Iverson went on to become an 11-time all-star and league MVP in the 2000-01 season, when he led the Sixers to the finals. Over the course of a 14-year career, he became one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history, with a career average of 26.7 points per game, and earned more than $200 million.
At the same time, though, Iverson was his own worst enemy. His quick, scrappy play and electrifying scoring ability were exceeded only by his "my way" mentality, both on and off the court. Iverson clashed with nearly every coach he had, from Larry Brown in Philadelphia to Lionel Hollins in Memphis, over discipline, missed practices, and his refusal to play if he wasn't a starter.
NBA Commissioner David Stern reprimanded Iverson repeatedly for such transgressions as making a rap CD with controversial lyrics, urinating in a trash can in full view of staff and patrons at Bally's Atlantic City, and violating the NBA dress code's rules against T-shirts, jeans, and large jewelry.
More troubling were Iverson's brushes with the law, which began long before his NBA career. As a junior and champion quarterback for his Virginia high school, Iverson was involved in a gang fight that got him four months at a correctional facility. In 1997, he was arrested on misdemeanor charges of marijuana and gun possession that got him three years' probation.
In 2002, Iverson allegedly barged into a West Philadelphia apartment and threatened two men with a gun while looking for his wife. The charges were dropped because the alleged victims would not testify. Three years later, Iverson was sued after his bodyguard allegedly beat two men at a Washington nightclub while he stood by and watched. The suit was settled for $260,000.
In each case, Iverson escaped with a slap on the wrist, though his behavior warranted worse. Whether he wanted to accept the responsibility or not, pro athletes are thrust into the role of hero. When they use their fame and influence for ill, they harm us all, particularly young people who look up to them.
Iverson's story reminds us of the danger of pampering outstanding athletes. We judge them by a different standard, ignoring their indiscretions as long as they produce on the court. Just as quickly, we forget about them when their careers are over.
Some adjust. Others never do. The magnitude of their fame is surpassed by the severity of their collapse. They become tragic heroes, the kind we embrace out of pity or perhaps guilt that we somehow contributed to their decline.
Let's hope Allen Iverson, who reportedly continues to struggle with alcohol and gambling, gets the help he needs to turn his life around - and that other pro athletes will learn from his example and spare the fans another tragic hero.
William Kashatus is a historian and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.