It's About Time After a summer of surprises, Allen Iverson has embraced punctuality and practice, and his attitude is paying off for the 76ers - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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It's About Time After a summer of surprises, Allen Iverson has embraced punctuality and practice, and his attitude is paying off for the 76ers

"I'm a giant. You all midgets." --Allen (Jewelz) Iverson, 40 Bars

Atop the front desk of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic
Medicine's student activity center, there is a sign-in list that
for the past couple of weeks has contained some of the most
remarkable hen scratchings in the City of Brotherly Love since
Ben Franklin's plume graced documents of liberty. Take this
astonishing morsel straight from last Thursday's PCOM ledger:

11/2/00... Allen Iverson...9:37 a.m.

Note the barely decipherable signature. Note the concise style.
Note the time. Less than 11 hours after he had scored 24 points
and mildly sprained his right knee in the Philadelphia 76ers'
physical 104-90 home victory over the Toronto Raptors, shooting
guard Allen Iverson pulled his burgundy Bentley up to the
college--practice site for the Sixers--23 minutes early.
Twenty-three! Sadly for posterity's sake, verifiers from the
Guinness book were not on hand at the time.

If it appears that Christmas has come to Philadelphia early this
year; if it looks as though everyone at the First Union Center
has a goofy smile on his face; if it seems as if the 76ers, 4-0
at week's end, are already halfway to the Eastern Conference
title--let's give credit where credit is due. Iverson, heretofore
Roget's suggested synonym for irresponsible, immature and
headache, has begun to grow up. Yeah, yeah, he's a work in
progress. Yeah, yeah, a relapse or six are probably inevitable.
Still, nobody can deny that Iverson (a.k.a. the Answer), the
indisputable king of basketball's me-me-me generation, is trying
to shed the reputation he built last season, when he missed or
arrived late to some 50 practices, bickered with coach Larry
Brown, lost the respect of several teammates and adhered strictly
to the Roseanne Barr Fitness Regimen of minimal exercise and
daily Taco Bell runs.

In August, before training camp even opened, he asked Brown to
appoint him co-captain, along with last season's captain, point
guard Eric Snow. After scrutinizing Iverson's attitude and
punctuality during camp, Brown did just that. "I finally looked
in the mirror," says the 6-foot Iverson. "This is my fifth year,
and I haven't won a championship. I had to stop acting like a kid
and start doing some extra work. There were a lot of small things
Coach Brown wanted me to do that I didn't do and should've never
had a problem doing. Now I'm doing 'em."

Like weight training. Every member of the Sixers is required to
lift three or four times per week. Iverson loves the weight room
about as much as he loves Wilson Phillips. John Croce, the team's
physical conditioning coach, fined him $2,500 several times last
season for regularly skipping sessions. Since the start of
training camp Iverson has a perfect attendance mark. "Allen
reported at 155 pounds," says Croce. "We set one goal--that he be
up to 170 for the first game of the regular season. He was 172.
Allen gets in and out of here as fast as he can, but at least
he's in and out. And every so often he'll walk by and flex. It's
a start."

So is Iverson's newfound interest in his teammates. In an
exhibition game against the Utah Jazz on Oct. 22, rookie guard
Craig (Speedy) Claxton tore his left ACL. Two minutes after
Claxton--who was drafted in part to replace Iverson should the
Answer be traded--was carried into the locker room, Iverson left
the bench to check on his protege. On Oct. 31, after Philly's
101-72 season-opening bombardment of the Knicks in New York,
Jumaine Jones, the Sixers' second-year forward, began shouting at
Knicks point guard Chris Childs. Iverson, hardly one of the
league's coolest heads, wrapped his arm around Jones's waist.
"C'mon, man, don't concern yourself with that," he said. "Let's
just take the win and go home."

"Anyone who says Allen doesn't care about the guys hasn't watched
our team very much," says Philadelphia guard Aaron McKie. "He'll
always stand up for us."

Of all the things that scream new Iverson! the one that has Brown
drooling and the Sixers rolling (their record includes
back-to-back road wins over the Orlando Magic and the Miami Heat)
is his embrace of the--gasp!--pass. In his first four games, the
Answer has averaged 5.0 assists, compared to 2.8 last season.
Against the Knicks, Iverson's eight assists included several
dandies. Early in the fourth quarter he slashed past Childs
toward the basket, where he was met by 6'11" Marcus Camby and
6'9" Kurt Thomas. Without looking up, Iverson fired a laser to
forward Toni Kukoc, who buried the wide-open shot. "Allen's
learning that great players have the ball in their hands at the
end of the game and that sometimes they give it up," says Brown.
"Michael Jordan passed to John Paxson. He passed to Steve Kerr.
Michael knew he could've done it himself, but he also knew guys
were open. Finally, Allen sees it too."

There are theories upon theories as to why, at age 25, Iverson
has gone from chronic truant to Webelos. (He's not a Boy Scout
just yet.) Some Allen-watchers, such as Philly forward Tyrone
Hill, chalk it up to natural maturation. McKie says Brown's
signals are finally reaching Planet Al. Pat Croce, the 76ers'
president (and John's older brother), believes Iverson is
motivated to become the league's most complete player.

All the theories are interesting. All are very wrong. The answer
to the Answer goes back to last summer.

The worst off-season of Iverson's career reached its nadir in
early July. He had heard whispers that the Sixers might try to
trade him. He figured that the odds were against it, that it was
meaningless chatter. Then he saw his name attached to the phrase
that translates to "Your NBA life is over": Los Angeles Clippers.

Although Pat Croce insists his team never had serious talks with
the Clippers, Iverson was floored by the rumors. "The Clippers?"
he says. "Nobody wants to play for the Clippers."

Still, the Sixers were shopping Iverson. In late July,
Philadelphia had a four-team, 10-player deal lined up with the
Detroit Pistons, the Charlotte Hornets and the Los Angeles Lakers
that would have sent Iverson and center Matt Geiger to Detroit.
Had the deal not fallen through at the last minute, Iverson's
idiosyncrasies (not to mention the last five years and $61.9
million of his contract) would be Motown's concern. Iverson says
it was the trade talk, above all, that made him change his

"I was seriously mad," he says. "From that point on I promised
myself that I would never give anyone the ammo to [use against
me]. I looked back at the practices I missed. It was ridiculous--I
missed so many, and I was late for so many. I gave them ammo."

On July 8, Pat Croce flew to Hampton, Va., to take part in
Iverson's annual celebrity softball tournament. The two spent
several hours chatting--Iverson begging not to go to Clipland,
Croce explaining how things had to be. "He was pissed," says
Croce. "I told him that no one I know controls his destiny better
than he does. All he has to do is follow Coach Brown's rules, and
he won't go anywhere. It's that simple."

The trade talk died, but the heat did not. On Aug. 7--one month
after Magic Johnson had played in the softball fund
raiser--Iverson was to be a featured performer in A Midsummer
Night's Magic, Johnson's charity basketball game at UCLA.
Iverson, however, stayed out late the night before, overslept and
missed his flight to L.A. Orlando Magic swingman Tracy McGrady
also was a no-show. After thanking the participants, a livid
Johnson, who had been counseling Iverson in weekly phone
conversations, told the crowd, "You already know I am mad at the
ones who didn't show and told me they were coming."

Iverson tried to prove he was serious about growing up by
requesting the captaincy. Then in October--to the surprise of the
76ers, who knew Iverson was working on a rap album but had no
idea what was on it--Universal Records provided The Philadelphia
Inquirer with lyrics to 40 Bars, the first single on Iverson's
debut CD, Non-Fiction. In the song Iverson, a surprisingly
skilled rapper who goes by the alias Jewelz, uses the word nigga
12 times, bitch three. The line that has evoked the most outrage:
"Come to me with faggot tendencies./You be sleepin where the
maggots be."

"People who are into rap know what I'm talking about," says
Iverson, who insists that most of the offending references are
hardly outrageous by rap standards. "If I was trying to make
everyone happy, I could only rap about cartoons and the Rugrats.
My hip-hop fans wouldn't accept that."

Several civil rights groups demanded that Iverson apologize--he
did, in a halfhearted statement issued by the Sixers--and NBA
commissioner David Stern, while acknowledging Iverson's freedom
of speech, urged him to soften the album's lyrics. (Iverson
initially agreed to make changes in the final cut, which is due
out in February, but has since said he has changed his mind.)
Although Iverson offers the public a stoic front when faced with
criticism, these attacks stung. "I called him at the time, and he
was in pieces," says Ann Iverson, Allen's mother. "He said, 'Have
you heard what they're saying about me?' I said, 'You can't
change what people think. Just focus on being a good father
[Iverson has two children with his fiancee, Tawanna Turner], a
good leader and a good person.'"

"The league always has its eye on Allen, ready to yell or scream
when he does something wrong," says Raptors forward Charles
Oakley, one of many NBA players who have defended Iverson's
artistic efforts. "They want this kid to be someone else. They
let Jason Williams get away with murder because he's white, but
when Allen does something, they want to cry about it and call him
unruly. That ain't right." (Williams was, in fact, suspended for
the first five games of the season for violating the league's
drug policy.)

Two hours before last Saturday night's win at Miami, Iverson--who
will go on to score 24 points with seven rebounds and two
assists--sits by his cubby in the visiting locker room, cornrows
tight, tattoos adorning much of his body. The summer of 2000,
months past, will probably never fade from his memory. Maybe, a
decade from now and still a Sixer, Allen Iverson will consider it
a pivotal time in his life. Maybe, a decade from now and with his
seventh team, he will consider it the beginning of his downward
spiral. It may be all right to think me-giant, you-midget, but no
team can win a championship with a star who practices and plays
that way. Iverson's record on embracing this concept is about,
oh, four games long.

"I've learned some important s---," he says. "You're always
trying to learn, but sometimes it doesn't stick with you.
Because of the s--- I went through, I'm a more mature person and
a better basketball player."

What, he is asked, is the lesson of it all? Iverson, a nonstop
talker once he finds a roll, takes a second to think. "Mistakes
happen," says the 76ers co-captain, "but after a while you've
gotta stop making 'em twice."

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Turning the corner To complement his nearly unstoppable drives, Iverson has added a willingness to dish to his teammates.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Final Answer Bulked up to 172 pounds by visiting a place he used to shun--the weight room--Iverson is finishing with a flourish.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Captains crunch After fellow co-captain Snow made a clinching steal against Miami, Iverson was happy to take a back seat.

"I was seriously mad," says Iverson of the trade rumors. "I
looked back at the practices I missed--it was ridiculous. I gave
them ammo."