Joined: Jan 28, 2005
|Posted: Fri Jan 28, 2005 10:46 pm Post subject: ESPN Insider excerpts Good article
|Allen Iverson darts through the bowels of Philadelphia's Wachovia Center, moving fast enough to fracture a defender's lower extremities. Back and forth, back and forth. He stops on a dime, cuts left, bursts through a door, peeks into a room. He's looking for someone, searching for something.
One of the most unflappable guards in basketball is clearly rattled. A team meeting is approaching, and he's still got business to attend to. Finally, AI finds his quarry. Into the 76ers' weight room he goes. He swings his head from right to left, like a schoolboy checking for traffic. Grabbing a portable bench by one end, he drags it to a mirrored wall, next to a rack of dumbbells. He summons a rugged-looking dude in Timberlands and fitted cap.
"You gotta hurry. You got 15 minutes," AI barks.
His man pulls a pair of clippers from the pocket of his bubble goose-down coat and goes to work. The Sixers are about to get it on with the Pacers, and AI wants to look good. Mustache, sideburns, beard, the whole deal needs a touch-up.
A few minutes later, his boy is done, and proud of his performance. But AI finds a flaw. "Yo, get this out of my nose." It's a gray hair.
Allen Iverson has a gray hair? Well, think about it – it's been more than a decade since he first burst onto the national scene. The better question is why this rebellious, slapdash character, the guy who couldn't care less about what others think of him, needs to be perfectly groomed before he steps onto the floor.
Maybe it's because, as that stray follicle announces, he's not as young as he used to be. Maybe now, as he grows older, he cares more about his legacy. Or maybe it's just that he knows how easily someone can take advantage of another's flaw.
Obviously, he's been doing that forever on the court. What few know is he's been doing it for longer off it. Allen Iverson, the personification of hip-hop basketball, the gangsta lyricist who lifted the crossover dribble to the hallowed status of the windmill jam, is a pretty damn good caricaturist. "He's as talented an artist as he is a player," Philly GM Billy King says.
This season Iverson is creating a masterpiece on the court. He leads the NBA in scoring (28.9 ppg) and is seventh in assists (7.1) and fourth in steals (2.37). LeBron is the only other player to rank in the top 10 in all three categories. What's more impressive is that Iverson has the Sixers near the top of the Atlantic Division. As watered-down as the division is, if he can carry this roster of second-rate role players on his back to a playoff run, it will have to rank up there with the best of his work. And if he does keep this team afloat, it will be as much by what he does in the locker room and on the team plane as what he does on the hardwood.
* * *
WHEN HE puts pencil to paper, it's his teammates who are his favorite targets. If one of them makes the mistake of ribbing AI, it's on. Within minutes, the unfortunate soul has been committed to paper with the bugged-out eyes of a mad scientist or a belly the size of a medicine ball. And the entire squad is in stitches. Aaron McKie, AI's closest friend on the Sixers, gets the big-nose or thick-eyebrows treatment. John Salmons is a blockhead. "If you catch him looking at you, then looking down, then looking up at you again, you know you're in trouble," Salmons says.
Breaking into a smile as his barber lines his beard, Iverson says, "Drawing is something I do to make my teammates laugh, just to keep things loose."
He rarely draws himself. He says that the half-bald, half-braided guy rockin' the mike in a wifebeater on the preceding page is just some random nobody he concocted. But it's telling that, when The Magazine asked AI for a self-portrait, he submitted a sketch of an older man who bears striking similarities to himself. Iverson was the oldest player on Team USA last summer, and now he's inherited the departed Eric Snow's role as team leader of the Sixers.
Allen Iverson an NBA elder statesman? "I'm definitely feeling older," says Iverson, who is 29. "I've got to be a leader now."
If anything has become clear over the course of Iverson's nine-year career, it's that he is nothing if not unconventional, changing and challenging norms and standards rather than abiding by them. So it is no surprise that his first act of leadership was to change positions. It was he, not new coach Jim O'Brien, who first suggested he go back to the point, a spot he hadn't manned since his rookie season. AI felt the Sixers, with all their young thoroughbreds, were built to run, and that no one was better set to lead the sprint than the fastest man in the game.
"I told him, 'Well, I want you to be our point guard too,' " O'Brien says. "But I said, 'The last thing I want is for you to have a setup point guard mentality. I want you to be a scorer first and a passer second.' I think he said, 'Solid.' "
Iverson's move may not yet have transformed the Sixers into a contender, but it has made him more lethal than ever. Before, when he was running along the baseline, coming off screens as a 2-guard, he had to slow down momentarily to catch the ball and gather himself. Now, he has the ball in the open court more often. In half-court sets, he works off pick-and-rolls. Stopping AI has become the equivalent of corralling Barry Sanders one-on-one in the flat.
Ask Jamaal Tinsley, Carlos Arroyo or poor Maurice Williams what time it is. Each of them got thumped recently during one of the most impressive tears of Iverson's career. In six outings before Christmas, AI averaged 40 points on 52.5% shooting (Williams got billed for 94 points over two games). When he topped 50 in consecutive games, he accomplished something neither Wilt, Doc nor Sir Charles ever did in a Sixers uniform.
"At the point, the court is so wide open for me," Iverson says. "I'm in spots on the floor where guys can't trap me. I have the ball in my hands so much that I'm getting an opportunity to play my game at the highest level."
As crazy as Iverson's outburst was, it was not so out of the ordinary. But it's why we need to take a moment to sit back and reflect on what we are watching. Enjoy this while it lasts, because when he's done, we may not see the likes of AI again. Can we expect with any confidence another rail-thin sub-six-footer bouncing up after collisions like Walter Payton, pressing through pain like Ali and scoring with the frequency of George Gervin? Tiny Archibald, who at 6'1" led the NBA in scoring once, only had five seasons of big-time production. AI has been doing this now for nine years.
"Allen Iverson is the most uniquely dominant player I've ever seen in my 40 years of following basketball," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said, the day after Iverson pinned 40 on his team. "He's just proving he can do it at a different position."
After failing to hit a game-winning buzzer-beater in his first eight years, Iverson has sunk two this season. After the second – a steal and breakaway layup against the Wizards – he yelled like a pro wrestler, flexed his muscles, slapped hands with the courtside fans, then did an unprecedented dive into the Wachovia Center crowd. As the mob embraced him, the NBA's bad boy basked in the love. Healing was taking place.
* * *
IVERSON WAS stung late last season when fans in Philly turned on him for the first time. They sided with coach Chris Ford in his volatile and public dispute with the superstar over playing time and questioned the severity of Iverson's knee injury when he sat out the season's final 12 games. Getting booed on his home floor hurt the most. Iverson was blamed for driving away Larry Brown, then Randy Ayers, then Ford. It got so bad that, instead of watching home games from the bench, he sometimes sought shelter in his midlevel suite.
It is one of the great misconceptions about Iverson that he doesn't care about his public perception. Though he says he doesn't read what is written about him, people close to him say he is keenly aware of every word.
"The negative perceptions bother him all the time," says Gary Moore, Iverson's personal manager, who has known him for 21 years. Some of those perceptions come from those typical AI press conferences. There he is in a do-rag, brim tilted, red gold dangling, jeans sagging, white T reaching to his knees. He speaks in a solemn, raspy monotone, and smiles are rare. One gets the feeling Iverson wouldn't know a joke if one was dunked in his grill.
This is not the AI his teammates know. Outside the press room, he's a cutup. His caricatures are just one of the ways he keeps the Sixers laughing. Everyone knows he's a wannabe emcee, but he also sings R&B, bursting unbidden into song as if he owned the voice of Teddy Pendergrass. He routinely hits high notes in the Sixers' locker room before and after games. And he's a master impressionist, capable of hilariously dead-on imitations of Michael Jackson and James Brown. After practices last season, AI pulled his shorts up to his rib cage and mimicked the corny mannerisms and awkward jump shot of the team psychologist. Players and staff alike fell out. "I've always thought he was a creative genius," says Karen Frascona, the Sixers' vice president of communications. "The creative side of his brain is overdeveloped."
Iverson uses it liberally to rank on his crew. An hour before the Sixers hosted Seattle in November, he strolled into the locker room after getting some treatment. He sat down and began to unbox a new pair of his signature Answer shoes. And then he spotted Kedrick Brown a few seats to his right. Brown, who was on the injured list with a lower-back strain, is from Zachary, La., and on this day, he was looking every bit the hick, in an orange-and-brown plaid shirt that had a certain Old West feel. His boots were serviceable, but they weren't Timbs or Lugz. And that was all the ammunition AI needed.
"Look, the father from Little House on the Prairie is here," Iverson said loudly. Andre Iguodala, one of the few players in the room, smiled sheepishly, trying not to embarrass Brown. But as more players returned from warmups, Iverson bellowed again, "What are those on your feet – Fimberlands? I ain't never seen no Fimberlands." Brown, blushing by then, had to smile.
"He's always like that," Brown says. "People think he's a certain way because of how he is on the court, but they don't see him like we do. He's always smiling, laughing, singing, cracking jokes."
One player Iverson lets off the hook is Kyle Korver. He's taken the second-year sharpshooter under his wing, maybe because he knows Korver will keep teams from doubling and tripling him. Late in a game against the Nets last season, a despondent Korver walked in front of the Sixers' bench after a tough night. The first man to get to him was Iverson.
"He put his arm around me," Korver recalls, "and then he said, 'You know what, man? We've got to have you. If it's not this year, then next year and in the years to come. There are 82 games in a season. You can't be worried about one game. Keep your head up. We need you squeezing it.'
To have your All-Star, your captain, say that gives you a lot of confidence."
Of course, there is more to being a good teammate and leader than playing hard and handing out compliments. You also have to be responsible and own up to past misdeeds. Yeah, we talkin' 'bout practice.
After receiving the collective cold shoulder from Philly last season, Iverson is acting like he finally realizes what is expected of him. Before training camp began, he told members of the organization he knows he has to back up his words. Of course, every year he has arrived at training camp spouting righteous rhetoric, praising the coach and vowing to do better. Stories were written about his bonding with Coach Brown and his learning professionalism from McKie. But inevitably, controversy would break out like a bad rash.
By now Philly fans are tired of it. They want action. So far, Iverson has given the people what they want, arriving on time and staying after practice to shoot some more. He's even been spotted in the weight room a few times – and not just while he's getting a haircut. "I don't want anything off the court to be a distraction this year," Iverson says. "I don't want for us to have a disappointing season and have everybody point the finger at Allen Iverson."
After eight years of controversy, it will take more than a few months of compliance for the haters to believe Iverson has seen the light. The true test will come in March or April, when the Sixers may be outside the playoff picture looking in. Will AI be a fixture on the practice court then? Will he still play through the bumps and bruises? Will he still heed O'Brien's authority? The elder statesman in the drawing would.
* * *
SO, ABOUT this whole drawing thing ...
It was as a 5-year-old in Hampton, Va., that Iverson discovered his gift for art, and it wasn't long before he was skillfully recreating friends and family. But where the talent comes from is a mystery. "My mom can't draw nothing," he says.
Most likely, it comes, like his game, from simple willpower. "I just believe I can do whatever I want to if I put my mind to it," he says. "Whether it's basketball, football, drawing, whatever."
Iverson was somewhat renowned for his craft in Hampton. Never the bookish type, he sat in the back of class sketching a teammate during a lecture or the hoops coach during bus rides. He astounded his high school tutor, Sue Lambiotte, by drawing from memory. Without a photo to spark him, he'd nail a rendering of Al Sharpton – sweat suit, medallion, perm and all, or Snoop Dogg, lips flapping, in front of the mike.
Iverson's art is more than fun and games, though. It's therapeutic. In high school, when he was on trial for his part in a highly publicized brawl that nearly crushed his dream of playing pro ball, he worked through the trauma by drawing the public's two prevailing portrayals of him: Iverson the angel and Iverson the devil. Nowadays, when he needs to clear his head, he slips away from the card game on the team plane and takes to his notepad. "Drawing relaxes me," he says.
Iverson did take a few art classes at Georgetown, but never thought he would seriously use his skill. Now, though, he says he might consider a second career when he's done playing, like creating cartoons or calendars that would surely be a hit on eBay.
But for now, he puts his energy and focus into basketball. He's got a new position to master, old fans to win back and a young team to lead. He's got more 50-point gems to produce, more point guards to abuse and, in his fondest dreams, a championship to bring to Philly.
That would be a work of art.