- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The NBA had no bigger star in the early ‘80s than Larry Bird. Yet when Bird missed a few games late in the ‘81-82 season and the Celtics started a winning streak, he thought nothing of coming off the bench for a while after his injury healed. Don’t want to disrupt things, right? Larry served as the sixth man for the better part of a month — until the Celts were done reeling off 18 consecutive victories — and then quietly reclaimed his starting spot. Far from sulking about it, he embraced his substitute role, and even (if memory serves) put up better numbers.

Maybe somebody should tell Allen Iverson that story — if they can pry him away from the mirror, that is. Chris Ford, his coach with the 76ers, is certainly familiar with it. Ford finished up his NBA career on that ‘82 Boston team and knows well the significance of the Sixth Man in league history.

Iverson, being young and rich and self-absorbed, thinks being asked to come off the bench is a show of disrespect, some kind of personal affront. So he sat out Sunday’s 85-69 loss at Detroit rather than go along with Ford’s plan to ease him and his recovering right knee back into the lineup.

“I’m a starter,” A.I. said afterward. “Why would I come off the bench? I’ve been a starter here for eight years. I’m a starter. I’m not a sixth man. That’s never been who I am. I’m a starter.”

Do you get the impression the guy considers himself a starter?

Ford considers him a starter, too, of course. But the interim coach said he was unaware until just before tipoff that Iverson wanted to try to play. Allen had missed the previous three games — and seven of 10 — with swelling in his knee and hadn’t looked in the greatest shape in practice the day before.

“I’m looking out for the good of A.I., plus the good of the team,” the coach explained. “That’s what my job is to do.”

So Iverson watched in street clothes as the 76ers became the fifth straight Pistons opponent to be held under 70 points, a league record. The defeat left his team in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, two games out of the final playoff spot.

Not that Allen seemed to mind a whole lot. He was much more concerned with the “slight” by his coach. Imagine keeping him, the three-time NBA scoring champ and soon-to-be Dream Teamer, out of the starting lineup. What would his fans say? What, for that matter, would Reebok say?

Actually, I’d be much more interested in what one of his fellow Sixers, Aaron McKie, had to say. Three years ago, McKie won the league’s Sixth Man Award — and now Iverson is talking about the job like it’s a janitorial position.

Some awfully famous players have spent some time as sixth men. Hall of Famer Frank Ramsey, for instance. He’s the original sixth man — conceived by Red Auerbach, who wanted some instant offense off the Celtics bench. “People kept track of how long it took Frank to score after he came into the game,” a teammate once said. “I believe his record was three seconds.”

For five straight seasons in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Ramsey popped in 15 points a night … while playing barely half the game. Near the end, he tutored the next celebrated sixth man, John Havlicek, one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time. In ‘63-64, Havlicek made second team All-NBA as a sixth man.

After “Hondo” came Paul Silas — ever hear of him? — and then Bill Walton and Kevin McHale, another of the 50 greatest. Not just anybody could be the sixth man for the Celtics in those days. On other clubs, too, it became almost a glamour position, thanks to the abilities of Bobby Jones, Michael Cooper and Vinnie Johnson, among others. And let’s not forget Billy Cunningham, yet another of the 50 greatest. He was the first player off the bench for the Sixers team in ‘66-67 that won 68 games and dethroned (briefly) the Celts.

Nowadays, alas, sixth men are less exalted. Few teams in the Expansion Era are so deep that they can afford to hold a top player out of the starting lineup. In recent years, the Sixth Man Award has gone to such lesser talents as Corliss Williamson, Rodney Rogers and John Starks. That’s probably why Iverson, no history major, thinks coming off the bench is beneath him.

But it’s beneath no one — not Larry Bird, not John Havlicek, not Kevin McHale, not Bobby Jones and certainly not Allen Iverson. As Ramsey said in “Tall Tales,” Terry Pluto’s oral history of the golden age of the NBA, “I was proud to [teach Havlicek how it was done], proud of every moment I wore that Celtics uniform. And if people want to credit me with creating the sixth man, I’m proud of that, too.”

Mr. Iverson, though, would rather sit. Not much to be proud of there.

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