- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2000

Allen Iverson apparently is an artist who is trying to keep it real.

"Come to me with faggot tendencies and you'll be sleeping where the maggots be," he says in his newly released hip-hop single "40 Bars."

Iverson claims to be relating to his people and their hardscrabble existence. Not everyone understands what Iverson is trying to say to his people. Kill? Maim? Impregnate? No, he feels their pain, frustration and desperation. He says he is one of them, going back to his days as a youth in Hampton, Va., after being granted life by a 15-year-old single mother.

You don't understand. The system lets Iverson's people down, and the system nearly let him down. He can't turn his back on his people. He can't forget who he was. He has to keep it real. The do-rag is a symbol of that, the crucifix of his faith. It is his link to the past, and he remembers and cares.

Some of the deepest thinkers around are trying to interpret Iverson's lyrics. They see the "faggott-maggot" rhyme and believe it reflects a profound yearning on Iverson's part to have known his biological father as a youth.

Iverson does not mean to hurt or offend. A gay male could ask Iverson out on a date, and that would be perfectly acceptable, because really, he has nothing against gay people, and just to prove it, he apologized to gays last week.

Don't take this the wrong way, but Iverson probably would not date a gay male. He is the father of two children, and he has a longtime fiancee, whatever that means, so he appears to be a committed heterosexual at this point in his life.

But you never know, and Marv Albert, one of the voices of the NBA, would be the first to say you never know.

Iverson undoubtedly came across gay people while growing up on the mean streets of Hampton, and those streets, by the way, become meaner with each telling.

Just how mean depends on the artist's interpretation. Iverson attended Bethel High School in Hampton, and it probably comes as news to the working-class residents of the area that they should wear bulletproof vests whenever they venture outside their homes.

The neighborhood once counted this space as a resident, and what now seems incredibly dumb in hindsight, this space never wore a bulletproof vest, never packed an instrument of protection and elected not to put steel bars on the windows and front door to his place.

This space made it out of there, too, only the achievement pales next to Iverson's remarkable saga. You must see what you want to see when you are tormented. Unlike Iverson, you did not see the graffiti-marred buildings, the broken bottles and trash littering the streets, the roving gangs and abandoned automobiles.

You did not sense the despair, the hopelessness, the culture of victimhood, but now, thankfully, you have been made to understand, and maybe, in honor of those dark years, it is time to add a do-rag to your work-a-day uniform.

Iverson does not want to be perceived as trite or adolescent, or less real than the next wannabe gangsta, so he accepts being a contradiction. Even as he is at odds with the system, he is a wealthy recipient of the system, a favored member of the establishment who seemingly dresses up to play a part, to fit a rebellious image.

If so, he is a 25-year-old rebel without a cause, his tortuous path assuaged by his six-year, $70.8-million contract with the 76ers. The contract, in a way, indicts the system as well, if you are inclined to question the relative importance of a professional basketball player.

Who's more important to America, an educator or a professional basketball player? That's an easy one, as long as you leave their salaries out of it.

But that is the system, and America's obsession with professional athletes is not necessarily harmful, except, ironically, to the professional athletes too young to handle the money, fame and adulation.

The obsession manifests itself in all kinds of peculiar ways, and these have become Iverson's people, too. They are easy to spot. They relinquish their identities in exchange for a jersey with Iverson's name emblazoned on the back.

He has a couple of names. He is the Answer on the court and Jewelz if he is in the mood to rhyme.

"Man enough to pull a gun, be man enough to squeeze it," Iverson says in "40 Bars."

The song closes with the sound of a gun being fired, which leads many listeners to think the worst.

To hear Iverson explain it, however, he is a man of peace and love. He is the male Oprah, plumbing the depths of his soul, revealing his psychic wounds to the masses.

The 76ers prefer to keep it simple instead of real.

Larry Brown, the basketball lifer in charge of calling Iverson's number on the court, just wants his star player to show up to practice and meetings on time, as he has done so far in training camp. Brown leaves the psychobabble to others.

Iverson's is "a cry for help," says one entertainment executive, and that clinical cry is straight out of a therapist's playbook.

John Rocker's social insights possibly represented "a cry for help" as well, only his cry was deemed to be reflective of one of the last safe target groups in America, the redneck or cracker, whichever insult you prefer. As a spokesman for the Confederate flag-waving types, Rocker was suspended from baseball.

Iverson faces no such penalty from the NBA, and shouldn't, no more than Rocker should have from baseball, if the First Amendment is supposed to matter. The level of fallout around Iverson is mostly minimal, largely because he meets the diversity paradigm of the politically correct.

That is not just patronizing. That also is convenient. Rocker, after all, was hard work, and this week's celebration of a dead Italian is tough enough. Even dead, real dead, Columbus remains inconvenient, except as a figure to reduce prices.

Iverson is not necessarily a bad guy, only a guy, like most, who comes in shades of gray. He is a young guy trying to figure it out under the bright lights of the NBA. Most players eventually get it right.

One of these years, when his career is nearing the end, Iverson probably will complain, like those before him, about the new players coming into the NBA who don't have a clue.

It will be something else by then. The do-rag will be so retro, so 2000, a fad that meant, well, what did it mean?

It meant you were keeping it real, boys and girls.

Yes, they really talked like that back then.

Groovy, man.

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