- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2005

First it was Barney, the preschool teaching purple dinosaur of television fame. Then came Pikachu and then Pokemon — an obsession lasting three years that required a ridiculous investment in collector cards. For a short time, Batman was his focus. Now that my son is 10 years old, his hero is Philadelphia 76ers point guard Allen Iverson — the first “real” hero he’s ever had.

I can’t pinpoint when the transformation occurred. One day he was up in his room staging a battle between a Beanie Baby tiger and a Spider-Man action figure, and the next he possessed an inexplicable, categorical, exhaustive, comprehensive storehouse of information about the NBA.

Now he reads the sports page with his breakfast cereal, sharing highlights of NBA games with me while I pack school lunches. The boy who always went to bed without complaint now begs to stay up for the end of a televised grudge match between Philadelphia and the New York Knicks. He even changed our computer’s home page to www.nba.com.

It’s not just an all-consuming interest in basketball that’s preoccupying his thoughts. “A.I.” — Allen Iverson — has captured my son’s imagination.

“Did you know Allen Iverson was the shortest first-round draft pick in history?” my son asked me the other day. “He’s only 6 feet, Mom. In the NBA that’s really short.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s impressive. What else do you know about him?”

He spouted a few statistics and mentioned that the NBA superstar has two children, but other than the fact that Allen Iverson wears the number three and is his favorite NBA player, I realize he doesn’t know much about the man.

Suffice to say, what I know about my son’s new hero could fill an eyedropper. This is odd given the amount of time I now spend talking about him.

It feels as though my son has a friend I’ve never met — a friend whose influence and example seem to grow like the size of my son’s black Converse All Stars (shoes we recently purchased in the spirit of “Old School” basketball).

I figure he ought to know more about his hero than just the number on his jersey, so I picked up a copy of John N. Smallwood Jr.’s biography “Fear No One.” The cover of the book promises to reveal “The man. The myths. The legend of an NBA superstar.” Plus, it has eight pages of photos, which my son will love.

It turns out he hasn’t read the book yet, but I did. The rest of my family thinks this is odd because I’m not a big reader of sports biographies. “Mom, why are you reading a book about Allen Iverson?” my daughter asked.

“So I can talk to your brother about what interests him,” I said defensively. The truth is, I was checking to see what kind of hero my son has chosen. Times being what they are, sports figures aren’t always the most wholesome role models, after all.

The book tells a story of an earnest young man, a product of one of America’s poorest and most challenging environments — Hampton, Va. Born into abject poverty to a 15-year-old single mother, Iverson was raised without a reliable male influence in his life.

“Fear No One” tells the story of how Iverson endured the hopeless atmosphere of his home life and chronicles the discovery of his extraordinary athletic abilities. It also tells how he created a plan for his life that would lift his family from the depths of poverty.

Not that his story doesn’t have it’s share of controversy. At the age of 17 — at the pinnacle of his high school sports career — Iverson was found guilty of participating in a racially charged brawl at a bowling alley. The conviction landed him in prison for four months but was later reversed on appeal because of a lack of evidence.

Even now, almost 10 years later, it’s not unusual for the Sixers star to be at the center of a storm for behavior that seems variously immature, unprofessional or downright brash. His brushes with the law and conflicts with Sixers coach Larry Brown reflect lapses in good judgment, at best.

But reading his story leads me to conclude that Iverson is a very “real” hero, indeed. He makes his share of mistakes, but he learns as he goes. He’s proud of himself, his family and his roots, and he proves it by staying close to the people who believed he could reach his lofty goals. He also demonstrates a passion for his game that shows he appreciates the raw talent bestowed by a generous Creator.

I realize my son’s fascination with Allen Iverson probably won’t last long. Someone else will come along to take his place — inspiring him in a whole new direction. As role models go, sports figures seem to rise and fall on their win/loss record, and who knows how long the Sixers will be hot?

Not to mention, sports stars are accidental heroes — people whose abilities thrust them into the spotlight without regard for their character or compassion or commitment to a life that’s exemplary. Given the money at stake and the rewards of celebrity, today’s sports hero could be tomorrow’s congressional witness.

Then again, when I asked my son to name all his heroes, he had two. On the surface, they don’t have a lot in common, but they’re both basketball players, both fiercely loyal to their families, both hard workers and caring men.

“Allen Iverson and Dad,” he said. “By the way, when will Dad be home from work?” he asked as he headed out to the driveway with a basketball.

“Soon,” I said.

Life is good when one of your heroes actually plays one-on-one with you before dinner.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 17 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com) or send e-mail to [email protected]

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