Big brother is watching. That's just what 14-year-old Justin
Hughes is thinking as he drops a cue ball onto the pool table in
the basement of his brother's suburban Philadelphia town house
and lines up a shot. "Sometimes Larry gets mad at me if I don't
hit the white ball," Justin says as he peers over his shoulder,
anticipating the arrival of his older sibling, 76ers second-year
shooting guard Larry Hughes. "He says he wants me to do it the
It's not that Larry--all of 21 years old himself--enjoys pulling
rank on Justin, who had a congenital heart defect and underwent
a transplant three years ago. It's just that since he was in his
early teens, Larry has kept a paternal watch on Justin. There
were no other father figures in the house then, and Larry tried
to set a proper example. "Justin's a sweetheart, but he's a
kid," says the boys' mother, Vanessa. "Larry wants him to be a
Sixers coach Larry Brown wishes Hughes was as demanding of
himself as he is of his brother. The eighth pick in the 1998
draft after spending only one year at Saint Louis, Hughes can
create his own shot, knock down the mid-range jumper, rebound
over power forwards and swoop into passing lanes like a hawk.
But Brown, dissatisfied with Hughes's defensive lapses and work
habits, was playing him only 21.1 minutes a game at week's end,
having abandoned a ballyhooed preseason plan to make the 6'5"
swingman the team's No. 2 offensive threat behind guard Allen
Iverson, the league's leading scorer. It's Brown's way of trying
to turn Hughes into an All-Star, which is what many around the
league believe he will become. "If Larry Hughes were with the
Clippers, he'd be doing the same things Allen Iverson does,"
Phoenix Suns guard Penny Hardaway says. "He's got that much
talent. He just hasn't had a chance to show it."
Hughes's response to Brown's form of tough love was to suggest
that a trade would be welcome if it would give him the playing
time he craves. Last week he nearly got his wish. In a deal that
could have reshaped the Eastern Conference title race, Philly
came close to sending Hughes, along with reserves Bruce Bowen,
Nazr Mohammed and Billy Owens, to the Miami Heat for small
forward Jamal Mashburn. The deal fell through amid
finger-pointing from both parties once word of negotiations
became public. (Each side claims to be the one that pulled out.)
Since then Hughes, who through Sunday was averaging 10.7 points
and 3.1 rebounds, has been the subject of trade rumors involving
Toronto Raptors small forward Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic
rookie small forward Corey Maggette and Golden State Warriors
small forward Chris Mills, among others. Sixers executives
insist they're merely listening to offers for Hughes, not
shopping him. "If he works hard and keeps learning, he could
have a great career here," Brown says.
Counters Hughes, "I want to play now."
Larry. Larry. Quite contrary.
After averaging 9.1 points and 3.8 rebounds in 19.8 minutes in
his rookie season, mostly at small forward, Hughes reached
double figures in all four games in Philadelphia's first-round
playoff upset of Orlando, electrifying fans with rim-rattling
dunks. Then he tore up the Boston summer league. Brown felt
Hughes was ready to take the next step, saying he was going to
be "an amazing player." It appeared the Flight Brothers, as
Iverson and Hughes had been dubbed, were ready to take off.
But shortly into this season the flight plan was scrapped. It
quickly became apparent to Brown that Hughes, a natural shooting
guard, didn't handle the ball well enough to play the point and
that his wiry 185-pound frame made him a defensive liability
against many small forwards. With Iverson playing 40 minutes a
game at shooting guard, Eric Snow manning the point, Aaron McKie
helping in the backcourt and George Lynch providing stellar
defense at small forward, Brown says he simply has no regular
spot for Hughes.
Perhaps discouraged by the turn of events, Hughes let his level
of intensity in practice slip. Not precipitously, teammates say,
but enough to make him look bad next to tail-busters such as
Lynch, McKie and Snow. "His work ethic could be better," Snow
says. "Some of this stuff just comes so easy to him. He's always
been better than most of the guys he's played with. It's
something that happens to a lot of guys that come in the league.
When he develops the attitude that I'm going to come out here
and outwork everybody every day, the sky's the limit for him."
"Larry worked real hard in the summer, and I think he had it in
his mind that he was going to be a starter," Brown say. "I think
when it didn't happen, it was discouraging for him. He's got to
get over it."
Several NBA players sympathize with Hughes, pointing out that
the seldom-satisfied Brown tends to keep a head-strong phenom in
the doghouse wherever he has coached. From Sean Elliott in San
Antonio to Jalen Rose in Indiana to Jerry Stackhouse in
Philadelphia, Brown has a history of clashes with promising
players. (Nevertheless, some of those players, including Elliott
and Stackhouse, have later said that Brown's demanding ways
ultimately made them better.) In December, Brown and assistant
coach John Calipari met with Hughes and his agent, Jeff
Wechsler, for an hour before a game in Miami to clear the air.
Afterward, Hughes described the relationship as "shaky," but in
public it has remained cordial.
With his tattoos, braids and baggy clothes, Hughes has been
referred to as an Iverson wannabe, a characterization that
deeply bothers Hughes. He says he respects Iverson and considers
him a friend but denies that he patterns himself after his
teammate. (Vanessa says that Larry wanted to wear his hair in
braids as far back as college, but that his coaches at Saint
Louis wouldn't allow it.) Even so, Iverson is almost like a big
brother to Hughes. "I feel like Larry should be on this team,"
Iverson says. "I just don't want to see him go through this."
Yet Iverson's refusal to play point guard, even for 20 minutes a
game, has limited Hughes's opportunities. At least one Sixer,
center Matt Geiger, thinks Hughes also might be picking up bad
work habits from Iverson, who doesn't always take practice
seriously. "Larry's such a great kid," Geiger says. "On another
team he might be the hardest-working guy. Maybe Larry's had a
little taste of that attitude [that Iverson has]: All I've got
to do is go out and play; that's all that really counts."
Hughes denies that his effort has flagged but admits that he has
grown frustrated--an uncharacteristic revelation for someone who
long ago learned to endure difficult situations. As a child
growing up in St. Louis, his mother recalls, Larry was mature
for his age, resolutely avoiding the gangs in the area and
spending hours in the house alone after school until Vanessa
came home from her job as a bank teller. Larry also helped his
mother provide the extra attention his ailing brother needed.
Little wonder that when it came to choosing a college, Larry
chose Saint Louis over many bigger programs, including Kansas,
Syracuse and Michigan, so that he could stay close to his
family. "He was so quiet and so strong--a blessing from God. I
don't know if I would have made it without him," says Vanessa,
who now lives with Justin in a rented apartment that's just a
short drive from the building where Larry lives with his
girlfriend, Carrie Lawrence, and their 15-month-old daughter,
Larry recalls speeding from Carrie's house to the hospital on
the day of Justin's transplant, then waiting helplessly with his
mother during the six-hour operation. The heart, which had come
from a 16-year-old girl, became available only two days after
Justin had been listed as a candidate. Larry is sometimes
reminded of that helplessness when he's stuck on the bench. "I
don't like sitting on the bench," Hughes says. "I've never done
that before. For me to learn by watching ... I think I've done a
lot of that. Now it's time for me to get out there and show what
I can do."
Brown attributes Hughes's lack of practice intensity to his
failure to comprehend what it takes to succeed in the NBA. The
coach's willingness to part with his prodigy is a reflection of
his growing belief that the Sixers, 24-19 at week's end, have a
shot at reaching the Finals. The addition of a playoff-tested
veteran who can score, such as Mashburn, might make the
difference. "Larry Hughes has good character," Brown says. "He's
just one of those McDonald's All-Americas who've been told how
great they are by everybody since Day One. He's never sat on a
bench. He's always been the guy. It's not that easy to adjust."
Justin knows just how inflexible his brother can be. While
working part time as a Sixers ball boy last season, Justin was
scolded by Larry for not folding towels the right way in the
locker room and for wearing his cap backward on the court, a
violation of team policy. Larry says he was merely teaching his
brother a valuable lesson. "He was goofing around, but that's a
serious job," Hughes says. "I had to enforce some rules."
Tough love. Brown would have been proud. Now if he could just
get Hughes to accept a dose of it himself.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS FLIGHT DELAYS Hughes's spectacular aerial show has been grounded by the Sixers, who are likely to trade their disgruntled swingman.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS TOUGH LOVE Big brother makes sure Justin keeps to the straight and narrow--a course Brown wishes Larry himself would maintain.
"If Larry were with the Clippers," says Penny Hardaway, "he'd be
doing the same things Allen Iverson does."