- The Washington Times - Friday, November 17, 2000

PHILADELPHIA. It's mid-morning on a cool weekday in Philadelphia, and the coach of the NBA's only unbeaten team is ready to begin practice. It's a go for Larry Brown, because his rebellious superstar not only is out of bed but in the building and on the court.

A year ago, this was a rarity.

By some counts, Allen Iverson, was late as many as 75 times. Often, the rest of the team was forced to wait.

Now the Answer, often perceived as the league's No. 1 bad boy since Dennis Rodman retired, is trying to reshape his image at least on the court. The man with tattoos covering his body and a controversial rap CD is working hard at being a well-behaved team leader.

"This is my fifth year, and I haven't won a championship," said Iverson, a Hampton, Va., native and Georgetown University product who has a Rookie of the Year trophy, a scoring championship and a six-year, $79 million contract on his resume. "I don't think I did the things necessary to win it."

Since showing up for training camp this fall, Iverson has been on time for every practice. The high-scoring guard also has been less selfish on the court, adopting a team-first attitude for maybe the first time in his life.

Believe it or not, Iverson, at 25, is maturing.

"As far as I'm concerned, he's the reason we're undefeated," Sixers president Pat Croce said. "He's so strong and tough-minded that when he sets his mind to it, beware. And it's so fabulous to see this all coming around."

Croce is more than a boss to his star player. He loves Iverson like a son. But even Croce, who doubles as a motivational speaker, ran out of patience with Iverson this summer. Iverson made no secret of his dislike for Brown and showed his teammates little respect with his repeated tardiness. When a handful of heart-to-heart pleas from Croce to straighten out his act didn't appear to be working, Iverson reluctantly was put on the trade market.

The All-Star nearly was sent to Detroit in a four-team, 16-player trade that would have shipped Jerry Stackhouse to Philadelphia. But because Sixers center Matt Geiger refused to waive a $1.2 million trade clause that wouldn't fit under the Pistons' salary cap, the deal was killed.

Iverson, meanwhile, spent the summer in Virginia thinking about his mistakes. Despite his problems with Brown, he loves playing in Philadelphia, is excited about his improving team and was scared to death about rumors that he might be traded to the pitiful Los Angeles Clippers. The turnaround began in June, when Iverson sought out NBA great Magic Johnson for advice. Iverson asked what he needed to do. Magic told him he'd never been late for a practice his entire life.

Later in the summer, with the Sixers still working hard to find a trade that would return equal talent, Croce traveled to Virginia to meet with Iverson. There Iverson told Croce, "If you're going to trade me, trade me for someone to make this team better. If you're going to trade me because I'm late or because I didn't do this or that … I can take care of all that."

Replied Croce: "Well, then do it." He added, "No one in this world has more control over their destiny or job security than you. All you have to do is follow Coach Brown's rules."

"I can do that," Iverson said.

So far, Iverson has been a good teammate and more. He's become a team leader. With everyone waiting for him to mess up again, Iverson went to training camp saying he wanted to be team captain. By the end of camp, he had proven skeptics wrong and earned his captaincy wish.

"The comments he made about wanting to be a leader, that was the best news you could possibly ask," Brown said. "You can't have any success if your best player doesn't do what's right."

Now the former Georgetown star has the Sixers at 8-0, the best start in franchise history. Their victims have not been slouches either. Five were playoff teams (New York, Toronto, Miami, Detroit and Minnesota).

Iverson is the biggest reason for the fast start. He's playing great, unselfish basketball.

"He's been on time," Croce said. "He's been a leader during practice. He's stayed longer at practice. He's strength training. He's motivating people from the bench, and he's not complaining when he comes out of the game. These are all dramatic changes and improvement in Allen's demeanor. He's been a professional like he said he would be. He doesn't want to lose face with me."

Iverson's scoring average is down five points this year from 28.4 to 23.4 but his assists and rebounds are up, his turnovers down. And his defensive lapses, which used to infuriate Brown, are way down. Iverson indeed is working out on a regular basis for the first time, something the Sixers have begged him to do to keep his frail 6-foot, 165-pound frame from wearing down over the season.

"His overall game is the best since I've been here," Brown said.

Iverson's teammates, tired of his old act, now are praising him.

"Allen has changed in a lot of ways," forward Tyrone Hill said. "He's more vocal not just in practice but in the games.

"He's telling big guys, 'I'm going to get you the ball.' Two years ago, Allen probably would not have done that because he wanted to take it all upon his shoulders. In [the season opener at] New York, when Theo Ratliff was rolling, Allen told us, 'Keep running the play for Theo.' That's a real good feeling, when you see your All-Star player telling the whole team to ignore him and get the ball to the big guy."

Iverson's new image has not been squeaky clean. Controversy arrived days before training camp, when news broke of a single from his soon-to-be-released rap CD "40 Bars," which offends women and homosexuals. In a statement, Iverson later apologized and, at the urging of NBA commissioner David Stern, agreed to change offensive lyrics.

"I can assure you that there won't be any gay-bashing or any women-bashing in the album," Iverson said. "[But] there's other things more important. There's so many people who are poor, have no jobs, houses are falling down and need construction. There's rapists, child molesters, racism all over this world. There's so many other things to focus your attention on besides a rap CD."

Like the Sixers' improvement.

The club has made great strides since Iverson was selected first overall in the 1996 draft. In his first four seasons, the Sixers improved every year, going from 22-60 in 1996-97 to 31-51 to 28-22 to 49-33. The last two seasons, they made the playoffs, winning a round each year before losing to Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Now, they're considered a serious threat to get to the NBA Finals.

But while the Sixers were improving in the standings, Iverson never stopped being disruptive. He was repeatedly fined for being late to practice. The situation came to a head late last season when Iverson called in sick for a pregame shootaround at Miami. The Sixers, thinking Iverson might have spent the previous evening partying at South Beach, suspended him for the game. Later in the season, Iverson showed up late to a home playoff game with Indiana.

Brown, a legendary coach who always demands more of his star players, decided Iverson had to change or go, and the Sixers made a statement in the offseason by giving the coach a five-year, $25 million contract extension. Brown, it was apparent, wasn't going anywhere. When the Sixers couldn't trade Iverson, Brown crossed his fingers something would be different this year.

"It's not about coexisting," Brown said. "It's about being part of a team."

The season is young, so there's a lot of time for Iverson to revert to his old form. On the other hand, Iverson says he has grown up, insists his days of making bad decisions are over.

"Allen has walked the talk, and has done everything he promised me he'd do in the offseason," Croce said. "He said that he screwed up for 24 years in the past. When he turned 25 in June, he said he wanted to be a professional."

So far, so good.

"It really does start with me," Iverson said. "I set an example on and off the court, being the first one to come, the last one to leave. My teammates see that, and they feed off that.

"All eyes are on me this year. Everybody wants to see if I can be a captain, a professional, and I'm ready for it."

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