Schmucks Like Us

Allen Iverson during a game at Madison Square Garden, November 2002. (Reuters photo: Ray Stubblebine)
Before you laugh at Tiger Woods . . .

Before you get too distracted mocking Tiger Woods and his problems, ask yourself: Would you pass the Iverson test?

I don’t think I would.

I was for some years professionally obliged to follow the career and life of Allen Iverson, a gifted and troubled basketball star who lived in the Philadelphia suburbs where I edited the local newspaper. He led the 76ers to the NBA finals but could not keep himself out of trouble: drugs and casual gunplay at first — he was great for my newspaper — and then, when the show was over, money problems in his retirement.

The financial difficulties later in life subjected Iverson to a great deal of ridicule: You can get busted for weed and an illegal gun and it’s no big deal — not in Philly! — but if your money isn’t right, then the world will never, ever forgive you. (Ask poor old Stanley Burrell.) During what turned out to be an excruciatingly embarrassing divorce case, Iverson exclaimed to his wife: “I don’t even have money for a cheeseburger!” at which point she handed him $61 in cash — the last cash she had. His problems began to become public when he was ordered to pay a debt of nearly $1 million to a jeweler and was forced to plead that he did not have the funds. He had earned more than $150 million in his NBA career.

Some guardian angel at Reebok saved him from the very worst of it, persuading him to take a modest $800,000-a-year stipend and leave $32 million in a trust fund that he cannot access until he is 55 years old. So he just has to eke out a living on the better part of a million bucks per annum until he gets paid for real. Your sympathy, I am sure, is not without limits.

But how his story began is at least as interesting as where it ended up: On June 26, 1996, Iverson signed a $9.4 million contract with the 76ers. One year, ten months, and 23 days before that, he had been in prison, having received a 15-year sentence handed down under a rarely used anti-lynching law after a brawl at a Virginia bowling alley. Iverson has broken his share of laws, but he was in prison for a crime that he probably did not commit; he was granted clemency by Virginia governor Douglas Wilder, and his conviction eventually was overturned on appeal for lack of evidence. In January 1999, he signed a $70 million contract extension. He was 23 years old.

If you’d have given me that kind of money — and that celebrity — at that age, it would have killed me, and, while my own upbringing wasn’t exactly out of Ozzie and Harriet, I think I was emotionally a little more squared-away in my twenties than Iverson probably was with his despair-inducing background. Not that it occurred to me at the time: When Iverson was having his problems in Philadelphia, I rolled my eyes and thought the same thing that most everybody thought: “What is the matter with you? You have everything you could possibly want — why be such a jerk? Why mess it all up?” My views have changed over the years. What’s most surprising to me about Iverson now is not that he turned out to be kind of sad and feckless but that he didn’t turn out a lot worse than he did.

Iverson did not grow up with a great deal of social capital: unmarried mother, 15 years old when he was born; absentee father; charged with a felony at 17 and dispatched shortly thereafter to prison. The knowledge that his life could have been radically different but for one or two very close calls — and his terrific athletic ability — must have weighed on him in some way: It might have produced deep gratitude, or it might have produced deep nihilism. It probably produced a complicated mix of both. Iverson did not grow up in a family or community with a lot of great role models or the kind of social network that can guide an energetic, gifted, and competitive young man such as himself in the right direction. Professional athletes often do not find themselves surrounded by the best people — and shaping all of those conflicting and terrifying forces into a happy, well-adjusted man would have been a challenge even if he had been. Making good men is hard: Neither the Marine Corps nor the Catholic Church nor the Boy Scouts has a perfect record on that front. Neither does any other institution, or any family, for that matter.

Add to all those challenges the fact that the sort of people who develop extraordinarily rare, world-beating talents — in basketball, chess, music, politics — very often do so to the exclusion of almost everything else that we mean by the phrase “having a life.” You see this all the time: celebrities going broke because they just don’t know what things cost or how much money they really have, rich and powerful people flummoxed by the simplest things in life and unable to adapt to ordinary social norms, famous people who do not have any friends. I suspect that if Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to get from her house to Bill de Blasio’s on the Metro North and the subway, she’d end up in the ICU. And whom would they call on her behalf? Her husband?

Having a life that is focused on the One Big Thing is fine when you are at the apex of your career, when the money just keeps coming in and the magical bubble of fame protects you from all manner of consequence.

But when the One Big Thing is gone, there is a double loss — the thing that defined your life is now in the past, and, at the very moment when your income and public profile both are likely to be heading south, you face the real crisis: You have done something extraordinary, but it is finished, and now you do not know what to do. The lucky ones have great marriages and happy families, faith, community, and friendship to take the place of being in the movies or playing basketball. The ones who don’t have that will try to fill up the great empty hole in the middle of their lives with other things: alcohol, drugs, sexual promiscuity, recklessness in personal and public affairs, including financial ones. Do you know why so many people who ought to be happy but aren’t happy develop problems with cocaine? Because cocaine works exactly as advertised. It makes you happy, until it doesn’t.

We love a celebrity comeuppance. This is in part an ugly species of envy: Why should Tiger Woods get to live like a Roman emperor just for being really good at a game that is, after all, the very definition of a trivial pursuit? And how good an actor do you really need to be to star in Pirates of the Caribbean? How many hundreds of millions of dollars should someone get just for being pretty? There is something in our puritanical national soul that is satisfied by the fact that those who fly higher have farther to fall. These episodes bring out something ignoble in us. But it isn’t just celebrities, of course: The high and mighty are just the ones we talk about. An astonishing share of lottery winners go broke, and it isn’t because people with low character or weak wills are just lucky with the numbers. People like Tiger Woods and Allen Iverson, who win life’s lottery, often have the same bad luck in the end: the bad luck of being human.

Maybe you lead a more virtuous life. Maybe you just lead a smaller one. It is difficult to say without being tested.

Tiger Woods was arrested for driving while intoxicated. This is not the first time Tiger Woods has run into trouble behind the wheel or had embarrassing personal details made public. He, or whoever writes his public statements for him, knows better: “I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to,” he said after the sex scandal that turned him from sports hero to public laughingstock. “I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them. I was wrong. I was foolish.”

Woods apparently drinks too much sometimes, and, if the tabloids are to be believed, he has expansive sexual appetites. I wonder how alien those problems really are to the average American man. But the average American man does not have $600 million, an almost universally known name, and a face recognized by 98 percent of the people he encounters. Maybe you haven’t behaved the way Tiger Woods does — but how many Playboy models do you have on speed-dial? How many of them were calling you at the peak of your career or slightly thereafter? Maybe you lead a more virtuous life. Maybe you just lead a smaller one. It is difficult to say without being tested.

And that may be why we love the ritual public denunciation of fallen idols. If we convince ourselves that they are monsters and moral outliers, then we do not have to face the much more terrifying possibility that they are schmucks like us — and that we are schmucks like them.


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 – Kevin D. Williamson is NR’s roving correspondent.


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