BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. A few years ago sports columnist Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post foresaw Allen Iverson's life and career ending in ruin. Taking note of the Philadelphia 76er rookie's criminal record, his corn rows and tattoos, his disrespect for authority, his thuggish posse, and his gangsta image, Wilbon predicted Iverson would in time reap what he sowed. As recently as October, when the violent abusive lyrics from Iverson's still-unreleased rap album emerged, Wilbon declared his sportswriter vigil "The Wait for Iverson to Grow Up" to be in vain. That was then. This is now. [CLIP FROM GAME WITH CROWD CHEERING]
ANNOUNCER: Allen Iverson who has 47 points-- he heard it before the game when he was presented the MVP trophy, and he's hearing it again tonight....
BOB GARFIELD:The gutsy, blindingly fast little off guard --the one they call "The Answer" suddenly is a new man. NBC and TNT sportscasters marveled at his maturity. ABC news says he has turned his life around. David Dupree writing in USA Today declared Iverson's image "repaired." In the past month a dozen newspaper stories from around the country invoked the word "transform" and Wilbon himself marveled at Iverson's change in professional attitude --in the columnist's words -- "just like that." And here is Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly on CNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Have we changed in our view of Allen Iverson? Rick Reilly.
RICK REILLY: Oh, I think definitely. I mean I, I think we definitely have changed, and, and he's - he's one of the fine young, great talents in the league, and, and I happen to think a young man who's really become a good person!
BOB GARFIELD:Well! That was rapid! Nobody who covers the NBA questions whether Iverson's dedication to basketball and team play improved dramatically in this season, a season in which Iverson's MVP performance propelled Philadelphia to the playoff finals. But how does that translate to a mythic conversion from irredeemable to redeemed?
KEITH OLBERMANN: The media-- especially the sports media in this country -- is so black or white. Atomic War or Eternal Peace. You know, there's nothing in between. New York Yankee's -- All Time Greatest Team/Bunch of Bums -- Trade All of Them.
BOB GARFIELD:Sports journalist Keith Olbermann, formerly of ESPN and the Fox Sports Network, was wary of the demonized Iverson portrayal as the seed of the NBA's destruction, and he is wary of the conversion portrayal as well.
KEITH OLBERMANN: I'm not sold. I mean if there is a real, genuine transformation in the man's personality, more power to him, and I hope the-- the other sports commentators have simply been more discerning than I have.
BOB GARFIELD:For the record Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post isn't sold on the notion that there's been a radical swing in the conventional wisdom about the answer.
MICHAEL WILBON: I completely reject out of hand the notion that-- the world has gone soft on Allen Iverson. I, I, I read too much and see too much to the contrary.
BOB GARFIELD: The proof, however, will be in the pudding. Who knows? Maybe even Jello Pudding!
RICHARD SANDOMIR:Now he is more marketable than he was-- 2, 3 months ago or certainly 3 or 4 years ago; the experts seem to think that his appeal is still targeted towards the youth-- the youth market - maybe the extreme sports market.
BOB GARFIELD:Richard Sandomir is the sports media reporter of the New York Times. He wrote during the finals how Iverson's rehabilitation has increased his marketability for advertising endorsements. While he's still not a clean cut Michael Jordan type, Sandomir says, on court heroics have allowed him to shed the pariah tag that kept mainstream marketers far, far away.
RICHARD SANDOMIR: Winning helps. Not getting arrested helps. Looking like someone who has become the consummate team player and will play with immense pain has transformed him in the eyes of the world.
BOB GARFIELD:But there is at least one more sneaker to drop. Some time this summer, Iverson's long-delayed rap album is expected to be released, including the song 40 Bars that so horrified mainstream audiences 5 months ago. If, as Michael Wilbon reports, the album is filled with material as caustic as 40 Bars, the media conventional wisdom can change yet again! Keith Olbermann.
KEITH OLBERMANN: When the album is released and there is -there's not a significant change in that 40 Bars-- I just suggest once again that you can be in a position where you are the hero and then the villain and then the hero and then the villain....
BOB GARFIELD: Neither of which extremes, of course, will ever be entirely true, no matter what the pack journalism tells us.
CHRIS MATTHEWS:F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there is no second acts [sic] in American lives; Allen Iverson's proved him wrong. The 6 foot guard for the Philadelphia 7--76ers had been the poster boy for everything that's wrong with the hip hop generation; now he's a winner, and Iverson who's been playing in pain for weeks has become the hero.
BOB GARFIELD:This week at least. Let's ask again a little later, because after all, they say there are no foolish questions, but there are sometimes foolish answers.