Iverson shows his softer side, but he's not finished

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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.

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