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The familiar chime announced my entrance, causing the liquor store clerk to remove his reading glasses and take notice of my Larry Bird t-shirt.  

           “Bird fan, eh? Me too, but I can’t watch the NBA anymore.”


           “Thugs like Iverson ruined the game.”


He bagged my fifth of whiskey without trying to further the conversation. I was a regular, making him aware I wasn’t one to prolong my visit with small talk. I’d never responded to one of his comments with more than a few words of acknowledgement. But unlike today, they were obvious observations that required little more than a grunt and a head nod. How else do you respond to “It sure is raining.”?

On my walk home, I wondered what Iverson had done to make the clerk give up watching something he seemed to once enjoy. Anyone who appreciated Bird had to recognize Iverson was a virtuoso with the ball, exploding off the top of the key leaving defenders in his wake. He averaged 30 plus points and 7 assists a game in his prime. Stats on par with Bird. Though, my guess is the clerk didn’t know Iverson’s numbers showed he was just as unselfish with the ball as Bird. He’d probably seen that 20 second clip from that infamous press conference more times than the highlight from his rookie season when he crossed over Jordan. A feat so impressive that you didn’t even have to know anything about basketball to recognize Iverson was something special.   

Though, a few words said in a press conference in defense of accusations that his absence from practice was the reason for his team’s playoff loss have cast a shadow over his whole career: “We talking about practice.” A quote that’s found its way into culture so much so, it’s used as a joke by people who never watched the NBA to have been able to use it as a reason to stop watching it. To some it’s a harmless thing to say when describing a meaningless task, but behind the meme lies a poignant truth—a truth obscured by the media’s selective portrayal. Iverson’s defiance stemmed not from arrogance but from anguish, from the weight of personal tragedy and the loss of a beloved friend.

Iverson met Rahsaan Langford in grade school. They were best friends that made a pact to look out for each other. If one of them made it, it meant they both made it. “Ra,” as he was known to friends, was a groomsman at Iverson’s wedding. Ra was shot eight times at the end of a night out to watch a Tyson fight. He was a father of three, dead at 29. “We talking about practice,” when stripped of context, denies the depth of his suffering. No one remembers that he also said, “Everything is just going downhill for me… You know, as far as my life. And then I'm dealing with this... My best friend is dead. Dead. And we lost.”

The standard definition of “thug” is a criminally violent person. This aligns with how I believe the clerk defines it; except I’d guess he subscribes to the narrower definition that’s specific to black men. Iverson’s game was one of intensity. Many of his opponents outmatched by his speed and impeccable ball control resorted to cheap tactics to stop him. Night after night he took the abuse, only retaliating with his skill. Unlike Bird, who was known to play dirty, and was once ejected from a game after trading fists with Julies Erving. Based on that brief encounter with the clerk I find it hard to believe he’d describe Bird as a thug. Bird isn’t deserving of the label any more than Iverson, just that it’s a clear indication that perceptions are often clouded by biases. A selective narrative that was so widespread by the media a store clerk can repeat it as casually as the weather.  

Back home, I poured myself a drink, admittedly a little smug, proud that I was the type of person that considers context when the media’s casting judgement on someone for a single quote, photo, or Tweet. Then the retrospection that sometimes comes from a single sip of whiskey burned the back of my throat. The clerk wouldn’t be wrong to think I accepted the same narrative as him. I didn’t give him any other context to consider other than compliance and a Larry Bird shirt.