He does not shy away from his life. He does not dance around the particulars. The publicized trouble he refers to was a fight at a bowling alley in Hampton, Va., before his senior year of high school that sent him to jail for four months on a conviction that since has been overturned. That simply is part of his experience. The legal trouble of the man who has been a father to him—a conviction on a drug charge—is part. He rejects nothing. Jail and two years at Georgetown both helped form him. Hard times in Newport News have led to good times here.
He is not your normal, wide-eyed 21-year-old kid with a look of awe at where he has landed. He has a sense of maturity, a sense of himself that cannot be taught, no matter how long you go to college. He has had more than enough notoriety already, fans in hostile gymnasiums always quick to mention his troubles. He is a 21-year-old survivor. That is how and why he plays the way he plays, how and why he is the way he is. Fearless.
"I went through a lot of things to test my manhood," he says. "I'm glad—not glad, really, but stronger for it—that all of those things happened to me. I feel like I can handle anything. I learned a lot about people, about how things can change. No matter who you are, when somebody wants to bring you down, he can do it. Everything you worked for can be all over in a moment.
"I don't worry about impressing anyone. I don't care what people say. The people who count to me are my family and friends. The rest of the people, they're going to think what they think. I didn't come here worried about anything anyone was going to say. I knew I was Iverson, the Number 1 draft choice, with a big bull's-eye painted on my back. A target."
He is in charge. No doubt about that. He is in charge of the people on the floor, no matter how many years they have played, no matter what their reputations. He is the leader on a team that was rudderless last year, a team that was 7-8 at week's end (the Sixers did not win their seventh game until Jan. 12 last season). "He's a big boost," says backcourt mate Jerry Stackhouse. "Last year we were basically playing with two shooting guards. I'm just now learning what having a point guard in this league is like." He is in charge of the people around him, of his situation, as much as he can be. Pat Croce, the Sixers' new president, says he was told by former NBA player, coach and executive Billy Cunningham that "when you own a team with 12 players, you're really in charge of 12 separate corporations. Each player has maybe 10 people around him—agents, friends, family—that are part of his life and have to be dealt with." Iverson is the CEO of his corporation.
"What do you want from this game?" I ask.
"This is my profession," he says. "I want to be the best. Years from now, when people are talking about Magic and Michael, I want my name to be mentioned too. I have a lot of work to do, but that's what I want."
So, the biggest thing you remember. First time you saw him. Before he became as big as he became....
"The 600 basketballs."
He does not sign the basketballs. There is a problem first with the money. He wants the money in his hand before he goes to work. The shop-at-home woman in the blue dress was not ready for that. There also is a problem with time. Boxes of collectors' cards and photographs help fill the basement room. The woman wants Iverson to sign those, too. She wants him to sign his name 3,000 times.