Thursday. On Friday, game day, the plan is put back in action. The studio is acquired from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., thankfully for no extra charge. Cameras and recorders are ready to go. Perhaps the shock or sorrow or rage from yesterday’s personal crisis has settled. Perhaps today is the day.
It’s not. Although A.I.’s guy said this shoot was important to them, that they knew about it for a week in advance, it’s not going to happen. The Iverson camp told us they were looking for good press; that few publications outside of Dime would be willing to give good press; that Allen wanted to “tell his story and have someone tell it who would get it right.”
That somebody was me, I suppose. Having never interviewed A.I. one-on-one before, I had 15 years worth of questions to ask him, questions still in my notebook that may never be asked now. My goal was to write the realest Iverson story you’ve ever read. One as harsh as a hit of Christian Brothers brandy. One that didn’t apologize for A.I. nor take every opportunity to beat him down.
Shortly after 5 p.m., as the Grizzlies begin loading the team bus, I’m actually pacing the hotel lobby like a groupie, waiting to see Iverson or his manager. Minutes before the bus is scheduled to leave, I do. Iverson makes a beeline for the bus. I swarm in close enough to get his manager.
New set of concessions: Have Allen come to the studio and stand in front of a camera for two minutes. He doesn’t have to talk about whatever is going on personally. We’ll worry about the interview later. You don’t have to worry about making anything up to us. You’ll have your cover and your good press. Everyone gets what they came for. Last chance.
Looking back I wonder; Did he know? Did Iverson know that night’s game would be the last he’d play for the Grizzlies? Did he know after that Thursday practice he didn’t want to be on the team anymore? Did he know he would ask for a leave of absence on Saturday? Did Iverson refuse to do the photo shoot thinking (erroneously) that we wanted to be boring and stick him in a Grizzlies uniform when he knew it would almost immediately become null and void?
I didn’t know. When I watched A.I. get on that bus in clothes that seem to engulf him – leather jacket, jeans, du-rag under a Washington Nationals cap – I never thought it might be the last time he’d get on a bus headed to a game. Maybe it was because his 34-year-old face could still pass for an undergrad at UCLA (just up the block from the W). That was one thing I always liked about Iverson; in the 15 years since I first saw him play, he never lost that youthful part of his on-court game or off-court demeanor. He was always the kid on the playground. Seeing him that day in L.A., he could have been any teenager getting on his AAU team’s bus, looking forward to a thousand more games. He didn’t look like a man at the end of the road.
“I’m sorry,” Iverson’s manager says to my last-ditch effort. He runs back into the building for something A.I. has forgotten in his room. “We’ll work something out,” he says as the elevator doors whisper shut.
I’m still waiting to hear back. Given what has since transpired in Philadelphia – when the one situation that should’ve been guaranteed to work out for Iverson still fell apart – I know I never will.
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