Allen Iverson answered questions Tuesday the same way he's played basketball for more than 20 years.
Defiantly, emotionally, confidently. With the raw, jagged, genuine edge that makes him one of the sport's most compelling and controversial characters.
"When you do anything," Iverson said, "do it with your heart."
Iverson certainly took his own advice as he returned to his native Peninsula to stage a week's worth of celebrity and charity events — a four-day basketball camp starts today — designed to fund college scholarships and mentor area youth.
Attacking every topic like he would a vulnerable defender, Iverson discussed his uncertain basketball future — he's a free agent for the first time in his 13-year pro career — and referenced his checkered past.
He conceded to a big ego and cautioned those "ready to put me in a rocking chair." He spoke lovingly of his family and wistfully about a former coach.
But one moment trumped all during his hour-long news conference at the Boo Williams Sportsplex.
Hampton High graduates Chris Johnson and Nick Chamblee had just told the audience how grateful they are to receive the first Iverson scholarships, grants that will allow them to further their educations and basketball careers at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C.
Their words — Johnson said "this takes a huge burden off my family" — appeared to tug at Iverson and prompted a question.
What was going through your mind as two young men thanked you for sending them to college?
Never, not in a locker room or courtroom, not on the basketball court or media stage, have I seen Iverson tear up as he did then. He was speechless for several seconds, and if you watch the video online, you'll know his sentiment was authentic.
"I don't need people to praise me for that," Iverson said as his manager, Gary Moore, patted his shoulder. "God knows what I do, and the person I do it for, they know. That's the only thing that matters. I ain't trying to win no popularity contest. … You're never going to be perfect to everybody."
Iverson mentioned the jail time he served as a teenager for his role in a fight, and the barbs he still hears and that still sting. He talked about developing a thick skin and how "evil" people can be.
But listening to Johnson and Chamblee exposed a gentle side Iverson rarely reveals.
"That's everything to me," he said. "Hopefully I can continue to touch more lives."
He certainly should have the means. Iverson made more than $21 million last season with the Detroit Pistons, and his career earnings far exceed $100 million — before endorsements.
Such is the windfall when you're a 10-time NBA all-star, former league MVP and arguably the greatest undersized scorer in history.
But Iverson turned 34 last month, and he is not the player he was in 2001, when he averaged 31.1 points, won the MVP and led the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals. Moreover, his last two teams, the Pistons and Denver Nuggets, failed to advance past the opening round of the playoffs with him on the roster.
His contract expired July 1, Detroit made no attempt to re-sign him, and other teams have not rushed in with offers. Among those reportedly considering Iverson — the Charlotte Bobcats, Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies — none is a title contender.
"Only God knows," Iverson said of his destination next season. "I let my agent handle that."
Weary of uprooting his wife and their children, Iverson hopes for a long-term deal that will carry him to retirement. But that may be too much to ask for someone labeled, fairly or not, as a player whose once-extraordinary offense no longer trumps his suspect defense.
That reputation was most forged during his one season with Detroit, where the Pistons endured their worst regular season in eight years and parted with Iverson prior to the playoffs. Iverson never meshed with established stars such as Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace, and he averaged career-lows of 17.4 points (nearly 10 below his career average) and 36.5 minutes.
"My shoulder's hurting right now because of the chip I have," Iverson said. "I can't wait" to prove critics wrong.
Iverson dismissed the notion of settling for limited playing time.
"Me playing 15 to 20 minutes a game? I might as well just stay home and play with my son for 15 or 20 minutes," he said.
The idea of accepting a reserve's role also irked Iverson.
"You earn it," he said of a starting position. "I'll go to (training) camp, and may the best man win. … I'm not losing that battle."
Coincidentally, the man who selected Iverson with the first pick of the 1996 NBA draft was in Hampton on Tuesday, and he echoed Iverson.
"My gut feeling is that he could understand not being a starter if he really believed the two guys in the backcourt ahead of him are better than he is," said former Sixers general manager and current Radford coach Brad Greenberg. "But if he has any doubt, I don't think he could accept it. He's got so much confidence in himself. … He might not think there's a team in the league with two (guards) better than him."
Indeed, Iverson probably doesn't. But he acknowledged being "young and dumb" in Philadelphia, where his clashes with Larry Brown made for irresistible tabloid fodder.
Brown and Iverson also carried the Sixers to the Finals, and Brown, now coaching Charlotte, has said he'd love to reunite with Iverson.
"That would be like the perfect (career) ending," Iverson said, "me and Coach Brown winning a championship together."
The perfect ending Tuesday was Iverson describing his motivation for bankrolling scholarships and conducting a camp that includes sessions on gang awareness and character-building.
"I went through my ups and downs," he said. "I know how hard life is. … I felt it was time for me to come back home, and make my presence felt … time to show my face and give back."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime