The two men have a remarkable number of similarities -- even the same last name -- yet could not be any more different types of people. Allen Iverson and Johnathan Lee Iverson are both 23-year-old African-American males who are at the top of their professions. That Allen is the one idolized by American youth tells us something about the direction in which America's values have gone.
Allen is an enormously talented, yet often controversial, professional basketball player for the Philadelphia 76ers. Johnathan is the ringmaster for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus who presides over all three rings and the sideshows. Allen is often a sideshow himself, earning the nickname "Me, Myself and" Iverson.
They are both men with "firsts" on their resumes. Johnathan is the first African- American ringmaster of the world's biggest circus, which just finished appearances in Hartford and New Haven. Allen was the first player to leave John Thompson's Georgetown basketball program before the end of his senior year, departing for the NBA after two collegiate seasons.
Both men had formative experiences early in life. Allen was a 17-year-old football and basketball sports hero at Virginia's Bethel high school when he was sentenced to a five-year prison term for his role in a brawl in a local bowling alley. While there was a certain amount of racial politics involved in the prosecution of the case and the sentence was unusually harsh, Allen wasn't exactly a choir boy. After four months behind bars, he was granted release by Governor Doug Wilder.
Like I said, he was a sports hero.
Johnathan was, in fact, a choir boy. At age 11 Johnathan, who grew up in New York City, became a member of the world-regarded Boys Choir of Harlem. The founder of the choir, Dr. Walter Turnbull, remembers Johnathan as someone who worked tirelessly to get his singing voice up to the group's rigorous standards.
Last summer was a busy time for both men. Johnathan had just earned his bachelor's degree. Allen was fulfilling his community service obligation stemming from an incident the previous year when he and some friends were nabbed in his Mercedes doing 90 miles per hour and were arrested on drug and weapons charges.
There is a Connecticut connection for both Iversons. Johnathan's college degree is from the University of Hartford's Hartt School of Music, which he attended on a scholarship for voice training. Allen was born in Hartford to a single 15-year-old mother. She moved to Virginia at the time of his birth. Allen's father, Allen Broughton, did not play a role in his life.
A kid from my neighborhood in Hartford played on the same Little League team as Broughton, who was known by the nickname "Atlas." It was a widely-held belief on the team that the 12-year-old "Atlas" could beat up any father in the league. Broughton plead guilty last year to stabbing his ex-girlfriend and was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Johnathan's father is a firefighter. His mother works for the Postal Service.
I've seen Johnathan perform at the circus. He has a mellifluous, opera-quality voice. Allen is in the music business himself, having issued a CD which contains his own rap music. "Take these fools to the trauma center, ‘cause I dismantle crews any battle I enter" is a sample of Allen's lyrics.
Johnathan told the New York Times that he relishes his role with the circus. "They spoil the ringmaster," he said, "It's like I'm in the NBA."
Allen, of course, is in the NBA. He has a six-year contract estimated to be in the neighborhood of $70 million. He also has his own line of basketball shoes from Reebok with three styles – The Answer ($124.99), The Answer II ($114.99) and The Question ($124.99).
"The Answer" is one of Allen's nicknames. And judging by his popularity and the success of his sneakers, a lot of kids think he is just that. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus appears in the same arenas as the professional basketball teams but not many kids, even those who have been to the circus, could tell you who Johnathan is.
Kids have idolized professional athletes for as long as there have been professional sports. Sometimes, as with the case of Michael Jordan or Mark McGwire, it's pretty understandable.
But you have to question why it is that Allen Iverson is now a member of the youth pantheon of heroes. It doesn't seem right.
It makes you wonder where Joe DiMaggio really did go.
May 20, 1999