"This league, this NBA, in this era right now? It's not about trade demands, or super-maxes, or skinny-type suits. Nah. Nah, man! It's about all these talented people — realizing together that they haven't been successful IN SPITE of being themselves. They've been successful BECAUSE of being themselves."
My hero Allen Iverson, in a riveting and moving piece in The Player's Tribune, wrote the above quote praising his peers currently playing in the NBA. Like Iverson himself, the current cohort of players in the league have been successful and "made it" not in spite of their stories and lives, but because of them.
There is no better model for life being a story of because than despite than Allen Iverson himself. Early in the article, he tackles a misconception, that he stood for anything in his time. "people really are just out here saying I stood for baggy clothes...Or cornrows? Or tattoos? Or throwbacks? Or anything like that?" He states to us that what he stood for was not any of these things, but something far deeper.
"I'd say I stood for being yourself."
AI.'s story was that he was a cultural icon, basketball myth, and larger than life figure that was often depicted as representing things he didn't ask to represent be a lesson to us all. Haters and devoted fans treated him the same, as if he wasn't a human: "my haters, they use that to pin all this stuff on me that has nothing to do with me. And my fans, it's all love..... but it's almost like they're guilty too sometimes!!"
At the end of the day, AI was just human. "Am I a good guy? Yeah, man, I think so -- ask about me. Have I made mistakes? Man, who hasn't?" It is this question and balance that strikes the core of why he wrote this article to The Player's Tribune: "It's somewhere in between my mistakes and my best self - that's the real me. That's the real AI. And I don't know if y'all have ever really known that dude."
To hear AI tell the story himself is riveting, to me. I was always drawn to AI as my favorite athlete and role model because he stood for being himself, unapologetically. He was the definition of what it meant to be an individual and nonconformist, and what struck out to me is that he respected other people for being themselves, too.
One thing I loved about AI's article in The Player's Tribune is that life is a story of because, not of despite. We are everything we are because of the shit that's happened in our lives, the good and bad things that have been done to us, and the good and bad things we have done to other people. Our identity is rooted in our community and relationships, and naturally, both good and evil will come from those relationships. We spend time with the people we care about most, and no matter who we are, no matter how morally upstanding, faithful, or careful we are, we end up hurting the people and communities we care about. We inflict evil on the people we care about most.
The last chapters of Genesis follow the last days of Joseph, the figure in the Bible who was sold into slavery by his brothers. After years serving as an Egyptian slave, Joseph becomes the vizier of Egypt, with only the pharaoh being the more powerful person in the country. When he reunites with his brothers, old in age, Joseph tells them, in Genesis 50:20: "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good."
So for the ways that we have been wronged, hurt, and victimized in our lives, let our life stories proceed because of what happened to us, not despite them. Despite implies that we are trying to resist what has already been done, and it implies that we are trying to control that which is so far out of our control. In trying to succeed and persist despite growing up facing poverty, discrimination, abuse, or violence, we allow external factors and circumstances to define us. But when we allow our lives to be a story of because , that we are where we are because we grew up poor or because we were abused, we don't allow those prior circumstances to control our lives. Instead, we use those stories of evil and misfortune, stories that are so uniquely ours, as motivation, fuel, and resilience to propel ourselves forward in life.
Likewise, life isn't that simple: we aren't always the victims. Every person, innately, is both a victim and a victimizer. Look to the ways that you have hurt people and wronged others. Trust me, no matter how good of a person you are, there are ways you have done so even when you didn't intend to. The fact that we realize we have committed evils and wrongs, that we are not above anyone or anything, is a huge step to take. Let's allow our life stories to also proceed because we hurt and victimized others. That does not mean we should be proud or grateful for our actions, but instead be proud and grateful because of how we learned and grew from those actions and made right with them.
I, Ryan Fan, am who I am, where I am because of the ways other people have helped me and because of the ways others victimized me. I am who I am because of the ways I have helped others and because of the ways I have victimized other people. I will not let any labels, good or bad, tell me who I am: my story is complicated beyond belief, and there would be many chapters to each stage of my life and what I've done and gone through. Yours is, too. Again, we are who we are because of everything that's happened in our lives, not despite those things.
And so, I would like to close out this article echoing Allen Iverson's words in a documentary for The Player's Tribune: "I'm a villain to people that don't rock with me [and] I'm a superhero to the people that love me and care about me."
"I don't think I should defend myself anymore."