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Iverson In Transition: Troubled Past to NBA Future

By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 16, 1996

In early April, just a few days after his sophomore season ended, Georgetown University all-American basketball player Allen Iverson walked into a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Arlington and spotted a black S600 Coupe. It was a used car but a beauty with heated leather seats, a cellular phone with voice-activated dialing and a six-liter, V12 engine.

The price was $107,000.

How could a 20-year-old student from a low-income family afford such a luxury? David Loring, used car manager at American Service Center, said Iverson let him and a salesman in on a secret: one unknown even to Georgetown's usually all-knowing coach, John Thompson.

"Allen told us he had made the decision to go pro," Loring said. "He said he didn't want to make the announcement until after he had talked to John Thompson. Allen said if I let him take the car he would pay for it after he made the announcement. So I let him take the car."

Iverson, in a recent interview, said he never told the car dealers he planned to turn pro or buy the Mercedes. "I only wanted to test-drive it," he said. No matter: The gleaming, top-of-the-line S600, which Iverson drove for three weeks in apparent violation of National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, signaled the end of his days as a Georgetown Hoya and the beginning of his life in the high-octane world of the National Basketball Association.

Iverson's two-year stay at Georgetown transformed him from a troubled high school sports hero who at times lived in houses without water or electricity to a sure-fire millionaire who may be the first player selected in the NBA draft June 26.

An examination of Iverson's decision to turn pro offers insights into Georgetown's basketball program and its tough-love coach; Iverson's at times controversial off-the-court life, which some NBA clubs are investigating in preparation for the draft; and Iverson's determination to bring financial stability to his family, which includes Michael Freeman -- a man he calls "Dad," though he is not his biological father -- who recently was paroled from prison.

Until he arrived at Georgetown in September 1994, Iverson was as well known for his alleged role in a February 1993 bowling alley brawl in Hampton, Va., his hometown, as for leading Bethel High School's football and basketball teams to one state title apiece. Iverson was accused of instigating the brawl and hitting a woman in the head with a chair. He served four months in prison for three felony convictions that were reversed on appeal.

"Iverson's life off the court . . . that's what's going to be our real focus," said Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Brad Greenberg, whose team has the No. 1 pick in the draft. "We're trying to get inside his head and find out what's inside his heart."

If the 76ers take Iverson, he could earn as much as $9.39 million over the next three years under the NBA's sliding rookie salary scale. If Iverson performs well, he could earn tens of millions more over the next decade.

The early April visit to the Mercedes showroom underscored Iverson's eagerness to preview what his agent, David Falk, calls "the NBA lifestyle."

When Thompson learned that Iverson had the car, he said he instructed him to "take the damn thing back." Under NCAA rules a student-athlete can lose his eligibility to compete if he accepts benefits given to him as a result of his athletic ability or earning potential. Morton Zetlin, co-owner of American Service Center, said he has allowed potential customers to take delivery of cars before they have paid for them. In Iverson's case, he said, "Nothing was signed. There was a handshake deal."

Loring, the used car manager, told The Washington Post in late April that Iverson was driving a loaner car that the dealership would give to any Georgetown student "if the situation were right." But Zetlin recently told The Post that Loring called the car a loaner to protect Iverson's secret that he had decided to turn pro.

Iverson kept the S600 until April 30, the day before he announced he was turning pro. "We're still waiting for Allen to pick up and pay for the car," Zetlin said. "Let me tell you right now: Nobody gets use of a free car, okay? The only reason he had that car was that he had made a commitment to buy it."

Recruiting Thompson

Iverson, who turned 21 this month, said at his farewell-to-Georgetown news conference he was turning pro for several reasons: to improve his family's living conditions; to hire a medical specialist for his younger sister, Iiesha, who has been suffering from seizures since birth; and to provide for his 18-month-old daughter, Tiaura, who is living with her mother in Hampton.

These responsibilities seemed formidable. But Iverson had provided only a glimpse into his complex home life, according to friends, former coaches and family members of Iverson's who were interviewed for this story. Iverson was interviewed twice -- once privately and once with a group of reporters at the NBA's recent pre-draft camp in Chicago. His mother, Ann Iverson, did not respond to requests to be interviewed.

Thompson began to get a sense of Iverson's home life in December 1993. Iverson was in prison and his mother arranged through friends to schedule a meeting with the coach. Thompson invited some of his aides to the meeting at McDonough Gymnasium. "Mrs. Iverson asked the other people in the room to leave so she could talk to me alone," Thompson recalled recently. "We talked . . . and she asked me to help her son. I saw the love of a mother who was afraid for the life of her child."

Thompson said he didn't make any promises to Ann Iverson; he hadn't even met Allen, who had had some attendance and disciplinary problems in high school. "I had to find out some things for myself about him before I met him," Thompson said.

But Thompson had a history of offering opportunities to young athletes from deprived, and sometimes troubled, backgrounds. "You know, there once was a law in this country that some folks could not, would not and should not get an education," Thompson said. "The effects of that didn't stop when we freed the slaves. You know, some of that

racial history: can be factored in" when assessing an athlete's behavior.

After conferring with Georgetown officials, Thompson offered Iverson an athletic scholarship -- an offer that was questioned by some critics in the media. Iverson's conviction had not yet been overturned and it was uncertain whether he would meet the NCAA's academic requirements to play ball as a freshman.

Thompson said he never made any secret of the primary reason he gave Iverson this opportunity. "He can play basketball," Thompson said. "And I'm a guy that coaches people who can play basketball. I mean, that gets your attention. . . . But there have been a hell of a lot of kids that history has shown could play basketball who we said pass' on who didn't have the problems that Allen had."

Everybody Struggled'

Ann Iverson was 15 years old, unmarried and newly arrived with her family from Connecticut when she gave birth in Hampton to her first child. Allen Iverson was nicknamed Bubbachuck, a combination of two uncles' names.

Iverson said his biological father rarely was in the picture during his childhood. "You know, he called me a little bit this year," Iverson said. "But, I mean, he can't take the place of Michael Freeman. Nobody ever will. That's who I feel is my father."

Though Thompson has become more familiar with Iverson's background over the past 2 1/2 years, he said recently he didn't know anything about Freeman's background. "No, not at all," Thompson said. "What is his story?"

Freeman said he was 18 -- and Bubbachuck just a few months old -- when he and Ann Iverson began living together in 1975. Freeman said he later became a welder for the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., and the father of Allen's sisters, Brandy, now 17, and Iiesha, 4.

Ann Iverson held various jobs after graduating from high school -- one on an assembly line at Avon Fashions, a clothes packaging and distribution factory where she worked from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. At times she was unemployed. But Allen Iverson said he never has forgotten his mother's efforts. "She took care of me for 20 years," he said. "I want to just do the same thing for her."

Freeman said he and Ann Iverson began living apart when Allen was in junior high school. Freeman said he helped support the family until he lost his job after a car accident. "Then things got tough," he said.

"There were times when Allen never knew where his next meal was going to be," said Mike Bailey, Iverson's basketball coach at Bethel High. "Here's a kid who couldn't take a bath because he had no running water because it had been turned off."

Although Iverson lived mostly with his mother, "Sometimes you had to go to five, six different places :to find him:," Bailey said. "You couldn't phone some places because there were no phones. . . . Imagine going to a shelter :to live:. He had to go through those kinds of things."

"My mom struggled. My dad struggled. Everybody in my family struggled," Iverson said recently. "It was nothing new, the lights being cut off or anything. I mean, it was something I had been dealing with my whole life."

Unemployed, Freeman said he "went the wrong way. . . . I did what I had to do" to support the family. "And some things, you know, I had to go against the law to do."

In February 1991, midway through Iverson's ninth-grade year, Freeman was convicted in Newport News, Va., of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and given a 10-year prison sentence with five years suspended. "When I left my son :to go to prison: I told him he's got to hold down the fort until I got home," Freeman said. Iverson was 15. "I said, Basketball is your family's way out.' "

Freeman was paroled in December 1992. But he was arrested in Hampton in March 1994 on charges of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm. He was indicted for possession of cocaine; he pleaded guilty and was given a suspended sentence. In November 1994, the suspended sentence he received in 1991 was revoked and he was returned to prison. Freeman was paroled again in January.

"I feel all the jail time he did was for us," Iverson said. "He couldn't stand to look at us :living: like that. So he went out and did what he had to do."

Mapping a Future

While Iverson was leading Bethel to state football and basketball titles during his junior year, his coaches became increasingly concerned about the company -- and late-night hours -- he was keeping.

One night in January 1993, Iverson was at a party in a hotel where a man was shot to death. Then, a month later, he was arrested for allegedly starting a racially charged, late-night brawl at a bowling alley -- an incident that became national news.

Some witnesses testified that Iverson, who is black, hit a woman, who is white, in the head with a chair. The woman was knocked unconscious and suffered a lacerated scalp. Iverson testified he had left the bowling alley before the fighting began. Some witnesses backed him up. Iverson was convicted on three felony counts of maiming by mob and sentenced to five years in prison. Instead of returning to Bethel for his senior year, he was headed to the Newport News City Farm.

Ann Iverson, meanwhile, began optimistically mapping out her 18-year-old son's future. On Oct. 10, 1993 she visited Allen in prison, where he signed an affidavit giving her power of attorney. "My name is Allen Iverson," the affidavit read. ". . . I am in need for my mother to conduct any and all of my affairs :and: make any and all decisions for me . . ."

One of Ann Iverson's decisions was to visit Thompson in early December 1993. "She was the reason why I helped her child," Thompson said. Several weeks later, Virginia's governor at the time, L. Douglas Wilder, granted conditional clemency to Iverson, citing sufficient doubt about his guilt. Iverson was free after four months at the City Farm.

In spring 1994, Thompson visited Iverson at Hampton's Richard M. Milburn High, which caters to students who have dropped out of school or are at risk of doing so. "I never discussed that bowling alley

incident:, never asked him, What really happened?' " Thompson said. "I told him I did not want to talk about whether the judge was fair or not. I said, That man had a responsibility. Today's times are very difficult. So let's go forward.' "

At Georgetown, Iverson majored in fine arts. Iverson said he has an interest in drawing, and friends say he is an outstanding caricaturist. "I want to :continue to: draw," Iverson said. "Every talent God gave me, I want to use it. . . . I can't play basketball forever."

But his primary mission at Georgetown seemed to be improving his basketball skills. Recalling his first day on campus, Iverson said, "Alonzo Mourning :an NBA star and ex-Hoya: was in the gym talking to Coach Thompson. . . . I mean, I was excited even before I got to Georgetown. But once I got there I was even more excited. All I wanted to do was play basketball."

During his two seasons with the Hoyas, Iverson averaged 23 points a game and twice was named Big East Conference defensive player of the year. From his first game, the 6-foot, 165-pound Iverson was an electrifying presence on the court. He had astonishing speed while dribbling and explosive jumping ability.

Thompson allowed -- and sometimes even asked -- Iverson to dominate games as few Georgetown guards have. Some Thompson watchers were surprised by the offensive freedom he gave Iverson. "You teach according to the student," Thompson explained. "Allen had talent -- exceptional talent. So he was permitted to have more leeway. You don't crush creativity."

Deciding to Leave

Evidently, Iverson also had a knack for blocking out distractions, which seemed to be everywhere.

At some games, he was taunted by opposing fans who yelled "jailbird, jailbird" or waved bowling pins in the air.

In the midst of his freshman season, Ann Iverson used her power of attorney to file suit -- in Allen's name -- against the lawyer who had defended him free of charge in the bowling alley case, Herbert V. Kelley Sr. The lawsuit alleged that Kelley had been negligent and that Iverson would suffer "mortification, shame, vilification . . . and financial loss" because of the guilty verdict. The complaint sought $100 million in damages. Kelley said last week the charges were false and "ridiculous." The suit was withdrawn.

Then there was Freeman's incarceration. While Iverson was settling into his comfortable dormitory suite at Copley Hall to begin his sophomore year last fall, his "dad" was living just a few miles a way at the Fairfax County Correctional Field Unit, one of several state facilities in which he was housed.

Iverson said he didn't visit Freeman in Fairfax because "I'd visited him in :another: prison and it just hurt me so much. I'd given him the tennis shoes off my feet because the sneakers he had, they were so bad, all messed up. So I went home barefooted that day."

As the season progressed, and reporters began wondering if Bubbachuck would become the first Georgetown player to enter the NBA draft before his senior year, Thompson became increasingly aware of the hardships in Iverson's life.

In early April, shortly after the Hoyas were eliminated from the NCAA tournament, Thompson invited Iverson and his mother to a meeting at McDonough. The subject: should Iverson leave school to turn pro?

Two of Thompson's most trusted confidants -- Falk, his Washington-based agent, and Mary Fenlon, his long-time aide-de-camp, also were invited. Falk has provided free counsel to Thompson's athletes for more than 15 years and has represented virtually every Hoya who has played in the NBA, including Mourning, Patrick Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo.

"John makes no bones of the fact he recommends us to his players," said Falk, who also represents Michael Jordan, Iverson's childhood hero.

Falk said he "very, very aggressively" advised Iverson to stay in school because he could earn more money, particularly from endorsement contracts, after another year of TV exposure.

But in that meeting and in another in his office on upper Wisconsin Avenue, Falk said he heard some compelling reasons why Iverson should turn pro.

"Allen told me his mother's living conditions were deplorable," Falk said. "There was a sewage problem in her house. Sewage was seeping through the floor and Allen said there was a stench that was just unimaginable."

The condition of younger sister Iiesha also had worsened; she had just suffered another seizure. "His sister needed a brain specialist," Falk said. Meanwhile, Freeman had been paroled and was unemployed.

"Allen didn't feel that staying in school was a viable option," Falk said.

Thompson said outside influences also were competing for Iverson's attention this spring. Agents were on the prowl, and "you had people running around trying to get him involved in rapping," Thompson said.

Iverson had spent some evenings in a studio, recording a rap song, which he played for teammates. Thompson said he told Iverson, "You are a basketball player. . . . You're not going to make your living rapping." Still, Iverson loves to rap. "I haven't really been concentrating on that as much as I should," he said recently.

As for the agents, Falk was the odds-on favorite to represent Iverson. Shortly after Georgetown's season ended, Falk arranged for Iverson to have a private phone conversation with his childhood hero.

"Michael told me he had heard a lot of good things about me," Iverson said, "and he said he was going to have to tighten up his game for me. Which was definitely a joke. I just laughed. But everything he said to me made me feel good."

On April 30, Iverson signed a contract with Falk. The next afternoon, with his mother, Thompson and Falk by his side, Iverson announced he was turning pro. A Georgetown official said Iverson withdrew from the university the same day.

With two months to go before the draft, Iverson asked a bank for a line of credit, which was granted on the basis of his seven-figure earning potential. Iverson then hired a specialist for Iiesha and discussed with Falk the possibility of moving his entire family to the NBA city where he soon will reside.

Freeman said he hopes to join Bubbachuck, wherever he ends up. Reflecting on Freeman's criminal background, Iverson said: "I don't feel what he did was right. . . . But, believe me, he will never have to do it again."

In recent weeks, under Falk's direction, Iverson has hired a nutritionist and a personal trainer, rented a luxury apartment near his agent's office, met with 76ers officials and signed an endorsement contract with Reebok International -- "a seven-figure kind of deal," a company official said.

Iverson also has spent some quiet moments with his former college coach. "Every time I see him I do a crash course on what he might expect in the NBA," Thompson said, "whether it's talking about negotiating screens or about the people who will try to sell him things he doesn't necessarily need."

For now, Iverson is driving a Lexus LX450, a sport utility vehicle with a base price of $47,500. But his heart seems set on another Mercedes S600 Coupe. Not the used, black car Thompson instructed him to return. "I didn't want the Benz in that color," Iverson told reporters at the Chicago camp. "So I'm going to get it in another color."

Which color?

"All white with the white leather seats."

He smiled dreamily.

"I've been through so many obstacles that I feel, you know, I deserve to be picked number one," Iverson had said earlier, pondering his future. "I want to start my own era. I think my era has come."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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