Far from lights and crowds, the Chairman of the Boards mentored The Answer in his darkest hours.
Allen Iverson was the unconventional centerpiece of the Sixers franchise from 1996-2006. He often was portrayed unfairly or unjustly. That enraged him.
Moses Malone soothed him like a big brother would.
"He was able to be that guy — when he knew I was going to explode — to say, ‘Come on, young fella,’ " Iverson said, putting his hand on my shoulder, the way Moses did with him. "And I’m, like, ‘Well, Mo said calm down. So, I guess I should calm down.’ "
Iverson attended the unveiling of Malone’s sculpture on a dreary Friday afternoon at the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden. Iverson was dressed as cool as ever — black ballcap, black jacket, black camo sweats and fresh white sneakers — but he wasn’t cool at all. He was giddy, like a little kid. He stood on his tiptoes and held his cellphone high over the crowd to snap pictures of the artwork, a few feet from Julius Erving’s, on Legends Walk. He then skipped around the parking lot and showed off his photo. Giggling.
"I got the best one!” he bragged. Then he looked back at the sculpture.
Julius Erving, Bobby Jones and other Sixers alumni were posing in front of the statue.
“Aw, man," he said, disappointed. "I wanted that one, too.”
A minute later, he was part of that group shot. At one point, Iverson lovingly put his hand on the chest of Malone, who died in 2015 at age 60.
Why was Iverson so reverent in regard to Malone, who last played in the NBA in 1995, a year before Iverson was drafted? Why was Iverson so connected to a man who last played for the Sixers in 1986, when Iverson was a 10-year-old?
Because they have so much in common.
They shared the same ultra-competitive DNA. They forced the world to accept them as they were. They were both athletic prodigies from Virginia, asked to do so much, so young, with the world always watching; Malone was drafted out of high school by the ABA’s Utah Stars, and was an All-Star as a rookie.
And they had to deal with stereotypes and injustices that might have enraged them. Malone helped AI abide.
“I had a real in-depth, personal relationship with him," Iverson explained. His eyes wandered as he talked, as is his habit, but then he looked me dead in the eye as he revealed the nature of their brotherhood. “It was a relationship that we didn’t need to display to the world.”
It’s easy to forget that Iverson was more than just a breathtaking talent. He changed the way superstars were allowed to behave; a strong-willed cultural icon, significant far beyond the bounds of the court, who courted controversies both real and manufactured.
Unbeknownst to most, Malone helped Iverson navigate those issues.
“He was just an integral part of my life in many ways besides just basketball,” Iverson said. "He talked about how to help me off the court. Dealing with being ‘Allen Iverson, the superstar.’ "
Just 6 feet tall and 165 pounds, Iverson was 20 years younger, almost 100 pounds lighter and 10 inches shorter than the man known as the Chairman of the Boards. Size and age made no difference. They saw eye-to-eye on the burden of stardom and the scrutiny that comes with it.
“He was a guy that was easy for me to listen to, because I knew he had my best interests at heart,” Iverson said. “I knew he cared about me, and what I was going through — being who I am, in this city, and carrying a franchise on my back.”
Both bore that weight as soon as they arrived in Philadelphia. The Sixers drafted Iverson No. 1 overall in 1996. Malone, arrived via trade in 1982 as the reigning MVP, the second time he’d won the award.
Malone, unlike few athletes in Philadelphia’s history, understood the pressure Iverson faced.
“He told me, ‘It’s always going to be your fault when we do bad, and it’s always going to be praise when we do good. So be able to accept it. Understand that that’s what it is,’ " Iverson said.
With Iverson, though, the issues often concerned matters that had little to do with basketball. Iverson was very sensitive to criticisms he considered unfair; criticisms about his lifestyle, his appearance, his personal life, his personal choices.
And, of course, practice.
“People will never understand that. Because we’re not looked at as humans," Iverson said. “We’re not looked at as people that bleed the same way. We’re not looked at as people that hurt. Words hurt us, too.”
Iverson always tried his best to do his best, at least as he saw it. He grew frustrated when, in his eyes, he would be inaccurately cast as something other than a basketball player desperate to win every game.
“I remember at times I used to read articles and they’d be fascinating. Great,” he said, stepping back onto a sidewalk next to the parking lot. "But then you’d read the ones that — they’re portraying you the way you know you’re not — that’s the ones that hurt the worst.
“When they say things about you that are true?” He shrugged. “You can accept that. Because it’s true. But a lie?”
That’s when The Answer would need his help the most.