ALLEN Iverson and I grew up in different generations, on opposite sides of town. Yet since 1996, when he was drafted and began his sweet-and-sour relationship with Philadelphia, I've been a tireless defender of the rap-loving NBA all-star, who once said, "Hey, I am who I am. You can't change that."

This tattoo-wearing, hip-hop devotee earned my respect not for the way he could dazzle on the court, but for the courage he showed in standing up for things that mattered, like the family and friends whose sacrifices ultimately made him a success. (He once said his mansion was so noisy from all the folks hanging around that he had to check into a nearby Holiday Inn for a little quiet time.)

In many ways, Iverson was a 21st-century barrier-buster. Like Jackie Robinson, the little guy with the big heart challenged America's racial biases. He was the first NBA player to wear cornrows, which prompted some to wonder if he was "too black." His off-court fashions came straight from music videos: do rags, baggy pants, crooked baseball caps and oversize T-shirts.

The fact that Iverson decided to be himself, rather than a sanitized and safe commercial version of an NBA star, won him both enemies and allies. His habitual lateness, "keeping it real" pronouncements, tattoos and music prompted more than one sports journalist to ask: Is white middle-class America ready for an Allen Iverson?

Iverson would answer his critics on the court and his fans would vote their appreciation in the marketplace. His NBA jersey and Reebok sneakers were best-sellers while he was at the peak of his career. Reebok bucked conventional wisdom by turning this rebel into a global brand, thus, opening the door for a cast of other not-ready-for-prime-time players to follow. The company's "I am what I am" campaign encouraged legions of young people around the world to embrace their individuality.

I began following A.I., aka the Answer, back in my days in Philadelphia when the 6-foot scoring machine would appear during the 76ers' postgame interviews, where he regularly, and lovingly, embraced his children. My respect for him grew when the Larry Brown Sixers made it to the NBA finals. The team lost to the Lakers, but the series illuminated Iverson's magnificent strengths, and made him seem like David standing up to Goliath.

Afterward, people around the planet caught A.I. fever. His story was appealing. Born to a 15-year-old mother, he survived hunger, poverty and an absent father and lived to make a fortune. This was a young man who made it to college and then into the NBA despite spending time in prison after a felony conviction in a student brawl. (The Virginia Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in 1995 for insufficient evidence.)

This was a son who so loved his mom that he didn't mind her waving a sign, night after night, that read, "That's my boy #3."

During the playoffs, I watched as the normally separate worlds of the city's poor and rich intersected and, at times, formed a promising bond. That was progress, but did anyone notice? Reporters were quick to ask, "What's wrong with Allen Iverson?" And slow to inquire, "How have these differences enriched our community?"

THE REPORTS OF Iverson's unfortunate departure from Memphis, and rumors of his retirement, were disappointing. Basketball without A.I.? That was hard for me to imagine. So I was truly heartened when I heard he was heading back to Philadelphia, which, as fate would have it, had just lost its point guard.

Now that he's back, so are some of the questions: Is this man a rebel without a cause - or a diversity problem merely misunderstood by his teams and the media?

Stay tuned as the latest chapter in the Allen Iverson story continues to unfold.

While I don't profess to have all the answers, this I know: Iverson's eventual departure from basketball - whenever it comes, for whatever reason - will leave a void. Where in the galaxy of stars can we find someone so willing to remind us that having money is good, but knowing who we are is priceless?

Linda S. Wallace hosts Cultural IQ, an online gathering place for cultural problem-solvers (