“We talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We talking about practice.”
An irritated, emotional Allen Iverson sat behind a table at a press conference after the 2001-02 season ended. The Philadelphia 76ers star would utter the word “practice” 22 times, and the clip of him ranting about the onerous burden of practice would go viral. After years of him wowing fans with his unfathomable speed, grit, and flair—he even crossed up Michael Jordan—this would become Iverson’s signature moment.
That is, until details began to emerge in the early 2010s about his dire financial state, alcohol problems, and toxic personal life. A dramatic star of Iverson’s caliber—a man who truly redefined how the game was played and portrayed—merits a worth biography such as the new one by Washington Post reporter Kent Babb, Not a Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson.
The book tells Iverson’s tale from his after school special-worthy humble origins to his time at Georgetown University, his dazzling career in the NBA, his equally dazzling fall, his aborted returns to the NBA, and his cash grabs in leagues abroad. It also charts his messy personal life—the staggering sums he made and squandered, as well as the truly horrific father and husband he became.
Babb begins at the end. By 2012, Iverson’s multiple homes and cars have been or are in the process of being auctioned off. His wife of many years, Tawanna, is finally going to divorce him, and in the process reveal just how far he has sunk. He spends his days getting drunk at a local P.F. Chang’s. From there the book jumps back and forth from a sequential version of Iverson’s life to the shadow of a man he has become.
Iverson was born in 1975 in Hampton, Virginia. His mother, Anne, Babb writes, was often involved with drug dealers. She also wasn’t the most dependable. She showed up late to Iverson’s graduation because she needed to make a McDonald’s run. Young Allen could often be found wandering the streets in the early hours of the morning because something was going on at home. His father was not part of his life in any meaningful way.
As Iverson’s basketball career began to take off and he became one of the top ranked high school players in the country, he was involved in an incident at a bowling alley in 1993 that left a woman injured. Iverson, along with three friends, were charged with maiming by mob, a Virginia law used to combat lynching. His basketball future appeared to be over, as he looked certain to languish in prison during his prime playing years. But Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder granted him clemency, allowing him to finish high school and make it into legendary coach John Thompson’s Georgetown program.
Throughout his childhood and young adulthood, Babb reports, Iverson was coddled by those who saw future stardom in this sparky kid. Coaches and teachers bent rules for young man who was not only a superb athlete but also by all accounts an incredibly charismatic charmer. Thompson, a notoriously tough coach who had conquered drug lords and troublemakers, found himself operating with a little more elasticity with Iverson. Larry Brown, the coach who would take Iverson to the NBA Finals, would fight with his star privately and publicly but is seen in the book making excuses for Iverson’s behavior and to this day trying to create shortcuts for him.
While he was a star on the court, Iverson appears to have engaged in little to no conditioning. His favorite foods were Doritos and Snickers. Babb tells a story of how Thompson used an uphill treadmill workout to equalize all his players, and how Iverson managed to do it for twice as long as the others and hop off, barely out of breath. “You go in Allen’s room, and he might have like steak, some french fries, a Sprite—three Sprites—and a bowl of ice cream,” one of Iverson’s close associates tells the author. “And then he’d drop fifty on you.” The former 76ers president Pat Croce says in the book that “It would bother me to no end that he wouldn’t train and he could come and run a mile in less than five minutes.”
Once in the NBA, Iverson turned around the struggling Philadelphia 76ers and would go on to lead the team to the NBA Finals in 2001, a year in which he was also the shortest (at 6 feet) and lightest (160 pounds) player named the MVP. While he was already making gobs of money with the 76ers, Iverson would sign a lifetime deal with Reebok worth tens of millions. His on-court swagger, signature crossover move, tattoos, and style of dress would leave as big a mark on future generations of basketball players as any. So too would his off-the-court image—the violent rap albums, gambling, drinking, and partying.
Babb’s book is making news now for three reasons. The first is his assertion that Iverson had been drinking before his now infamous press conference. Iverson, through friendly columnist Stephen A. Smith, has denied this. However, Babb also points out that Iverson gave that press conference after a season in which his best friend, Rahsaan Langford, had been shot and killed.
The second reason is just the book’s overwhelming evidence of how awful a person Allen Iverson is. Babb reports that Iverson would get drunk and urinate in front of his children, or pass out naked in front of them. Every few dozen pages, there is another incident in which Iverson is seen punching or dragging his wife, calling her a whore or bitch in front of his children. He threatened her with having her killed and claimed it would cost him a mere $5,000. As their last child was being born, Iverson apparently complained about his wife, “She’s not even pushing yet.” When things weren’t going well between him and Tawanna, he threatened her with going to TMZ with information about her and the children, Babb writes. He had a habit of parking his white Bentley in handicapped parking spaces, just because he believed he could get away with it. When his wife went into hiding from him, he was accused of threatening to kill two men unless she returned.
The third reason is the sad state of Iverson’s financial affairs. Stories about rich athletes—Latrell Sprewell, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield—squandering hundreds of millions is nothing new, but Iverson manages to be especially tragic. He had a bad boy image, and one that Babb implies was encouraged for nefarious reasons by Reebok. In order to keep that bad boy image, Iverson had to maintain credibility with his entourage and the folks back home in Hampton. Even in later years he was paying for 14 cars, only five of which belong to him personally and two to his estranged wife. He dropped hundreds of thousands on record labels for friends. Babb relates one story that circulated at one point—that thanks to Iverson, “the Hilton near the Sixers’ practice facility sold more Cristal, the champagne made famous in rap songs, than any other establishment in the country.”
He fired anybody who told him to curb his spending. Even though he would sometimes attack her, he put his financial affairs entirely in the hands of his wife. He also lit their prenup on fire and placed his $30 million Reebok trust fund in her hands.
What sets Babb’s book apart, however, are not just all the tragic juicy tidbits about this superstar brought low. Babb also frequently slows the book down and reminds the reader just what made Iverson so great. He relives Iverson crossing up Tyronn Lue in the NBA Finals, and then stepping over him. He details how Iverson learned the crossover from his Georgetown teammate, walk-on Dean Berry, and then spent countless hours perfecting it.
Which is ironic, because nobody ever really cared how Iverson practiced his crossover—just how he used it to play the game.