It's one of basketball's worst-kept secrets that AI likes to party, gamble, buy out bars, and lose large sums of money at casinos. There's always been a tacit gag order against this information; most aware of tend to be either Iverson apologists -- or, more likely, sensible people who know how ugly and inflammatory things would get if this "news" hit the AP wire. Of course, that's what happened, and I'm glad I wasn't moderating any comments sections that day.
It was seeing Stephen A. Smith's byline on the story that was the real shocker. Smith has always a players' reporter, which is only as much of an insult as "players' coach" is (after Doc Rivers, not much of one). He could have dished dirt on Iverson long ago, but stayed mum until now. That was the kind of media figure he was, and as a sympathetic face in Philly, it certainly endeared him to Iverson.
Whether he was shying away from tabloid values, or consciously trying to protect players, is beside the point. When it came to AI, this strategy had its benefits. Smith had his back, and Iverson repaid the favor by giving him a unique kind of access. AI was the first guest on Quite Frankly, Smith's heavily-hyped but ratings-poor ESPN show that debuted in 2005, where he gave what's still the most candid, lively interview he's ever done.
Smith claimed that he jumped because Gary Moore, Iverson's closest confidant, said "Pray!" Regardless, last week's "scoop" seemed like a striking change of role for Smith, like SAS crossing over to the dark side, or at least violating his own ethics.
Is it fair, recognizing one man's Faustian bargain, to insist he honor it to the bitter end? Probably not. But watch some of that Quite Frankly interview, glance over Smith's bombshell column, and tell me, doesn't it all feel a bit like Robert McNamara in The Fog of War?
Against this backdrop, yesterday Smith issued his bizarre mea culpa. In it, Smith seems unable to decide whether the earlier column represented a break with his past, or the ultimate acknowledgment of his journalistic niche. If you take Smith at his word, he was doing the hard talking that none of Iverson's hangers-on would, making a cry for help that AI himself would never make. Yet he refused to acknowledge that the Internet wasn't the safe space of Quite Frankly. Post that column on the web, and sensationalism would ensue. Last time I checked, that was never a good way to show you cared.
Smith had decided he'd use his pulpit in the media to be a better friend to Iverson than anyone around him would be. At the end of the day, though, he regrets having been the only one willing to speak up:
Saying what needed to be said is something I don't regret. The truth hurts sometimes, particularly when it involves someone at a low point in their life. Electing to stand alone, however, while a bevy of individuals - former teammates, locker room personnel, team executives, hangers-on, and his business manager - stand around in silence was perhaps the most questionable decision of all.That's what makes this whole episode so confounding. Smith could have brought this information out at any point, but didn't because he was a different kind of reporter. Now, in what looks a lot like a betraying of confidence, a cashing in on years' worth of trust, Smith would have you believe that he's in fact doing this out of love. Something's changed, but SAS insists he never branded Iverson an addict of any kind. It's a steady decline that has been apparent for years.
Except this week, it was time for both an intervention and a story sure to get picked up nationwide. What has struck some as treason, is in fact the support that no one else, whether in the media or behind closed doors, is going to give Iverson. Kind of like that Gospel of Judas, where Judas is the favorite of the disciples, and is chosen for his awful task as a sign of his utmost devotion. There's a reason Pope Gregory threw that one on the scrap heap
Smith wants recognition for having done the right thing while regretting that no one else stepped up with him. But is this really the "objectivity" of a reporter? Shouldn't he covet his news? He acknowledges that he was out of line, and probably went against his higher calling as a journalist. But what exactly does that mean? The question is, which Stephen A. Smith did he run afoul of? The old one, who never would have caused such a hassle for an athlete, or the new one, who believes that journalism is about facts and stories, not relationships?
To get to the bottom of that one, you'd have to decide which one is the real SAS. And the do that, you'd need proof that they're anything but two sides of the same coin.