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FROM THIS EPISODE

Iverson and Best

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Today I got to thinking which athletes compelled me most in 2005.

First, there's not one athlete, male or female, in any sport out there today who makes every outing as special, for me, as Allen Iverson. There's such an underdog aspect to A.I. that you just instinctually root for him. In a sport of virtual redwoods, he's a mere sapling. As he zips and zaps like a flitting mosquito to the basket, he is maneouvering around immense, steel-like bodies a full foot taller and in some cases more than a hundred pounds heavier than his. And yet A.I. is averaging more points per game than the two supposed superstar shooters of the league, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. When he comes onto the floor, you can't take your eyes off him. A.I.'s what they call &quotmoney;&quot.; Larry Brown, a former Iverson coach and considered one of the great minds in basketball coaching history says &quotI;'ve never seen a player past or present that plays like Iverson or competes like him."

The other underdog element about Allen Iverson is his childhood of poverty. He was raised by a single, teenage mother, in an apartment that not only lacked water and electricity on a regular basis, but where open sewage would flow through from time to time. He became a delinquent rebel and continued a lot of that behavior even after becoming a professional ten years ago. He's thirty now and mellowed considerably. He reached out to one of the stars of the women's college game, Candace Parker, who was terribly disappointed to have to sit out her first year at the University of Tennessee due to a knee injury. In a world where male team sports athletes rarely give respect to women team sports players, A.I. generously gave Candace a heap of encouragement. She's now healthy and every game she plays for U.T., she wears a small black finger band with the #3 embossed on it. #3, the Philadelphia 76ers' number worn by Allen &quotmoney;" Iverson.

I was watching television news around Thanksgiving time and at one point glanced up to see several hundred thousand people crowding the streets of Belfast to mourn the death of the greatest soccer player ever to come out of Northern Ireland... and to many afficianadoes, one of the greatest players to ever play the game of soccer. The scene of George Best's funeral gripped me. Except perhaps Mohammed Ali, I can't think of any American athlete whose funeral would draw that kind of crowd. And it wasn't just the number of mourners. They were sobbing, in deep lament. No matter how famous, how wealthy, how worldly George Best became--and he reached sublime heights in all three categories--the folks of Belfast always related to him as one of their own. He never strayed far from his own local pubs. As a matter of fact, drinking was his demise. First a liver transplant and, eventually, death due to alcoholism. But in his hey day, according to the soccer writers of Europe, he was poetry in motion. An Irish friend of mine who happened to go home at the time of his death, brought back the London Daily Mirror and other publications. Dozens and dozens of full-page spreads, with full-page photos, of Best in the -60's and -70's, flirting around the ball, lithe and balletic and oh-so elegant. My best friend, an American, who was a huge Joe Namath fan in the day, told me that she had an equally passionate crush on George Best at the time. He was Namath-like in looks...and lifestyle, having danced the Namath devil-may-care pas de deux with a bevy of women. A reporter cheekily asked George one day what was the closest to game time that he had ever made love? George asked in return if half-time counted. Remembering the genius of George Best, his artistry on the pitch, his bon-vivant joie de vivre off the field--and more than anything, witnessing how much he meant to several generations of Irish fans, made a striking impression on me.

George Best and Allen Iverson. I daresay two athletes who have never been mentioned in the same breath before. Nevertheless, my two favorite athletes of 2005.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

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