Watching Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers play basketball in the NBA Finals is to accept an unavoidable truth: He is a magnificent athlete. As he dodges between opposing players, a fretful fly among lumbering giants, his speed and agility are undeniable. He glides, he pivots, he leaps and he sinks his shot, and in that moment of athletic prowess, the camera captures his image. And one gets a whiff of a bravado so potent that it practically makes one recoil.
His expression, in the moment after scoring, is probably no more intimidating than that of any competitive athlete. But for Iverson, his mask of bawdy confidence is framed by cornrows, tattoos, the body language of a thug and a reputation for what might diplomatically be called ungentlemanly behavior.
Whatever Iverson may be in his heart or in the eyes of his family and friends, he wears the trappings of wiseguys and bad boys. With illustrated arms and torso and a full frontal scowl, he appears to be undiluted street cool.
He stands at the center of the most mainstream of sports, but he dresses to suggest he's an outsider. Indeed, compared with his teammates and his competitors, Iverson -- in both size and demeanor -- resembles the troublemaker who was kicked out of one neighborhood pickup game and so strutted over to rule another.
His style chatters on about lone wolves at a deafening volume. Indeed, the point has been overstated, as in the April 23 cover photo for Sports Illustrated in which Iverson stands wearing droopy drawers and a chunky jeweled cross. Who, exactly, is Iverson trying to convince of the realness of his sensibilities? And is he even using adequate tools?
In the most obvious ways, Iverson is part of the generation of players who have transferred a hip-hop aesthetic to sports. "While hip-hop's values are by and large fixed -- its spirit of rebellion, identification with street culture, materialism and aggression -- it is also an incredibly flexible tool of communication, quite adaptable to any number of messages," writes Nelson George in "Hip Hop America."
Iverson has recorded his own rap and has acted as an informal promoter of friends who have rap-star aspirations. His mix of a hard-luck upbringing, run-ins with the law -- including one overturned conviction -- a band of troublemaking buddies and a penchant for flamboyance would rival that of any hip-hop entrepreneur.
Every stream of popular culture -- music, sports, fashion, media -- converges in the 6-foot, 165-pound Iverson. But popular culture has taken a mean, nasty turn. Whether it's demeaning rap lyrics that win critical acclaim or reality TV shows that prove there is no limit to the depths to which the human imagination will sink, popular culture has become rude, self-aggrandizing and, in some cases, difficult to witness.
In the realm of fashion, where self-invention and self-definition are assumed, Iverson takes a bare-knuckle approach with baggy silhouettes, flashy jewelry and cornrows. But fashion has a way of sucking the life out of even the most vital ideas and visions. The industry acts quickly to celebrate the shocking and raw as fabulous and genius. Under the weight of so much bloated praise, ideas quickly lose their impact. They are dissected. Overworked. Predictable. And folks such as Iverson are left wearing little more than a costume that looks self-consciously assembled to tap into some meta-message about street culture and manliness.
For almost two decades, the fashion industry has been fascinated by the street-tough look that Iverson embraces. In the beginning, it was heavy with connotations of danger and risk. It was a look that still had the power to agitate. But then it was appropriated by the industry's biggest marketers, from Chanel to Tommy Hilfiger. An entire division of urban sportswear was born, and labels such as FUBU and Enyce prospered. And even though the owners of these urban labels talked about staying close to the grass roots, this was fashion, and by definition fashion must be hyped; it must be marketed. Soon what was a philosophy simply became a look. And what was a source of agitation became one of annoyance.
Iverson has talked about being an individual. His style reflects that, he says. But he is no match for fashion. It can steamroll over history, politics and even religion. It has a funny way of culturally redefining people without their complicity. The activist Angela Davis writes that "it is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a generation following the events which constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo. It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion."
Iverson's clothes no longer mean what they once did. They are not the clothes of an outsider, but rather the attire of international recording artists, multimillionaire product spokesmen, the mainstream.
It used to be that wearing the clothes was enough to prove oneself a rebel. Once upon a time, clothes could be subversive. In the 1970s, when the British designer Vivienne Westwood and her business partner, Malcolm McLaren, provided the early punks with their wardrobe, the safety pins, leather and slashed T-shirts meant something startling. Body piercings could be deconstructed down to some meaningful revelation. Just having an armful of tattoos was enough to shock. You didn't have to be armed and dangerous, too.
Iverson's style isn't shocking. It's not subversive. It's not even the look of a rabble-rouser. If there's anything that can really be said about his style, it's that it's rather sloppy. That it's not the most attractive look for his young fans to imitate. It's just fashion.