CHARLOTTE, N.C. This is Allen Iverson at his seductive best.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ guard starts 0-for-4 from the field in Game 1 in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Charlotte Hornets, winners of their last 14 regular season games. The 15,023 fans in the Charlotte Coliseum are delirious as their team holds the offensively challenged 76ers to seven of 25 shooting (28 percent) and take a 22-17 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Iverson, playing with a broken toe, a partially torn rotator cuff and an inflamed right elbow, is struggling after being shadowed by the NBA’s all-defensive team member Eddie Jones.
However, this poor performance by Iverson will not continue.
Jones, who led the NBA in steals, picks up his third foul of the game late in the second quarter while trying to keep up with the mercurial 6-foot-0 Iverson. That forces Charlotte coach Paul Silas to have less-talented David Wesley cover Iverson in the second half.
It’s a risky move, but Silas has no other choice.
Iverson goes on to score 18 of his career playoff-high 40 points in the third quarter, the Sixers erase what was an 11-point deficit and, more importantly, swipe homecourt advantage with a 92-82 victory.
“Allen was amazing on both sides of the court,” said 76ers coach Larry Brown about the player on whose back the 76ers must ride if they are to experience any form of playoff success. “He played brilliantly.”
This is the Iverson the 76ers had in mind when they awarded him with a seven-year, $70.9 million contract extension last year when he was named first team All-NBA after he became the first 76er in 34 years to lead the league in scoring (26.8).
And this is the Iverson that the 76ers love, but there is another side of Iverson that has been difficult to get past. That side forced the 76ers to suspend Iverson for a crucial March 15 game at Miami after Iverson reportedly partying in South Beach the night before missed a shootaround. Iverson has been chronically late for or absent from various team functions since the team selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. The relationship between he and Brown, signed to coach the team for the next five years, is constantly being tested by the franchise’s 24-year-old, high-maintenance star.
“How would you feel if a guy didn’t show up for work?” said Brown, whom Iverson once cursed loudly for not playing him. “Why are you the bad guy? Why is it my problem if a guy is not ready to practice? If a guy is going to react where he’s upset at me for pointing that out, that shouldn’t be my problem. In his mind if he shows up and plays he’s doing his job. And he doesn’t cheat you in that respect at all. But there are certain responsibilities you have when you are a great player. People expect you to be at your best every single night. And if you don’t take care of yourself, or if you don’t prepare or practice, sometimes you’re not able to play at the level you’re expected. You have to point that out.”
After dissecting the Hornets, Iverson took the opportunity to blast a report in the Charlotte Observer that he felt implied general manager Billy King was uncertain that Iverson and Brown, a noted disciplinarian, could coexist.
“The people around me, the organization, I don’t think they treat me like the franchise player,” Iverson said. “I’ve heard stories about other franchise players and what goes on with those guys and the way they are treated. I’m treated like the 12th guy on the bench with this franchise, believe it or not.
“I mean, if I can hear my general manager say that he doesn’t know if the marriage is going to work to some reporter, I mean, it’s time to stop that. I feel like I’m the heart of this team but I don’t feel like I’m the franchise player.”
Said King: “I’m not looking to trade Allen. And I also believe the two of them can make this work.”
Brown, in his third season as Sixers coach, had an escape clause in his contract and often talked about quitting at the end of this season. This would have come as a surprise to no one. Brown is a nomadic coach who changes teams often. His resume includes six NBA jobs, a stint with the Carolina Cougars of the now-defunct ABA, and college jobs at UCLA and Kansas, where he won the 1988 national championship. However, team president Pat Croce kept Brown in Philadelphia when he locked the coach into a five-year, $30 million extension that eliminated Brown’s ability to flee.
This season Croce and King who also signed an extension have mediated more meetings between Brown and Iverson than ever before. Croce was lenient with Iverson in the past, but seems to be growing more demanding and is less tolerant of the superstar’s sometimes-skittish behavior.
“Allen’s a good guy,” Croce said. “The problem is he loves to go out all night and sleep all day. That just doesn’t work.”
Brown said he had no choice but to suspend Iverson and that he did it for the good of the team and not to get back at the guard.
“I have a lot of guys on my team that understand what is going on,” Brown said. “But when it starts to affect them I have to do something about it. The issue was, I’ve got 11 other guys. You’ve got a team. And you’ve got rules. As long as the rules are fair and you’re going to be on a team, you have to adhere to them. Our team suffered and nobody won in that case. That’s terrible to deal with.”
Perhaps the biggest gap between Iverson and Brown is generational. Iverson is as hip-hop as the NBA gets these days, while Brown is a North Carolina-trained coach who remembers a league when contracts weren’t guaranteed and most players never dreamed of missing a practice.
Iverson grew up in a rugged section of Hampton, Va., where his mother, Ann, raised him by herself. The plumbing often was broken and sewage sometimes covered the kitchen floor. There was never enough money to fix things. Brown, on the other hand, owns choice Pacific beachfront property and has been well off for most of his life.
Ann Iverson, who often attends 76ers’ games wearing her son’s jersey, is growing to understand Brown’s ways.
“Allen is learning,” she said. “Larry Brown is sort of like a father figure. And Allen has to abide and go by his rules. Allen has told me that what Larry is doing is he’s trying to make Allen’s basketball life better and I believe him. I used to get mad at some of the things that Larry did but there’s a reason for it. When Larry sits him down he’s trying to teach him something that will make him better. I truly believe that.”
Only time will tell if the two can last each other out and eventually lead the 76ers back to the NBA Finals, a place they haven’t been since they swept the Lakers in 1983. Iverson has talked about being traded but he sounds content in Philadelphia.
“I’ve said from Day 1 that I always wanted to be a Sixer,” said Iverson. “Until I’m finished playing basketball and until God says it’s over. But to hear that the marriage might not work from somebody that matters and can make it work, man, it’s time to start looking at stuff like that.”