For those of you who are not sports fans: The Philadelphia 76ers, a professional basketball team, are bad. Very bad. Not Washington Generals bad, but close. So it was a nice reprieve when the Sixers retired guard Allen Iverson’s jersey retired and raised it to the rafters. Iverson was emotional and classy. The fans were appreciative. It was wonderful.
Except that in the broader zeitgeist, Iverson is not known for his play, awards, accolades, or legacy. His image has been cemented in a single 120 second rant that even a casual fan will recognize by a word: “Practice”
On the court, Iverson the player was always worth the price of admissions. He was impossible. Standing at 5 foot 10, weighing no more than 185 pounds, it simply seemed fictitious that he could find success in a league of colossi. But despite All Star games, All-NBA teams, and Olympic medals, the jokes always turn to this moment.
So let’s take “practice” in context: The 2000-2001 Sixers, an amalgam of role players and specialists, were at the top of their onference. Iverson led the NBA in scoring and steals. He played big minutes every game despite a half dozen injuries. Iverson had a reputation as a bad teammate, but he worked with team captain Eric Snow to build relationships. Iverson labored to improve his long-fraught relationship with coach Larry Brown who, by all accounts, motivated his players by making them hate him.
And in the context of this historic season, this man from a destitute town in Virginia who was defying physics in a magical season was asked about a rumor that he wasn’t working hard enough.
You wouldn’t be shocked to hear that this was not the first time a African American athlete had been labeled as slothful. Tracy McGrady, who posted some of the greatest numbers in the history of the sport, was criticized for having a lazy look during games. Pundits wondered if Shaquille O’Neil had spent any time practicing his free throws. If you want to start a fight in South Philadelphia, explain how Donovan McNabb is the best quarterback in Eagles history.
You wouldn’t be shocked to hear that people are wondering aloud if President Obama takes too many naps.
Larry Bird is regarded as the greatest foul mouthed trash talker of all time. But Iverson had a neck tattoo. Brett Farve, with his unsolicited crotch-shots to interns, is lauded for being “a kid from Mississippi”. Iverson was told to grow up. Nobody questioned Joe Namath on whether his obvious problem with alcohol1, but Iverson was forced to answer questions about whether his rap album, featuring all his friends who couldn’t get a record deal without his help, would distract him on the court.
In short, and you probably saw this coming, it was widely believed that Allen Iverson lacked the grit to compete in the NBA.
I hear the same stories about my student – from policy writers and politicians. Kids lack grit, work ethic, that indomitable will to pull oneself up by their bootstraps. Hell, my kids believe that. Ask any student over 13 how to improve their schooling, and the answer is the same: They need to work harder, they need to obey their their teacher, they need to study more. Get those test scores up; the system need not budge.
There a saying that if wealth only required hard work, every mother in Africa would be a millionaire. Be clear: If grit was all that is needed to get an education, Philadelphia would outscore Finland. If grit were a liquid, I could drown the entire Delaware Valley just from my 270 students.
There’s plenty of room to criticize Iverson, just as there is room to criticize teenagers, schools, and teachers. But it is absolutely maddening when that criticism is entirely devoid of context2. I grew up in Lower Merion. When kids came to class high or skipped out for coffee, no one questioned their character. Those kids are lawyers and doctors now. Just across City Line Avenue, students on free lunch, who are caring for young children and sick adults, have their character questioned on a regular basis. As if research hasn’t already shown us that willpower is a limited resource, or that growing up in poverty produces real cognitive problems.
As I learn more, I think maybe Iverson was right. Maybe we need to find the perfect moment, hip-deep in the BS, and freak out.