The league's doctoring of a photo of Allen Iverson is creating a furor.
Doggone that Allen Iverson.
Why couldn't he just have pursued football (he was an all-state high school quarterback in Virginia, remember), or spent 25 years in that jail in which he was wrongfully confined after a high school bowling alley riot?
The NBA powers-that-be sure would have liked it that way.
At least their handling of his image would indicate as much.
All you have to do is check out the Holiday 1999-2000 cover of NBA Hoop magazine, which, as the logo says, is "An Official NBA Publication."
There's Iverson staring at the reader in front of a red background. But something looks weird about the shot.
In fact, when I first received the issue in the mail, I didn't know for sure that it was Iverson.
Then, as I was rummaging through my office pile of sports magazines about a month ago I found the Nov. 29 issue of The Sporting News. Amazing! There was Iverson in virtually the same shot as the Hoop cover, only this photo looked like him.
It had not been retouched to get rid of troubling accoutrements.
I put the issues side by side.
On the Hoop cover, Iverson's image had been altered to eliminate the diamond earrings in both ears, his necklace had been removed, his undershirt was erased and his new neck tattoo had vanished.
Moreover, Iverson's right arm was raised so that no tattoos were visible, and his left arm was covered by white and yellow type.
"The Answer" had been effectively sanitized.
Both photos were taken by NBA photographer Jesse D. Garrabrant.
How had the photos been changed?
"That's definitely a question for the editors of the magazine, not myself," Garrabrant said. "I just hand in the film."
Who's in charge of NBA publicity?
Brian McIntyre, the senior vice president of sports communication, and Jan Hubbard, vice president of editorial.
"We were in France at the McDonald's tournament last fall," Hubbard said, "And the person back here editing thought the tattoo looked like a bite."
Really. And the jewelry?
"We do have a rule where you can't wear jewelry," McIntyre said.
True. In a game. This was a photo shoot.
"It shouldn't have happened," McIntyre said. "There's no airbrushing of things. The decision was not the right one. It was the only time. Now we're running him in his full glory. We're promoting him."
But the NBA sure wasn't at the start.
The street, gangsta, crossover dude with 'tude might as well have played in Iceland for all the promotion the NBA gave him.
The NBA claims it was just following the lead of mainstream America, which had rejected Iverson.
"The anti-Allen sentiment came, I think, when he said as a rookie, "I don't respect Michael Jordan,' " McIntyre said.
But does that give anyone the right to alter a man's image to conform to mainstream values?
"What I have noticed from the NBA is a definite image-control issue," said Ben Osborne, senior editor of Slam magazine and author of its May cover story on Iverson. That cover, by the way, shows Iverson "for real," that is with cornrows, 'do rag, huge silver chain and pendant, earrings, tattoos and scowl.
"Allen is the most obvious _ I don't know, do you want to call it _ "victim' of their program," Osborne said. "But they don't let anyone else shoot their games. We have to use their photographs. We tried to get a photo of the Shawn Bradley-Mark Davis fight. But we couldn't get a photo like that."
Would Slam mess with a photo?
"We never have," Osborne said. "It wouldn't even occur to us. We present what's there."
So if it was a one-time mistake by the NBA, then maybe it's okay.
John Rawlings, editorial director for The Sporting News, doesn't think so.
"I would not take those liberties," he said. "Your credo has to be, you don't fool the readers. If the Nike swoosh is everywhere, you do not take it off."
Rawlings, who ran the real, untouched photo of Iverson and received a lot of negative letters from incensed readers because of it, brings up the larger issue contained herein. Technology now allows photo editors to play God.
"You can do anything with a photo. Anything. Literally. You can alter reality in any way you want. But you don't. You don't move a baseball. Or take a player out. You cannot change the facts."
And the facts are Allen Iverson may scare part of society, and the NBA may wish he were gone, but he is here and he is a dynamic, mind-blowing star. And as his continued play with a host of serious injuries shows, he is a stoic, old-fashioned warrior.
But in the wake of Jordan's absence, the NBA is reeling over its sense of identity.
"We were going to run a fabulous poster of Dennis Rodman, where he's perpendicular to the floor, going after a loose ball," recalls Ron Berler, the former editor of NBA Inside Stuff magazine, co-published by Sports Illustrated For Kids and the NBA. "And one day before it was to come out, Rodman's second autobiography, the really rude one, came out. We got a call from the commissioner's office to pull the poster."
"I constantly tried to get Iverson on our cover," says Berler, editor from 1996 to 1998, before leaving to edit a golf magazine. "We got huge pressure from our readers to present him. But the league said no. The battle went on for a year. I didn't get to put him on the cover until December '98, after Time Inc. severed ties with the NBA. The NBA told me constantly that Iverson was not a role model, a bad example for America's youth, not what they wanted to promote. What irony."
Less sanguine about all this is Robert "Scoop" Jackson, a consultant for Inside Stuff magazine, editor-at-large for Slam and a columnist for NBA.com.
"I've known about this for a while," he says of the anti-Iverson policy. "This is indicative of the lengths the NBA will go to control things. Allen is too black, too strong. It's not just a bastardizing of an individual, it's the bastardization of black culture. Change it so you're comfortable with it? When do you stop? What's the limit?"
It's a good question. And the NBA swears it has stopped doctoring photos.
There is a photo in the Philadelphia guide Hangtimes that may or may not have been retouched. In it, Iverson, who is talking to coach Larry Brown, has no tattoos at all on his right arm.
"I can guarantee nobody in my organization would do that," team president Pat Croce said. "I'd freaking kill someone if they did."
After all, it was Croce who saw a Hoop magazine in Washington that sported an altered likeness of Iverson. "I thought it was the Wizards who did it," Croce recalled. "But they swore they did not do it."
"It's wrong on so many levels, it's hard to quantify," said disgusted ESPN basketball expert David Aldridge, who also gradually became aware of the league's doctoring policy. "It's nauseating to me. To change what a person is?"
To change what a person is.