Like most intriguing sports books, "Only the Strong Survive: The Odyssey of Allen Iverson" is the result of a powerful tension between a good journalist's search for the truth and a good fan's righteous indignation at injustice. Larry Platt (whose previous book was the incisive "Keepin' It Real: A Turbulent Season at the Crossroads With the NBA") digs so deep into the story of Allen Iverson, the most controversial basketball star in the most volatile city in the country, that he makes all previous writing on Iverson seem superficial. (And after 259 pages of race riots in Iverson's hometown of Newport News, Va., random violence, drug-related murders, and pre-dawn nightclub melees, the "Odyssey" in the subtitle earns its Homeric associations.)
Platt writes with an enthusiasm that befits a book about the most kinetic player in pro basketball, and in the end he can't hide his admiration for the way Iverson has blunted the establishment media's assaults on him (a gutsy and surprising stance from a writer who is himself editor in chief of the ultra-establishment Philadelphia magazine). As Platt sees it, "More than any other athlete on the public stage, Iverson is, by virtue of his groundbreaking game and his unwillingness to sanitize his ghetto-centric style, at once a product and a shaper of his times ... " Or as cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson (quoted by Platt) puts it, "Like Tupac, he says to America, 'It's not that I've transformed -- YOU have changed your understanding of what is capable of coming out of a black body from the ghetto with writing all over it and cornrows, the very thing that once signified the worst elements of blackness to you.'"
After some admirable old-fashioned journalistic digging, Platt makes a sound case that "Iverson's much-talked-about 'record,' his 'rap sheet,' consists of precisely one incident: the 1997 probation for having a legally registered gun under his seat. Those who refer to his litany of transgressions are inevitably including the overturned bowling-alley conviction, the missteps of his friends, and even his run-ins with ['76ers coach] Larry Brown." So if the overwhelming negativity toward Iverson is not about substance, it's got to be about style.
You might take issue with Platt's conclusions -- and invariably many are going to -- but you'd have to put in the time investigating every one of Iverson's much publicized incidents, up to and including last year's overblown arrest for threatening a man with a gun. (Iverson owned the apartment, and there was no proof of a gun.) In any case, it's difficult not to agree with Platt that "many of us, whether we consciously realize it or not, similarly comprehend Iverson as a symbol, which necessarily means we invest in him -- either as a victim or as a victimizer. Those who demand the book be thrown at him today? Invested. Those who ten years beheld him as a catalyst for a 'Rosa Parks' type movement? Invested."
However, even after you concede Platt's major points about Iverson's public record, you'll still find a large hole at the center of "Only the Strong Survive." What's missing from the book is Iverson himself. Platt dispels the notion of either savior or antichrist but leaves us without a clear picture of who Iverson is -- beyond nebulous quotes from his rap song that "I am what I show myself to be." (Popeye the Sailor Man's "I yam what I yam" says as much, and it's a better rap line.)
Platt makes an excellent case that Iverson is the "anti-Jordan" -- Michael, that is. The Jordan marketing phenomenon, as engineered by agent David Falk, "succeeded because white Americans got to participate fully in what was 'Jordan' without ever having their race guilt triggered." Falk's relationship with Iverson was apparently doomed from the start because with Iverson, the agent couldn't "obviate his [Iverson's] race by giving white America permission to forget it." Platt is right as far as Jordan goes: Jordan stands for virtually nothing beyond his marketability (which has made him an easy target for writers like Platt who prefer heroes a bit more, well, ethnic). But even if we concede that part of Jordan's appeal was that he allowed us to forget about race, what exactly does it mean to imply that Allen Iverson does not give us such permission?
Is the instinctive dislike that many whites feel for Allen Iverson entirely a matter of race? Or are issues of class, or personality, or behavior, involved? Some issues here run far deeper than Platt seems ready to go, such as why it's a bad thing for white Americans to see a successful black American and not have their "race guilt triggered." Does white America embrace selfish, sullen, immature white athletes who curse their coaches and shun social responsibility more easily than it does Allen Iverson? Is in fact Platt saying that somehow Iverson is "blacker" than Michael Jordan because Jordan fits more smoothly into corporate America? Do we then conclude that blackness is validated by birth in the ghetto and adherence to its culture? Does black American life offer no alternatives? How do middle-class black Americans feel about Allen Iverson?
In the final analysis what do we really know about Allen Iverson except his predilection for cornrows, rap and tattoos? And why, beyond his remarkable skills on the basketball court, should we really care? I'm not prepared to speak for the sporting public on this, but I have to admit that Iverson stirs no strong emotions in me of any kind. I do not see that he is particularly complex or interesting in any way, and I can't help feeling that his so-called loyalty to his much publicized entourage represents anything more than a failure to mature. I guess that's basically it: I can't see what it is that Allen Iverson represents that appeals to anybody. I can admire an athlete who fights his way out of the ghetto, and I can really get behind an athlete who has the guts to stand for something that frightens corporate America. But I don't know what to make of a guy who wants to pretend that his sense of values hasn't developed beyond the ghetto but who still courts corporate endorsements. In the end, what difference does it make whether you're Michael Jordan or Allen Iverson if you're a pitchman? My guess is that Iverson has about two more years to think that question over before his skills start to fade and the shoe companies move on to a younger, hipper version of himself.