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Can We Compare Allen Iverson To Muhammad Ali?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer Jimi Izrael with us from Cleveland. Joining us from Boston, healthcare consultant and contributor to National Review magazine, Dr. Neil Minkoff. Here in our Washington, D.C. studios, Dave Zirin. He is sports editor at The Nation. And Corey Dade is a contributing editor for The Root. Take it away Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey everybody.

COREY DADE: What up.

DAVE ZIRIN: Jimi Izrael...

IZRAEL: Welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ZIRIN: ...From the Cleve.

DADE: Jimi, what up, though?

IZRAEL: Yeah. The land of the Cleve, bro. We're making it work.

ZIRIN: Somehow.

IZRAEL: Right. Right. I think that should be the city motto. Welcome to Cleveland. We're making it work.


NEIL MINKOFF: I like it.

ZIRIN: Welcome to Cleveland. It could be worse.

IZRAEL: Awe. Hey, listen. I got to live - I got to live here. Wait a second. Let's calm down. Dr. Neil, I want to give you room, though, to, you know, get some bragging rights off, you know. To start us off here.

MARTIN: Do we have to?

IZRAEL: You know, we have to. Let's drop that tape. Go ahead.


JOE BUCK: It hasn't happened at Fenway Park for 95 years. The Red Sox are world champions.

IZRAEL: Oh, Dr. Neil, can Red Sox haters - can they all now just stay in the dugout?

MINKOFF: Well, I mean, here's the thing that cracks me up - you know, my son is 11 and he thinks this is totally normal. My son thinks it's a shame that there hasn't been a championship parade in Boston for almost a year and a half. What's going on? Dad how is this happening? And so this has become, like, the new normal here and we are going to be in for such a fall someday. It's really scary.

MARTIN: Soon, we hope. Sorry, I'm from New York.

IZRAEL: D.Z. Dave Zirin.

MARTIN: Sorry, I'm from New York. Sorry.

ZIRIN: Yeah, I'm from New York too, and there is a small child in a Mets hat living in my brain somewhere that's crying. But, I have to say, it was hard for me not to get in the spirit and feel it. I mean, the first time a World Series-clinching win in Fenway Park in 95 years. And that's what's so amazing about baseball is the way it connects us with the past in such a profound way. I mean, 95 years ago, you know what the biggest issue was in this country? Spanish flu. That's what people were dealing with 95 years ago.

DADE: It's true.

ZIRIN: And yet, the game is largely the same. And 95 years later, Boston is able to experience this again. It's an amazing thing, even if some of those beards look like Hasidic minstrelsy. I do...

MARTIN: He said that. I didn't say that. I didn't say that. He said that.

ZIRIN: I do have some issues. But...

MARTIN: He said - but you were pointing out in your piece that the NFL and the NBA didn't even exist in 1918.

ZIRIN: Right.

MARTIN: So it's kind of like this is direct link.

ZIRIN: And that's the amazing thing about baseball is that connects us with our past, but it also represents change. I mean, folks probably know the Boston Red Sox were the last team to integrate in Major League Baseball - really defined itself by its whiteness until 1959. And now, here's the team led by a remarkable Japanese relief pitcher and an amazing Dominican slugger, and that's who the city is cheering for.

IZRAEL: Oh, are we post-racial yet? Corey Dade...

ZIRIN: No. No. Why you got to do that?

IZRAEL: You know what? Corey - Corey, you know what? For me, I was so surprised that only nine fans got arrested. You know, during the celebration afterwards, you know, something like this - if Cleveland won the World Series, let me just tell you, beer would flow from every spigot in the city and Mayor Frank White - I mean, Frank Jackson.


ZIRIN: He said...

IZRAEL: Frank Jackson would run naked through the city of Cleveland. He would run right - Cleveland, New York. Mayor Frank Jackson would run naked through the city if that happened. What do you think about all this, Corey Dade?

MARTIN: Are we heading to a point here? I was going to say, are we heading to a point?

DADE: You know, Boston...

IZRAEL: It just seems like there wasn't enough celebration.

DADE: Well, you know, Boston fans, I mean, at this point, they've been here before. So they know how act right. They know how to celebrate without getting arrested. I mean, you know, knock on wood. But you know, I guess, on a serious note, what's interesting is it's, you know, this is, you know, capping, you know, a difficult year for Boston after the bombings. So when they have that parade, when it goes down Boylston Street, that parade is going to pass the site of the Boston bombings. And that's going to be a very powerful moment for this city.

MARTIN: That's a good point.


MARTIN: That's a good point.

DADE: Sorry to be a downer.


MINKOFF: So serious.

IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's...

MARTIN: 'Cause my Mets hat is never far from my head and so that's a good point.

ZIRIN: I'll make another beard joke or something.

MARTIN: All right so let's - all right. Go. Move it on.

IZRAEL: Let's take it to - let's take the ball to the court. The NBA kicked off their season this week, but one guy said, you know what? It's time to move on. That would be A.I. - Allen Iverson, best known for his time as a Philadelphia 76er. He formally - as if - he formally announced his retirement on Wednesday and he talked about his best career moment. Can we drop that clip?



ALLEN IVERSON: Just getting the opportunity - somebody coming from where I come from, you know, I heard all the stories. You know, nobody makes it from Newport News or Hampden to the NBA. You know, my mom always told me I could be anything that I wanted to be and I truly, actually believed it.

IZRAEL: Yes, yes he did, ladies and gentleman. And Iverson, you know, he was the guy people loved to hate. He sounds a lot different there than back in the heyday. Remember this?


IVERSON: We talking about practice, not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it's my last. Not the game. We're talking about practice, man. I mean, how silly is that?

IZRAEL: How silly indeed. That's from a 2002 press conference when reporters dogged him about not showing up for practice. Dave Zirin?

MARTIN: Wasn't there a t-shirt, though, that people were selling for a while that said, are we talking about practice?

DADE: Everything. There was everything.

MARTIN: Do you remember that?

MINKOFF: Bumper stickers.

MARTIN: I think I may have had one.

ZIRIN: It's the late 20th century version of give me liberty or give me death.

DADE: That's right.

ZIRIN: Slogan for a nation. Look, I think Alan Iverson is by far, the most important, culturally significant athlete of his generation - going all in on that. To me, we're talking about practice, seriously, is a version of Mohammed Ali saying, I don't have to be what you want me to be in the 1960s. Before Alan Iverson, every young, African-American athlete felt like they had to be like the child of Michael Jordan - Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter. This idea that we have to button up, wear a suit, play a certain kind of corporate game and leave your emotions back at your house. Alan Iverson played with it all out on his sleeve and forced the broader culture to confront a certain kind of African-American man as a human being who, otherwise, they might even cross the street to avoid.

MARTIN: Corey?

IZRAEL: So he's like the Mike Tyson of the NBA. I mean, essentially, he did it his way and then he came kind of crashing to earth. You know, he kind of ends his career as a cautionary tale. That's what it sounds like to me, Dave.

ZIRIN: Well, I think he's going to end his career as the best, small scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association.

IZRAEL: Neil Minkoff, what do you think about all this? You know, during his press conference, he seemed to kind of apologize for being a young hothead. Has he finally found the answer?

MINKOFF: Yeah. Oh, the answer, nice one.

IZRAEL: Thank you.

MINKOFF: To me, one of the things that I think is really interesting here is the way we take young people who are reasonably immature and stick them in these positions where the limelight is on them and they have press conferences where they can be hotheads and they can say things. And then as they mature, they start to realize that maybe that wasn't the right way to go or maybe I could've been - but that's just a natural outcropping of what happens when you put a 20-year-old in that kind of position. And so we don't do that in any other walk of life and yet, we take all of these utterances like they're so serious, when we wouldn't listen to any other 20-year-old in the same way.

IZRAEL: Indeed. Corey Dade, are you an A.I. fan?

DADE: I am. I saw him - the first time I saw him was in a Georgetown basketball summer league. That dude sprained his ankle at half court, went out for one play and then came out next play and banged it on somebody. He got vertical with the ground. OK. I was like, OK. He's the truth. This is the answer. He's coming. But I will say - and, you know, I got to go against Dave on this one point. The idea that we're comparing him to Mohammed Ali - we need to be careful with that because the difference between the two is that Mohammed Ali's sort of self-possession was based on religious conviction and a certain social consciousness. In Ivo's case, it wasn't any of that. It was let me be me just because I want to be me. And if it's destructive to my team, if it's destructive to myself, so be it.

ZIRIN: I agree with Corey.

DADE: And I will say the bigger - the one thing that's interesting, this is symbolic because, to me, this is the end of an era. This the end of an era of the basketball star as a thug - and not in a good way, not in a bad way. It's just an observation. Today's players are like this refined byproduct. So they have Ivo's street credibility and toughness, but Michael Jordan's marketability. You know, simply put, it's no longer cool to be a thug in the NBA.

ZIRIN: Let me just, real quick - is that I agree with what Corey said, except I would just add that, you know, Mohammed Ali, when he was Cassius Clay, his dream was to bring the showmanship of professional wrestling into boxing. It was really the '60s that shaped him. Allen Iverson did not have the '60s. He had the '90s - a reflection of his era, just as Ali was a reflection of the '60s. But both had that kind of individualism, and I don't have to be who you want me to be, which I think is important sometimes...

IZRAEL: That's true.

ZIRIN: ...To move the culture forward.

MARTIN: All right. I will point out, though, that Ali and Tyson both won titles...

DADE: Ouch.

MARTIN: ...And Iverson never did. No, I mean, but that's the game. It is, but...

ZIRIN: But in an individual sport...

DADE: But it's a team sport. Team sport.

ZIRIN: Team sport.

MARTIN: It is a team sport, but I do credit - I mean, I do want to sort of co-sign with what Dr. Neil had to say about the idea that, you know, in what other area of life do we treat these people like oracles?

MINKOFF: That's right.

MARTIN: I mean, if I hear one more person say, well, I get to use the N-word because I heard some young rapper do - I say, well, when you start taking investment advice from him, I'll be interested in, you know...

DADE: Wow,

MARTIN: ...In what they have to say.

DADE: Nice.

MARTIN: I mean, so since when are these, like, the oracles of the universe and we have to hang on their every word as if they - you know, as if they are...

MINKOFF: And that's a cultural issue.

MARTIN: I'm just saying. That is. If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly conversation in the Barbershop. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, sports editor Dave Zirin, journalist Corey Dade and healthcare consultant Neil Minkoff. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. You know, speaking of oracles, you know, before we move far from the NBA, I've got to mention, Shaquille O'Neal is giving political ups these days. He's got a new gig. He's stumping for New Jersey governor, Chris Christie. Check this out.


O'NEAL: Governor Christie's provided more funding for schools, given parents more choices on what schools their kids can go to and merit pay for good teachers. He's a good man. Excuse me, he's a great man. Please join me in supporting Chris Christie for governor.

IZRAEL: Wow. I guess he could be selling used cars instead. But, you know, it kind of sounds like he added that last bit on, you know, the whole bit about, for governor. I thought maybe he was running for president. But I tell you, it brings a tear to my eye nonetheless. C-Dade, Corey, what is this about? Does Christie need Shaq to carry water or a ball for him? What's up with that?

DADE: Yeah, Shaq Fu, you know, Shaq Fu has always been into all kinds of things, and politics I guess is the next thing for him. But, you know, he doesn't need him. I mean, you know, it's really about a gubernatorial race that's really about setting him up for the presidential run. I mean, here's the thing that's interesting. There's polls that show that, you know, Christie has about 36 percent support among African-Americans in New Jersey.

And to me, the fact that he has Shaquille O'Neal, the fact that he has this kind of support among African-Americans, you know, that could be, you know, a problem for Democrats in 2016. If you have a moderate Republican who can get that kind of black support, when Obama is no longer on the Democratic ticket, who's going to hold that black and Latino voting coalition together? So I think Christie may be onto something that might be interest. He might be able to take just enough black support out of this race to roll it forward in four years. We'll see what happens, but it's interesting.

MARTIN: And maybe it's a two-way street because Shaquille O'Neal is clearly interested in a life beyond basketball. I mean, he had a very long career.

ZIRIN: Oh, he's living it.

MARTIN: He's living it.

DADE: He is living it.

MARTIN: He had a very long career, but he's always been interested in some form of public service. Remember, he was like an honorary sheriff for a minute, like that. He's done kids' book. He's done all kinds of things.

ZIRIN: Yeah.

DADE: Oh, he's a sworn law-enforcement officer, which is scary.


ZIRIN: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Not to mention...

MARTIN: Dave...

IZRAEL: Not to mention that he makes a tasty beverage - Soda Shaq.

ZIRIN: Yeah. Yeah.


ZIRIN: Yeah. People can Google Shaquille O'Neal and his honorary work as a police officer and see some of the complaints that were levied against him if they want interest in some of the less, shall we say, socially conscious aspect of Shaq's life with a badge. But I would say, look, my problem with Shaquille O'Neal is less that he's supporting a governor who's presiding over a state that has the highest poverty rate that New Jersey's seen in 50 years, and trying to pawn that off as that's progress. My problem is more that Shaquille O'Neal has taking the greatest show on television, "Inside the NBA" with Ernie, Chuck and Kenny Smith and put a fork in the back of this show.


ZIRIN: I mean, it's like a gourmet pizza with Shaquille O'Neal soy cheese on top. I mean, it's - so that's my bigger problem with Shaquille O'Neal.

IZRAEL: Dr. Neil.

MINKOFF: Yeah, so I think that one of the things that you see here - and it goes along with that high approval rate in the minority, or relatively high approval rate in the minority community compared to other Republican candidates - is that Christie stands out because, even if you don't agree with him, people think he's authentic and they believe what he's saying. I was in New Jersey earlier this week and I heard that over and over again. Even when I disagree with the guy, I think that he means what he says. And in some ways, he's a very, very different person, but he is maybe the best natural communicator and speaker on the GOP front since maybe Reagan.


IZRAEL: I totally agree with that.

MARTIN: Let me just ask Corey this. So why is it that the high-profile black athletes who tend to go in to politics tend to go toward the right? I'm just so curious about that. I mean, there was Lynn Swann who was interested in making gubernatorial play. There was, of course, in the Congress the - you know - why is that?

DADE: I don't think that's necessarily the case. I think what is more the case is that high-profile athletes are often recruited by the Republican party. And we're talking, not just Lynn Swann or Steve Largent, other people like that.

ZIRIN: J.C. Watts.

MARTIN: J.C. Watts, who I was thinking of.

ZIRIN: Heath Shuler.

DADE: I think that Republicans have always been better at marketing, always been better at market testing, and they get people whose athletic careers have interracial crossover appeal and they bring them over. But I don't think this is Shaquille O'Neal sort of standing up and saying I'm Republican. I think that's a clear distinction.

MARTIN: That'll be interesting. OK. We just have a couple minutes left, so I just wanted to ask you about a quick thing. A woman in North Dakota reportedly decided to take a stand against childhood obesity on Halloween. The story goes that if overweight kids came to her house they got a letter to give to their parents asking them to step-up and ration their kids' unhealthy eating habits. No word yet if her house was egged last night. Now, I'm sorry, this smells like - like, I don't know if there are any eggs left in North Dakota. But there are rumors that this was a radio station hoax, which this easily could have been. But I did want to ask - I mean, for those - I mean, I know, Dave, you were out trick-or-treating with the people.

ZIRIN: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: If somebody handed you a letter like that and put that in your kid's plastic pumpkin - I don't know. What do you think?

ZIRIN: Oh, we're in the car. We're going to CVS. We're getting the bulk toilet paper, and I am teaching my 5-year-old how to wrap it around a tree to a profound respect, yes.

MARTIN: What about Neil. Neil, what about you? You're trained as a doctor and I know you see these issues, too, as a consultant. What do you think about that?

MINKOFF: So, you know, the question is, how is this really different on a personal - I get that it's personal and I get it's going to an individual kid - but our schools up here will send you a letter if your kid is overweight. And the Massachusetts legislature considered banning bake sales because the kids had too much access to cupcakes. And childhood obesity is in the Zeitgeist. I mean, if you're in favor of the soda ban in New York, then this woman's just taking it to the next level.

MARTIN: OK. Corey, what about you?

DADE: You know, I'm all for kids getting a trick instead of a treat, but this isn't the kind of trick any child wants. Newsflash, if a child is obese, that child knows it.

ZIRIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: That child's parents know it. This kind of missive doesn't - it's not constructive for that child, especially when you're getting it from a stranger and they're vulnerable. They're out trick-or-treating with their friends. They immediately get ostracized right on the point - right at that point.

MARTIN: Yeah, just go with the dental floss. Just be done with it and throw the dental floss in there. Jimi?

DADE: Yeah. I mean, there are better ways to address this.

MARTIN: Jimi, what about you?

IZRAEL: Well, this is personal to me 'cause I have a daughter - a 14-year-old daughter who's kind of, you know, pleasingly plump as my wife might say - a little juicy - and I swear to you, if anybody had given me this note with my daughter out, they would've gotten the pumpkin of wrath...


IZRAEL: ...Right through - right through their living room window. I don't play that.

MARTIN: Well, we're not endorsing any criminal acts. I just want to completely say. Well, point taken. OK.

ZIRIN: No one likes this.

MARTIN: Nobody likes this. Jimi Izrael is a writer and adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. He was with us from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland. Neil Minkoff is a healthcare consultant, contributor to National Review, with us from member station WGBH in Boston. Here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation, and host of SiriusXM Radio's "Edge of Sports Radio." Corey Dade is a contributing editor for The Root. Thank you all so much.

ZIRIN: Thank you.

DADE: Yes, sir.

MINKOFF: That's next year's jack-o-lantern, the pumpkin of wrath.


MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes Store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tune in for more talk on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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