Brotherly Love Like – Allen Iverson, under the coaching of Larry Brown, emerges as team captain of the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers
John Jr. Smallwood
In Philly, where Larry Brown has the solid Sixers setting the pace in the East, Allen Iverson has found a little respect goes a long way
MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT, Allen Iverson was embarrassed and afraid. He’d messed up big time, and he knew it.
You see, those weren’t just innuendoes or rumors floating around Philadelphia last summer. The 76ers were actively trying to trade Iverson–the electric guard Who most say was the primary reason Philly had climbed from NBA doormat to Finals contender.
Sixers head coach and vice president of basketball operations Larry Brown had had enough.
For all intents and purposes, Brown had won this battle of wills between “old school coach” and “hip-hop player” when Sixers chairman Ed Snider and president Pat Croce gave Brown a lucrative contract extension in March of 2000. That contract, along with the fact that Brown had led the Sixers to the second round of the playoffs in two of his first three seasons, gave the coach the clout to do whatever he thought was best to assure that his team stayed successful.
After three seasons of frustration in dealing with one of the more talented yet most difficult players in the league, what Brown had decided he wanted to do was get rid of Allen Iverson.
Iverson had gotten to be too much for the veteran coach, whose resume, don’t forget, includes several squabbles with superstar players.
“I coached Reggie Miller, Danny Manning, Bobby Jones, Billy Cunningham, Dan Issel, and David Thompson,” Brown says. “But I never had a challenge like [Iverson].”
With 49 victories in 1999-2000, the Sixers won their most games in a decade, and Brown knew the mercurial Iverson, who averaged a career-high 28.4 points, was the biggest part of that. But the missed practices, the irresponsibility, and the little off-court dramas that were part of the Iverson package had become too much for Brown.
“I didn’t think we could continue to coexist,” Brown says. “I’ve always felt that in his own way, Allen was trying to win. My issues with him had always been off the court–not being at practice, or when he did come to practice, he wasn’t always prepared or didn’t want to actually participate.
“He’d always tell me that he was trying to win and his teammates knew it, but I’d try to tell him his negatives were far outweighing his positives.”
An ugly separation seemed inevitable, as this past summer Iverson was first nearly traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, then to the Detroit Pistons in a complicated multi-team trade that would have landed the Sixers Eddie Jones, Glen Rice, and Jerome Williams.
Fast-forward to this past December, with the Sheers the surprise of the early NBA season. Jumping out of the block with a franchise-record 10 straight victories, Philly has since been battling for the best record in the NBA, firmly establishing itself as a force in the Eastern Conference.
The player leading the way? None other than Allen Iverson.
In what can only be summed up as one of the biggest shocks of the season, Brown and Iverson have mended a fractured relationship that threatened to rip the Sixers apart. And Iverson, who was once considered the poster child for everything that was wrong with today’s young NBA player, has made the 180-degree change from team malcontent to team captain.
Embarrassed at nearly being traded by the team with drafted him No. I overall in 1996 for reasons that had nothing to do with his in credible basketball ability, Iverson accepted Brown’s challenge to not only be a great NBA performer but to become a true NBA professional.
The player known as “The Answer” knew he was being questioned, so he looked inside himself and simply decided it was time to change.
“When I first came into the league, everyone saw the talent God had given me and they wanted me to be a 35-year-old man right away,” Iverson says. “Because I had talent, everybody thought I was supposed to know everything on and off the court right away. That’s not true for anybody. But nobody ever gave me room to make mistakes. Everybody gets better. I’m just getting better on and off the court.”
Perhaps it was fear of being shipped to the Clippers, the NBA’s Siberian franchise, but Iverson, 25, called Sixers general manager Billy King during the trade rumors and said he could understand the team trading him if it would make them better.
But to move him simply because of his practice habits–or lack thereof–and his off-court problems? That reasoning came as a surprise to Iverson, who promised King that those were things he could, and more importantly take control of.
The deal with Detroit ended up breaking down, particularly because Sixers center Matt Geiger would not agree to forfeit his $5 million trade kicker. That meant Iverson, who earlier in his summer of discontent had said it would difficult for him to play for Brown, not only reiterated his promise to change, but also asked to be named Sixers captain.
“I don’t know whether he was embarrassed because Coach Brown went public about his missing practices or that he was angered because of the trade rumors,” says Croce, adding that he did not want to trade Iverson but would have if it brought the Sixers closer to a championship. “But Allen said a lot of things, including wanting to be captain. Allen said he had screwed up the first 24 years, but now that he’s turned 25, he was going to be a new man.”
Still, Iverson had made similar promises before, only further frustrating Brown when he broke them. So the coach was hesitant about handing the captaincy to a player whom he thought hadn’t shown much leadership in their three seasons together.
But the two were stuck back together, and someone needed to take a leap of faith. So Brown named Iverson a tri-captain with guards Eric Snow and Aaron McKie.
“He came in with the altitude that he was going to do things the right way,” Sixers center Theo Ratliff says. “He was going to compromise as far as not being as militant with certain rules that coach had implemented that were causing the problems. It’s just maturity.”
For the first time, Iverson has been responsible–to his coach, to his teammates, and to himself. With exception of the flap over the controversial lyrics of his soon-to-be-released rap album, the off-court distractions that have in the past drawn negative attention to Iverson have been nonexistent.
On the court, not only has Iverson changed his practice habits, he now often arrives early and slays late. He also has evolved his game to better stilt the emerging talent around him.
“The team has been focused in practice,” Brown says. “It starts with your better players. Allen has made a conscious effort to come to practice and be professional. I think it shows on the court. We’re truly a team. It’s not something we’re just talking about.”
Where Iverson once thought he had to do everything himself, he now displays a great deal of trust in his teammates. He doesn’t shoot as much, and because of that his scoring average has slipped slightly. But Iverson’s assists are up and his improved decision-making has made the Sixers a more versatile offensive team.
Iverson and his teammates are so in sync that they were able to maintain their torrid pace despite losing Snow, who was in the midst of his best season, to a foot injury that kept him out of action for six weeks.
“I’m not concentrating on getting my [number of] shots back up,” Iverson says. “In the past, we didn’t win when I struggled from the floor. Now we have other guys-who can pick things up, and we’re winning even if I struggle.
“My thing is, if you’re struggling with your shooting, then do other things on the basketball court. Get steals, get assists, get rebounds, do anything on the court to help the team win.
Iverson has done just that, anchoring in the NBA’s top five in scoring (28.4), steals (2.06), and minutes (40.8), and averaging the fewest turnovers in his career (3.0).
“That’s how my game has matured,” Iverson says. “I’ve always felt I could outscore anybody, but when you can’t score, you have to do other things. We have other guys on our team who can score, so it’s important for me to play an all-around game.”
Iverson has become everything Brown had hoped he would become. After Snow’s injury, Iverson was willing to shift back over to the point from 2-guard for the better of the team. And the 6’0″, 165-pound star barely batted an eye after a serious shoulder injury from which doctors estimated it could take up to a month to recover.
Brown now goes out of his way to praise his star player. “He’s made an effort to do the right things, and he’s getting more positive publicity because of that,” Brown says of Iverson. “He’s feeling better about himself. I’ve always said that if you play winning basketball, all the other stuff will come. If you examine it, lie’s just playing ball. His defense is 100 percent better. His turnovers are down.
“You can’t convince a player until he buys into the program. I just hope Allen feels good about what’s happening, because I’ve had other coaches come up to me and say, `I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”
Neither Brown nor Iverson are fooling themselves that there won’t be another incident between them. The two are often polar opposites, and as Iverson likes to say, that means “things aren’t always going to be peaches and cream” with them. But neither expects things to again reach the point that nearly caused their divorce this summer.
“Allen told me more than anything that he wanted us to have a relationship like Magic Johnson had with Pat Riley, like Chuck Daly had with Isiah Thomas,” Brown says. “I still don’t like his music or the way he dresses, but Allen has a lot of good in him. I’m finding that out every day.
“I was always hopeful, but I no idea it could change tiffs quickly. I’m watching him grow up as a person and feel good about himself.”
It may not be perfect harmony, but in an imperfect Eastern Conference, Iverson and Brown’s tentative respect just might be the path to the NBA Finals.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Century Publishing
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group