The delivery of the 600 basketballs has taken much of the
morning. Three men, supervised by a young woman in a blue dress,
did the job. They placed box after cardboard box onto two metal
dollies, piling the boxes six feet high. They pushed the dollies
off the loading ramp, through a set of swinging doors, down a
corridor in the new Crozer-Keystone Healthplex Sports Club in
Springfield, Pa., through another set of doors, then another,
onto an elevator, off the elevator and to a room in the
basement. The room in the basement is now filled with the boxes
containing the 600 basketballs.
"What's the deal?" I ask.
"These are for Allen," I am told.
"From one of those shop-at-home networks. These are for Allen to
I sort of love this. Yes, I do.
I am here at the beginning. I am here at the start. The rocket
ship has achieved ignition and liftoff has begun, and the 600
basketballs have arrived for Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia
76ers to sign. I sort of love this.
When did you first see him play? What do you remember?
"There was a game against the Lakers, just before Thanksgiving
near the end of the first month of the first year of his career,
back in '96. The Sixers lost, and he shot something like 6 for
27, but he was absolutely electric. You couldn't take your eyes
off him. He was the whole show. Then the next day I went to
practice, and they were delivering these 600 basketballs for him
to sign.... "
Iverson is in a small office, maybe five feet wide and 12 feet
long. The office belongs to new Philadelphia general manager and
vice president of basketball operations Brad Greenberg, but
Iverson is behind the desk. The desk is new. The office is new.
The Healthplex is new. Everything in Iverson's life seems new.
New team. New teammates. New league. New opponents. New owner.
New arena, the CoreStates Center, where the Sixers play. Every
day and night seems to arrive wrapped in cellophane.
This particular new experience is an interview on a
coast-to-coast conference call. The NBA stages an interview of a
dominant, newsmaking player every Wednesday during the season.
Iverson is this week's dominant, newsmaking personality. He is
leading Philadelphia in scoring, assists and steals (his
numbers, at week's end, would be 21.8, 6.4 and 2.67,
respectively). He is doing all the things the No. 1 overall
draft choice is supposed to do, even though he should be just
now starting his junior season at Georgetown University. He has
thrown two spectacular performances at the New York Knicks,
scoring 35 and 26 points and fouling out everyone who tried to
guard him. He is lighting many of the proper lights. One month
into his career.
"How's this work?" he asks.
"The reporters will introduce themselves," Sixers director of
public relations Jodi Silverman says. "Then they ask their
questions. Then you answer."
He answers predictable questions. Doesn't he shoot a lot? He
says he likes to score and maybe is forcing the action a little
bit, but that was what he did in his first year of college. He
will settle down as he learns the game, learns to let the game
come to him. Is he having trouble with the referees, who,
following a memo issued by the league office, have started to
call his normal crossover dribble a travel? He says he has
modified the dribble. He doesn't dribble as high anymore. He
also dribbles more from the side now rather than bringing his
hand over the top of the ball. The traveling calls seem to have
stopped. What does he think about his future? He says, "No one
has more confidence in me than I have in myself." Just like that.
His confidence is the bass line behind any music he makes. He
can have a tough shooting night against the Lakers and say "I
lost that game for my team" and come back shooting some more. He
can be yanked from the lineup on Friday, benched after five
third-quarter turnovers in a 100-91 win over the Orlando Magic,
and return on Saturday for 23 points, nine assists and 10 more
turnovers in a 96-90 win over the Vancouver Grizzlies. (He will
shrug off the benching: "It was the coach's decision, so I
respect that. Plus, we won the game, so it was a good
decision.") He is young. Expect mistakes.
"Come back and see me at the end of next month, or maybe the
month after that," he says. "Then you'll be able to tell how
well I can play basketball or not."
One question comes over the telephone that he doesn't want to
answer. It is another basic question, but.... "Do I have to
answer everyone who asks a question?" Iverson asks Silverman,
putting his hand over the phone.
"What do you mean?"
"There's a reporter out there I don't like. From Virginia. Do I
have to answer him?"
"Say, 'Next question.'"
Could you tell right away how good he was? What struck you most,
besides the speed, of course?
"In a crazy way, the beginning might have been the best time to
see him. He would try anything. Fearless. Everywhere. Offense
and defense. When he got the ball, you said to yourself, Pay
attention--anything can happen. Anything could happen. He was
always going 100 miles an hour, pell-mell. You watched and knew
he would get better...but more conservative at the same time.
Maybe injuries would give him caution, because he was such a
little guy at 6 feet, 165 pounds. In the beginning, though, he
was a crazy wind, just blowing down the floor every time he had
A representative from Reebok sits on the new file cabinet in the
back of the small, new office. The representative, Que Gaskins,
travels with Iverson most of the time. Que is young and cool, a
hip adviser in this new land of commercial and social Oz. Reebok
is putting out an Iverson sneaker called the Question, because
his nickname is the Answer. The ad campaign and the sneaker are
in production. An early start to the push is a 40-foot-tall
mural of Iverson that has been painted on the side of a building
on Columbus Boulevard near Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia.
Iverson signed the mural only Monday. He was lifted up in a fire
department cherry picker.
"Is that the Question?" I ask Que, pointing at the shoes on
"No, that's a Shaq sneaker," Que replies. "The Iverson shoe has
red on it. He wore a pair in the game last night. That's a
special first edition. It's only going to be sold in
Philadelphia and Washington. People are coming here from other
cities to try to get a pair. It's pretty much sold out already.
The national sneaker will have blue instead of red, and then a
black one will be ready for the spring. Hopefully the Sixers
will make the playoffs."
The theme for the promotion is speed. Iverson's agent, David
Falk, is at the Reebok offices near Boston at this very moment,
tossing around ideas with the shoe company's people. All of the
ideas involve speed. The Sixers already show a video on the
scoreboard with Iverson and the cartoon character Speed Racer
sharing the screen.
"He's as quick with the ball as anyone in the history of the
league," says Philadelphia coach Johnny Davis. "He's a
combination of Isiah Thomas and Tiny Archibald. Fast guys in
this league, he makes them look as if they're slow. He has a
level beyond their quickness."
"Allen reminds me of Isiah, because he can take over a game,"
says Sixers assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, like Davis a former
championship-winning NBA point guard, who works with Iverson
daily in explaining the nuances of NBA life. "He also reminds me
of Gus Williams, although Allen is probably quicker than Gus
was. You can put Tiny in there too. Allen's ability to beat
people off the dribble is going to bring [defenders] to him.
He's starting now to make the extra pass, and his assist total
is starting to rise."
The other daily travelers with Iverson, besides Que and the
coaches, are his three friends from home in Newport News, Va.
They live with him now in the suburban Philadelphia apartment
that formerly was rented by Sharone Wright, who is now with the
Toronto Raptors. They are kids. Iverson is a kid. They duck
their heads into the office to see what is happening--one of
them, Arthur, delivers a steak-and-cheese hoagie for lunch--and
to share in the great adventure.
There have been insinuations that the NBA is worried about these
kids, worried that they might be a bad influence. Iverson
clearly is not worried.
"The NBA can't pick my friends," he says. "When I was struggling
growing up, no running water in my house, the electric lights
turned off, these were the guys who were with me. They grew up
with me. I'm not going to turn my back on them now. Not many
people were always angels as they grew up. These are the guys
who won't always be telling me how great I am. They know me."
The conference call is done. He is talking with me, but he is
also talking on a cellular phone with someone at Falk's office.
"Go ahead," he says. "Ask another question."
I point to the phone at his ear.
"No, that's all right," he says. "I'm on hold."
Do you remember a move from the first time you saw him play? One
move that knocked you dead?
"The best probably was at the end of the half. Iverson was at
the top of the key, everybody cleared out, as the clock ticked
down for the last shot. You know what I mean? Another rookie,
Derek Fisher of the Lakers, was guarding him. Iverson started
rocking, rocking--the Lakers had told Fisher in the scouting
report that Iverson liked to go right--and now he faked left and
Fisher still bit, and Iverson went past him to the right as if
Fisher were a stone statue. The sellout crowd, the largest
basketball crowd in the arena, went 'Ooooooh.' Iverson didn't
even make the layup because he ran into Shaq in front of the
basket. But the move was so good they showed it on the replay
board. A replay of a miss. I remember that."
"I always figured I was going to go to one of those big football
schools," Iverson says. "Florida State. Notre Dame. Football was
my first love. Still is. I was going to go to one of those
schools and play both. I just loved running the option, faking,
throwing the ball, everything about football. I didn't even want
to play basketball at first. I thought it was soft. My mother's
the one who made me go to tryouts. I thank her forever. I came
back and said, 'I like basketball, too.'
"When the trouble came, it seemed the basketball people were the
ones who stayed interested. I went to Georgetown because it was
the best thing for me to do at the time. Just play basketball.
They didn't have any football, at least none that I wanted to
He does not shy away from his life. He does not dance around the
particulars. The publicized trouble he refers to was a fight at
a bowling alley in Hampton, Va., before his senior year of high
school that sent him to jail for four months on a conviction
that since has been overturned. That simply is part of his
experience. The legal trouble of the man who has been a father
to him--a conviction on a drug charge--is part. He rejects
nothing. Jail and two years at Georgetown both helped form him.
Hard times in Newport News have led to good times here.
He is not your normal, wide-eyed 21-year-old kid with a look of
awe at where he has landed. He has a sense of maturity, a sense
of himself that cannot be taught, no matter how long you go to
college. He has had more than enough notoriety already, fans in
hostile gymnasiums always quick to mention his troubles. He is a
21-year-old survivor. That is how and why he plays the way he
plays, how and why he is the way he is. Fearless.
"I went through a lot of things to test my manhood," he says.
"I'm glad--not glad, really, but stronger for it--that all of
those things happened to me. I feel like I can handle anything.
I learned a lot about people, about how things can change. No
matter who you are, when somebody wants to bring you down, he
can do it. Everything you worked for can be all over in a moment.
"I don't worry about impressing anyone. I don't care what people
say. The people who count to me are my family and friends. The
rest of the people, they're going to think what they think. I
didn't come here worried about anything anyone was going to say.
I knew I was Iverson, the Number 1 draft choice, with a big
bull's-eye painted on my back. A target."
He is in charge. No doubt about that. He is in charge of the
people on the floor, no matter how many years they have played,
no matter what their reputations. He is the leader on a team
that was rudderless last year, a team that was 7-8 at week's end
(the Sixers did not win their seventh game until Jan. 12 last
season). "He's a big boost," says backcourt mate Jerry
Stackhouse. "Last year we were basically playing with two
shooting guards. I'm just now learning what having a point guard
in this league is like." He is in charge of the people around
him, of his situation, as much as he can be. Pat Croce, the
Sixers' new president, says he was told by former NBA player,
coach and executive Billy Cunningham that "when you own a team
with 12 players, you're really in charge of 12 separate
corporations. Each player has maybe 10 people around
him--agents, friends, family--that are part of his life and have
to be dealt with." Iverson is the CEO of his corporation.
"What do you want from this game?" I ask.
"This is my profession," he says. "I want to be the best. Years
from now, when people are talking about Magic and Michael, I
want my name to be mentioned too. I have a lot of work to do,
but that's what I want."
So, the biggest thing you remember. First time you saw him.
Before he became as big as he became....
"The 600 basketballs."
He does not sign the basketballs. There is a problem first with
the money. He wants the money in his hand before he goes to
work. The shop-at-home woman in the blue dress was not ready for
that. There also is a problem with time. Boxes of collectors'
cards and photographs help fill the basement room. The woman
wants Iverson to sign those, too. She wants him to sign his name
"Three thousand signatures," Que, the Reebok guy, says. "How
long would that take?"
"I'm pretty fast," Iverson says. "I bet I could do it in a day."
Not this day. He has to go. No time. "We'll set everything up
for some other day," he tells the woman in the blue dress. "I'll
just come here and do it. O.K.?"
I watch as he leaves the Healthplex with Que and Arthur and his
other friends, off to the next event in their new life. The
woman is reeling. I watch as she calls her people together to
take the basketballs out of the room, back to the dollies, back
to the elevator, back through the halls, back to the truck. Six
hundred basketballs. We have liftoff. The new guy is in charge,
even at the beginning, as he moves along to stardom.
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER [Allen Iverson dribbling basketball]
COLOR PHOTO: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS Philly has flipped over Iverson's prodigious playmaking. [Allen Iverson in game]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Even against bigger men, the 6-foot Iverson plays fearlessly. [Allen Iverson and Vancouver Grizzlies player in game]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Iverson already looms large in his new city. [Allen Iverson and others in cherry picker basket in front of mural depicting Allen Iverson]