Your first impulse might be to put your face in your hands and weep. That’s not far from how I felt upon seeing Allen Iverson’s cameo in About Billions, a web documentary series on the life of Cincinnati boxer Adrien Broner, who beat Paulie Malignaggi for a welterweight championship last Saturday. Broner’s show is self-aggrandizing, self-produced, and ultimately self-defeating. It shows him traipsing around Atlanta and Miami clubs, pouring champagne onto the ground from golden bottles, and posing with giant stacks of cash. In other words, if you’ve seen a hip-hop music video in the past 15 years, it’s pretty unremarkable.
But for about 50 seconds, when Broner and his crew encounter Iverson outside of an Atlanta club (at about 1:50 in the clip above), the show is harrowing. Iverson is never introduced, so it took me a few seconds to realize Broner was talking to the 2001 NBA MVP. When I recognized that gravelly voice as Iverson’s, it was hard not to feel crestfallen. The scene is portrayed as an unplanned meeting — two athletes bumping into each other in the parking lot — only these two athletes could not be at more different points in their careers. Broner is 23 and a regular subject in discussions of the future of boxing, even if his win over Malignaggi failed to impress many fans and journalists. Iverson is 38, was last seen in the NBA three years ago, and is a regular subject of newspaper reports about child custody disputes, alcohol problems, and financial ruin.
Kent Babb’s lengthy feature on Iverson’s post-career struggles in the Washington Post last April — which included Iverson’s now infamous quote, gleaned from divorce papers, “I don’t even have money for a cheeseburger!” — has primed us for further bad news about Iverson, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the scene between him and Broner.
Outside the Atlanta nightclub, Iverson sits in an SUV with the doors open and asks Broner if he’s carrying a gun. “It’s always in the bag,” Broner replies, and Iverson starts talking about playing Russian roulette. It’s hard to believe that Iverson is being serious, but he provides no clear indication that his suggestion is a joke. Broner laughs it off and says “This is a fully loaded pistol! … The first shot, you dead.” To which Iverson replies: “You think I don’t know?” He smiles and laughs and gives Broner a fist-pound as the scene ends, which makes the exchange seem more like a gag. But damn if Iverson’s retort didn’t sound cold-blooded, like he was ready to grab Broner’s handgun and let the spent shells fall where they may.
After Broner leaves, the camera lingers with Iverson, who puts his hood up so his eyes are cloaked in shadow and then delivers a brief endorsement of the young fighter in a cryptic, late-night drawl: “Yeah I know who he is. Yeah I know what he do. Ain’t no fluke. That shit real. Beat your ass. You know what time it is. It’s your man, A.I.”
What does it mean? I don’t know, and unless you witnessed the scene in person, neither do you. With everything we know that has gone on in Iverson’s life, we can’t help but assume the worst. But we don’t know. This half-minute interaction could mean something totally different in the context of a much longer conversation between Broner and Iverson, one that YouTube viewers cannot see. Or, the whole scene could be scripted. Broner and Iverson could be teaming up to take sentimental, gullible fools like me for a ride, or to take the quick assumptions many sports fans make about black athletes and turn them on their heads.
We don’t know, and maybe we shouldn’t even permit ourselves to wonder if it’s real. But if that encounter was genuine, file it away as the most heartbreaking thing you’ll see this month. Iverson, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, only a few years removed from the NBA, comes off as a self-destructive lunatic, a dead-eyed Christopher Walken at the end of The Deer Hunter. Broner, meanwhile, saunters off with his buddies. They seem to be treating the exchange as a joke, as if they just bumped into a crazy homeless man outside the club, only that man turned out to be Allen Iverson. Except for Broner, whose young career has already been stained by legal troubles, Iverson’s appearance shouldn’t seem funny — it should probably seem like a visit from the Ghost of Sports Fame Future.
But forget Broner. He will either succeed or he won’t, but he’ll never mean what Iverson has meant to so many. Many sportswriters regard Iverson as a basketball antihero, but to millions upon millions of fans, he’s a straight-up hero. No qualifiers. No matter how bad things get for Iverson, no matter how many kidnapping headlines his name appears in or how many disturbing cameos he makes in videos like About Billions, many of us will adore him for the way he played the game and for his achievements and contributions to the sport.
We’ll also root for him to find peace, stability, and some form of happiness.