In honor of the 14-year anniversary of Allen Iverson's MVP award, Sports Illustrated looks back at A.I.'s 2001 campaign and how the star learned to love his coach.
Editor's note: Fourteen years ago today, Allen Iverson was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player, becoming the shortest and lightest recipient of the award in league history. In honor of the anniversary, SI Vault decided to look back at Iverson's MVP campaign in 2001 and his precarious relationship with head coach Larry Brown. This feature originally ran on April 23, 2001 in Sports Illustrated.
Two women waited in a tunnel, outside a door. Light danced off the diamonds dangling from the black one, and a red rose jiggled in her hand. She was 39. She couldn't stand still. The white one stood by the wall, unornamented, holding her 92 years and her silence.
The door began to open and close. The younger one sang out greetings to the tall men coming out. Both women's eyes stayed fixed on the door.
At last the two shortest men of all exited the locker room. One wore the tailored suit, short gray hair and wire-rimmed spectacles of a tenured professor. The other's hair was stitched in cornrows, his skin covered with baggy clothes and tattoos. It was unusual that they walked out together. They had always been so far apart.
"That's my boy!" cried the younger woman. "My baby won the game!"
"That's my boy," the older woman said quietly. "He coached the game."
The women turned to face each other for the first time. "What's your name?" said the younger one.
"I'm Ann," said the older one. "I'm Larry Brown's mother."
"Oh my God! My name's Ann too!" hollered the younger woman. "I'm Allen Iverson's mother!"
"Oh, I know who Allen is," the elder said. "You've got a good little boy."
Ann Iverson thrust her rose into the other Ann's hand. Larry's mom gave Allen's mom her phone number at the nursing home and urged her to call. The two sons watched all this, then headed away, each with his own mother, into the night.
Larry and Allen always did that—walked off, with their histories, in different directions. Theirs was the most studied relationship in the NBA, watched as closely as a weather vane to see if the storm clouds on the league's horizon were about to blow in and burst. If the 60-year-old Jewish grandfather and the 25-year-old rapper, arguably the best coach and the best player in the game, could emerge from their cultural bunkers and work together, then perhaps the growing divide between players and coaches, between philosophies and generations, could be bridged as well.
Larry and Allen had so much in common, if they just stopped fixating on their differences. Both were raised by single moms. Both were the smallest guys on every court they played on, all heart and hunger—Larry diving across floors so often he now hobbled on replacement hips, Allen skidding and bouncing toward the same fate. Each so sensitive that one word or look from the other could inflict deep pain. Both, even with their 35-year difference in age, going home every day to the noise, toys and sticky hugs of small children: Allen to his three-year-old boy and six-year-old girl, Larry to his three-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. Both living in multimillion-dollar Main Line estates on the outskirts of Philly, only a few miles apart. Both feeling terribly misunderstood.
Anyone who witnessed a 76ers game, who saw the veins pop on Larry's forehead as he sat coiled on the bench, who watched Allen dip and dart relentlessly when he didn't have the ball and hurl his 165-pound body into the mayhem when he did, knew immediately that they were the two men who cared the most. Their passion entwined them: Each needed the other, completely, to have a prayer of doing what they both had to do. Win. Everything.
They began to grope their way toward each other this season after a summer when all seemed lost, when Larry nearly took the North Carolina job and Allen was all but gone in a trade. Their turn from the brink altered team dynamics so dramatically that it hurtled the Sixers to the league's second-best record this season. Still, it remained the most volatile of relationships, so painful at times for Larry that his wife, Shelly, told him a few months ago that maybe he should quit, so charged with potential that he and Allen could end up side by side on a float rolling down Broad Street this June.
It's none of my business, of course. But with so much at stake—in a sport that hinges, more than any other, on relationships—why let those two mothers and sons walk away, as they did that night in Miami two years ago? Why not sit them all down and have the Anns tell each other's son their tale? Defy those two boys to remain misunderstood....
Ann Iverson would order up a glass of blush wine before telling her story, stick a straw in it and ring that straw with lipstick, flaming red. She'd wear what she wears to Sixers games: mink hat and mink coat over a custom-made IVERSON'S MOM number 3 jersey flapping down to her knees over a shirt festooned with the same words and images that are tattooed on her son's skin, along with a pair of Reebok sneakers and a couple hundred thousand dollars' worth of jewelry. She'd be ready to talk all night, because she'd slept all day. Her nickname is Juicy.
Allen Iverson was conceived without intercourse. That was 1 a.m. on Sept. 22, 1974 at my grandmother's house in Hartford. I'd made up my mind that on my 15th birthday I'd have my first sexual encounter, with Allen Broughton. He was a point guard, and the leader of a gang called the Family Connection—he was only a year older than me, but he had 40- and 50-year-old men under him! We'd been goin' together since I was 12, but I'd told him I wasn't gonna have sex with him till I was 15. I thought that was a decent time to wait.
We had it all planned. At midnight of my birthday, when everyone was asleep, he tapped on the back door. I was in my pj's and robe. We went down to the basement and used an old mattress that was down there. He started grindin' against me—he never put it in—and before you know it.... Then I heard the bathroom door upstairs—Grandma was awake! I got him out of the house quick. Eight weeks later I took a physical for basketball, and they told me I was eight weeks pregnant. I said to the doctor, "You're tellin' a story!" They took the test again, and the doctor called my grandma in and said, "Your granddaughter's gonna have a baby, but she hasn't been penetrated."
I'm tellin' ya, I look at Allen and I say, God had a plan for him and me.
Ann Brown would order cranberry juice but leave most of it in the glass. She doesn't have much thirst or appetite any more. Her name, officially, is Mrs. Alpern—that was the name of her deceased second husband—but she'd answer to Mrs. Brown for those likelier to know her by the surname of her two coaching sons and her deceased first husband. She'd wear slacks and a sweater, and a scarf to give her some color now that her red hair has gone to wispy curls of white. Her only jewelry would be a wristwatch and a 1988 Kansas national championship brooch on a necklace tucked beneath her blouse. She'd say that brooch meant everything to her, but no one needed to see it.
I met Milton in Brooklyn when I was 26. He was a furniture salesman. Milton had loads of personality. We looked like brother and sister. He was a worker, and so was I. Herbert was born first. He was colicky, such a crybaby I'd have to take him out in the hallway—I'd go out of my mind. I had an appendix attack when he was three weeks old. A second child? I didn't want to have another one after what I'd gone through, but Milton insisted. He thought something was wrong with me when it took so long to have another one.
Four-and-a-half years later, Larry was born. He was an angel, so quiet and gentle. I never had to correct him. Herb was wonderful as well, but he would flare up, more like his father. Larry was like me. I don't think he ever got in trouble, thank God! Does it sound like I'm saying this in conceit? He's so polite, just a very good soul. It's so nice to be nice, don't you think? Now I'm bragging to you, and I don't mean to brag. I'm sorry.
The Sixers did leg lifts at the beginning of practice. Larry lay down and did them with the team. Allen lay still and stared at the ceiling. Then the Sixers and Larry rolled over and did push-ups. Allen rolled over and grunted, but his body didn't leave the floor.
How many NBA coaches stopped practice a half-dozen times to teach their players the right way to execute a pick-and-roll? Exactly where the feet should go, when the teammate should rub past, how the pick-setter's hips should turn to the basket. Larry did. He lived to teach the game. He lived for practices.
Allen listened for a moment. Then his feet did a little hop, his arms a little dance move. Suddenly he hurled a basketball the length of the court. It slammed off the backboard, its echo bouncing off the walls.
We come from slaves down in Georgia. My father's name was Willie Lee Iverson—6'5" and good-lookin', and Papa was a rollin' stone, yeah, yeah. He had 17 children by four women, and I was the oldest one, and they say I'm like him. I didn't wear no dress. I climbed trees and kicked ass. My mother was a waitress. She died when I was 12, when they tied her tubes wrong and her bowels got infected, and that was the most devastatin' thing of my life. I was sittin' in a chair that night with a sheet pulled over my head so I could talk on the phone in privacy, when I hear my sister Jessie say, "Ann, somethin' wrong with Mama." Pulled that sheet off and Mama was doubled over.
The ambulance came and I was squeezin' down the steps beside her and I told her I wanted to go with her. She said, "No, you watch Jessie and Stevie and Greggy for me." And I said, "I'll do that." I didn't realize it then but I sure did later—she didn't mean watch my sister and brothers just that night. She meant for good.
They had to pay us for the mistake they made on my mother. We got 3,818 dollars and 18 cents. Don't forget that 18 cents.
I cried in bed 'most every night after she died. I remember one night she came to me in a dream and told me to stop cryin', that things would get better. I felt good, seein' her...but there were still roaches runnin' cross the floor when I woke up.
My grandmother decided us four kids needed to stay with her instead of my father. Ethel Mitchell was the sweetest human being. Her husband said he was done raisin' kids, so she gave up her house and her marriage for us, two months after Mama died, and raised us up. Family stayin' together, that's what that woman was all about.
Five months pregnant with Allen Iverson, and I'm still playin' basketball. I'd go into a game and try to take it right then and there, run ahead of all my teammates. "Slow down! Pass the ball!" Coach Evans used to holler at me. Coach would paddle me when I needed it, but she never disciplined me in the street, never in front of people. Never disrespected me. She kept it in the family.
Then I got in a fight with a girl who wanted Allen Broughton. Still pregnant. My 38th fight and I'd lost only once—to twin boys. But that was it for my grandma. She packed that house up in one week and moved us to Hampton, Virginia, where she came from.
That's where Allen was born. When the nurse brought him to me, I looked at his little body and saw those long arms and said, Lord, he's gonna be a basketball player! His uncles, Bubba and Chuck, wanted me to nickname him after them, so I nicknamed him after both. All his family and friends call him Bubba Chuck.
My cousins moved in with us, six of 'em and their mom. That made 13 of us in a two-bedroom house—six teenagers, the rest under 10. Bubba Chuck was more like a little brother to me than a son. Here I was a 15-year-old worryin' each mornin' about a baby and gettin' my sister and two brothers off to school. I'd wake up at night and feel Allen's chest, make sure his heart was beatin', and think, dag, this is my baby. He's relyin' on me. If I don't do right, he won't do right.
He had a picture in his mind. In its foreground sat Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, appearing year after year at all those playoff press conferences against a backdrop bearing the NBA logo, wearing $2,000 suits with pressed shirts and silk ties. Pure class, thought Larry, who himself has been known to order 10 suits, 15 ties and 20 shirts on a stroll through a custom clothing store.
He knew one picture like that could begin to relax all the white people made tense by Allen's tattoos and cornrows and 'do rag. That's what Larry wanted to do for Allen when the Sixers finally made the playoffs. So in April 1999, Larry required coats and ties for the first-round trip to Orlando. Allen removed his untied boots, his floor-sweeping jeans, his untucked T-shirt and double-sized leather jacket. He wore a grey pin-striped Versace suit into the locker room. "See how good you look?" said Larry. Allen took the suit off and left it in a ball on the locker room floor.
My father was the baker for the czar of Russia. My mother's family was in the junk business. I was one of eight. We came to Brooklyn from Minsk in 1910, but I can't tell you anything about it. I was three when we left Russia and I don't remember it, and my parents never talked about it—they were too busy in the bakery. Everyone was too busy. I grew up on my own. I started at about 12, washing dishes, then working the counter. My father kept selling bakeries and buying new ones. He made money that way, I guess. We moved like gypsies.
My father had a heart attack when he was 50. After that, he sat in a chair near the front door and kissed the women as they came in, and gave out samples of rugelach. That's a pastry with cream cheese, nuts and raisins, rolled into twists. Everyone loved him—he was like the mayor. My mother took over running the business, but she died of walking pneumonia when she was 57. So my brothers, who were supposed to get an education, ended up staying in the bakery too. We were always there for each other. Never thought I'd end up in a bakery all those years. But who ever thought Milton....
What happened was this: Milton got a new job, a promotion, traveling all over Pennsylvania as a sales representative for his furniture company. Used to worry me sick, him driving hundreds of miles back to Brooklyn every Friday night to be with me and the boys for the weekend. How those boys loved him. He'd take them to games, play ball with them. I'd sit on the stoop and tie a rope around Larry's waist while he'd play around with a ball.
I couldn't stand Milton having to drive that far, so we moved to Pittsburgh when Larry was six. Milton insisted on buying our first house. We were just about to move into it when Milton came home on a Friday from work. He said he didn't feel well....
Allen woke up feeling like hell. The shootaround was scheduled for 11 a.m. late last season in Miami. Sure, he'd been out till 1:30 at the All-Star Cafe in South Beach, but that wasn't a late night for him. His body ached from slamming into men a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier every game, and his ankles and feet hurt so much he had to wear slippers around the hotel. If only they would do away with practice. If only he could just hole up all day and recover, he'd be ready to go to war again by game time that night. He picked up the phone, but he didn't call Larry. He called the trainer and said he had a headache.
At the shootaround Larry looked at his watch. To ensure that he was never late, Larry set his clocks at home so far ahead that he often arrived at places 20 minutes early. He looked at the trainer. Wasn't aspirin invented for headaches? What was this, the 40th or 45th time this season Allen had been late or hadn't shown up? Not to mention all the times he had hidden in the bathroom and gorged on tacos while the rest of the team lifted weights.
That night Allen sat slumped in the locker room. He couldn't believe that he'd been suspended and that his coach had criticized him in front of the media. "I've been here four years," he said. "They know who I am as a competitor. So don't question my heart."
When Bubba Chuck was three, I told him, "You're the man of the house. You gotta do whatever you gotta do to become a man." I'd just moved out of Grandma's and moved in with Michael Freeman. He was a welder at the shipyard. I moved out two months later to be on my own, but he'd come over and visit after work most days, stay a few hours. He's the father of Allen's two sisters and he's a good man—the drugs he sold and went to prison for weren't for buyin' fancy cars and jewelry; they were for puttin' food in our refrigerator. But Bubba Chuck was the man of the house.
We moved to the ghetto, and five kids jumped Allen. He ran to get his fishin' rod to fight with. I took him back and told him he had to fight one-on-one with fists. He beat two of 'em. Rest backed off. Bubba Chuck was—what?—seven? He played football in my grandmother's backyard with my brothers and the kids next door. They were all much older. They'd pick him up and throw him against the house, and he'd come in cryin'. I'd send him right back out. I wanted him to play basketball, but he said basketball was too soft. Michael Freeman took him to the court to let his ass get hammered. He was 10. Look how he gets beat down today and keeps gettin' back up.
I worked for Amway, and they taught me to set goals so I could realize my dreams. Can you believe that—bunch of white people tellin' me to set goalsbut that was the best thing I could've had. 'Cause all I had in the 'hood was people tellin' me how to sell drugs. I'll be honest, it was white people who lifted me up. Not black people.
Had to do lots of things to get us by. Can't tell you everything, gotta save some things for when I do my book. I drove a forklift. I was a secretary at Langley Air Force Base. Was a welder at the shipyard. Worked the counter at a convenience store, watched men walk right in and steal beer. Made the money I needed to bury Grandma playin' bingo. Men would lend me money till my SSI check came for my daughter—she was disabled with seizures. Bubba Chuck? He never worked a job—no! It was my job to take care of him. Only chore he ever had to do was take out the garbage. I cleaned his room my daggone self.
One day I came back to the projects from visitin' relatives in Hartford. All of a sudden, they're tellin' me I owed $32 and had to leave my house. I had $360 in my pocket but they wouldn't let me pay—they evicted us! My daughter and I went into a shelter for homeless mothers, but Bubba Chuck wouldn't go; he couldn't bear it. He moved in with his old football coach Gary Moore. He was 14 years old.
I didn't hide none of it from him. Whenever I took a bump, he was right there with me. He knows everything there is to know about me. But my kids didn't wake up every mornin' and see a different nigga in my bed or a different pair of shoes under it. I taught Bubba Chuck to go straight at a problem. Call me a top-dog bitch. If I gotta be one, that's the way I carry.
"It's about f---in' time," snarled Allen, when Larry sent him back into a game two years ago against the Cleveland Cavaliers, after he'd been out for two minutes and three seconds. He often cursed when Larry pulled him out of games, then sat on the far end of the bench with a towel over his head, the way his mother used to do with a sheet when she needed to be alone in a crowded house. In five decades of basketball, Larry had never seen or heard anything like it, so he knew it wouldn't go down well the following season when he yanked Allen and four other starters with 8:15 left in the third quarter and the Sixers trailing the Detroit Pistons by 23 points, and never put Allen back in. "I've never been done like that in my career," Allen seethed in the locker room. "If that's the way it is, something needs to happen. Something's got to give. I mean every word I'm saying. Every single word."
Larry was standing 10 feet away. He didn't say a word. He just walked away.
We never talked about it, the boys and I. Not when it happened. Not afterward. I can't believe I'm talking about it now.
Milton didn't want to make a fuss. Finally he told me to call the doctor—doctors made house calls in those days—but the doctor had a birthday party to go to, so he didn't come until the next day. When he finally did, he said Milton should go to the hospital, but the hospital said there were no beds. So we waited another day. I took him at about seven that evening. I didn't tell the boys. They were at a movie. Milton didn't even want me to come up and see him in his room. I left after he got checked in, went home and got a call. He was dead. Imagine the shock. An aneurysm. By then the boys were in bed. When they woke up, the mirrors were covered with cloth. That's a Jewish tradition. My brother Joe and sister Edith had driven in from New York during the night. Herb knew something was wrong. But I couldn't tell him. Finally Joe told him his father had died, and Herb started punching him and crying. How could I tell Larry? He was six. He asked where his father was. We said he was on the road.
We sent him to a relative's house. You couldn't have a child that age at a funeral. We didn't tell him for a month that his father had died. We kept telling him he was off on business. He's still hurt that he wasn't told and didn't go to the funeral.
You know when I saw how much he still missed his father? I went to visit him once after he was married, and he had a cigar in his mouth. I said, "Larry, you don't smoke!" He said, "I just keep them in my mouth, I don't light them." Then he said, "Dad used to have cigars—didn't he?"
Two days after the benching in Detroit, they sat across from each other in a room. Allen with his arms wrapped around himself, smoldering. Larry with his head tucked into his shoulders, loathing confrontation, furious that team president Pat Croce was forcing them to spill everything on the table. The table, that's what Larry crawled under at restaurants when his wife asked the waiter to take her blood-red steak back and do it medium, the way she'd asked.
"Each needed the other to have a prayer of doing what they both had to do. Win."
Allen was tormented by the knowledge that Larry could leave him by the roadside.
"Coach's voice," says Iverson, "will never leave my head as long as I live."
"If I were a player," says Brown, "he'd be one of my best friends."
Croce was scared. Larry had demanded that Allen be traded or he himself would quit. Allen had demanded that Larry be fired or that he be traded. Croce felt the whole franchise quaking under his feet. "Allen," said Croce, "I don't think Coach likes you."
Allen erupted at Larry. "You say this team's a family when it's convenient, but then you go talk about me in the newspapers," he said. "If it's really family, then you keep it in the family! You don't disrespect me like that. There are times when you're coaching me and I'm looking at you, trying to learn, and I can tell you're thinking I don't give a f--- what you have to say. You think I'm not listening because of an expression on my face. Well, I hear you. I hear everything!"
"Are you finished?" Larry said.
"Do I ask you if you're finished when you talk to me?"
"Coach," said Croce, "I get the feeling that the way you act toward Allen feels to him like what the police and the judicial system did in Virginia after he came out of that bowling alley."
Larry's jaw dropped. The biggest hero in his life was Jackie Robinson. He'd never dreamed he could come across like that.
Go look at the sidewalk at 3710 Jordan Drive. It says, FREE IVERSON, SIMMONS, WAYNE AND STEVENS. I took a stick and wrote that in wet cement. That's the four black kids got put in jail.
Allen come home one day with a lump on his head and a headache. Fight had started at the bowlin' alley between whites and blacks over somethin' said. He told me his friends had pulled him out, he hadn't done nothin'. "They didn't want me gettin' in no trouble," he said. "They my niggas." He'd just quarterbacked the football team at Bethel High to the state championship and was doin' the same with the basketball team. Next thing I know they're arrestin' Allen and three other black boys.
All his life, every day when I left for work in summer, I'd tell Bubba Chuck, "You watch your sister and be good. God see everything you do." And that's what came right back at me now. Allen said, "Mama, how can that be? If God see everything I do, why'm I gettin' charged with this?" My grandmother told him, "Don't question God," and he never complained a word after that.
That trial was the first time he wore a suit and tie. I made him wear one to court. He hates 'em now. They remind him of then. You can't expect guys who grew up like he did to be in a suit and tie.
He didn't cry when they took him off in handcuffs to jail. I didn't either—wasn't gonna let my son see that. But my tears got in my eyes after they took him. I cried every night he was in prison. Day he walked back through the door, we clenched so hard, I felt like I was goin' up to heaven.
He'd changed in jail. He'd seen the world right in front of his eyes, and he knew what people could do to you. But I liked the change. When he came out, he took no s---.
Larry came out of the locker room ashen. It had been another one of those nights when his star had played as if he didn't understand that a team was a family.
He looked down the tunnel. There stood Allen, hugging and kissing his mother, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, childhood friends, old coaches and teachers—the reunion that awaited him after nearly every home game.
Larry turned to greet his own family. Allen's face lit up when he saw Larry's wife and two kids. He came over and gave Shelly a hug, L.J. a high five and Madison a squeeze.
Larry walked in silence to his car. He'd turned the pieces every which way. And still they never fit.
Milton left no estate. My sisters and brothers were always there for each other, but I hated being a burden. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to pay them back. At first we had to move in with my sister Cassie and her husband, Irving. Cassie lost four fingers in a bread-slicing machine. Oh, it was terrible. Irving was from Hungary and he was gorgeous, but he was so mean to the boys, so mean I had to move us out. We moved into the rooms above the new bakery my family opened. It was in Long Beach, on Long Island.
I'd open the shop at 6 a.m. and work till 10 p.m. or sometimes midnight, seven days a week. I got varicose veins from being on my feet all day—I was exhausted. What I wanted was to be a toe dancer, or play the piano or take art lessons. But I never complained. Who would I complain to? I think I was an asset to the business. Does it sound like I'm saying that in conceit?
Larry was like me, hating having to depend on my family for money and things. Do you know, he'd go buy cookies from the A&P a couple doors down rather than come into the bakery and eat the cakes for free? A lot of days, I'd leave before the boys were awake and come back home when they were asleep. I worried they were lonely. I knew they were unhappy. I thought of them all day. But I always knew where they were. I could look out the window and see them playing basketball across the street at Central School. Larry became a wonderful player. Do you know he scored 50 points in a high school game?
We moved to different apartments, looking for a better place. There were wealthy children all around the boys, and they were embarrassed because we didn't have much. Larry was so upset when he only had an accordion player at his bar mitzvah and his friends had all had bands. I felt terrible, but I never told the boys I was hurt or how hard things were. I just wouldn't. I felt so bad for them, not having a father. I felt they were cheated. I couldn't even face them. It was easier in a way to work those hours. I'd forget everything when I worked. Then they'd go to camp for two months each summer. That was a wonderful experience for them, don't you think?
Larry walked onto the campus at North Carolina to play basketball in 1959, and his story was no longer one that his mother could tell. The Tar Heels were the closest he'd ever come to what he'd dreamed a family could be. All a boy had to do was sacrifice his ego and do things the Carolina way, the Right Way, to belong.
You set picks. Helped teammates on defense. Practiced over and over the footwork on a drop-step or a box-out or an L-cut. Hit the boards. Hit the floor. Hit the open man. Acknowledged the assist. Celebrated the assist. It all smelled so much like the first-generation immigrants' code he'd inhaled throughout his childhood: People who came along before you figured out the right way to do things. If you failed to follow them, you disrespected them, you put yourself above them. It spilled over to life off the court. Opening doors for people, hustling across the street to help an old woman carry her bags, being on time, dressing sharp, shucking off praise, controlling your emotions were all part of the Right Way. Once you got everyone around you doing it that way, the victories piled up, the family grew tighter, and years after you had left, you remained part of a clan that at any hour could call or visit the father who never left: Dean Smith.
Larry led the ABA in assists his first three years as a pro, set the ABA assist record with 23 in a game. Then he became a coach, the keeper of a legacy, a branch of his sport's most legendary family tree. James Naismith, who invented the game, taught PhogAllen. Phog Allen taught Dean Smith. Dean Smith taught Larry. It was a source of deep pride, the only thing Larry ever came even close to saying in conceit: "My background," he'd say softly, ducking his head, "is probably better than anyone's."
No coach was ever quicker than Larry at converting a collection of guys into a family. At UCLA he'd teach the freshmen at dinner how to start with the silverware on the outside. In the pros he took new players to look for apartments or cars and shoved restaurant tables together so his team could gather for a feast.
No coach was ever quicker at spotting the smallest misstep, the slightest detour off the Right Way. He could stop a slam-bang scrimmage and tell every player exactly what he'd done on his last two trips up and down the court, as if a camera were clicking at each instant, seeing each of the pieces in the swirling whole. He'd stop game film and inspect the body language of players on the bench to see who was truly committed to the Right Way.
It was a purist's approach that seemed more suited to college than the pros, yet it worked, almost instantly, everywhere. He took the next-to-last-place Carolina Cougars to a 57-27 first-place finish in his first head coaching job, in 1972-73, then, two years later, the last-place Denver Rockets on an ABA-record 65-19 ride. His first UCLA team started four freshman in 1979-80 and reached the NCAA championship game. Three years later he had the laughable New Jersey Nets humming at 47-29 when he left to coach at Kansas. Five years after that, he and his assistants felt so much like family that they all squeezed their left testicle in crunch time for luck, and the Jayhawks squeezed out their first NCAA crown since 1952. In the nine years that followed, his San Antonio Spurs, L.A. Clippers and Indiana Pacers all went further than they'd ever gone before.
At each new place, he arrived flush with hope that here he'd begin carving out the long-lasting father-son relationships with his players that he treasured. Somehow, though, his sensitive heart would begin recording reasons why this was not the perfect family, the perfect home. Then—three times in 50 months in one dizzying stretch—he'd be gone. Some players would be bitter, some relieved. Many would cry.
He and his brother, Herb, a college and professional coach for 40 years, drifted apart, and barely spoke for years. His mother, aunts and uncles wondered why they rarely saw or heard from Larry...and his wives did too. He had two children in his first marriage, remarried and adopted his second wife's daughter, then married a third time and had two more children. Through it all, he remained one of the shyest, sweetest gentlemen you'd ever want to meet.
Then, in May 1997, with time running out in his coaching life, came his ninth team in 26 years—the worst-record-in-the-NBA 76ers. And the player whom he'd already told himself he couldn't coach. Allen Iverson.
I wanted Larry to get rid of him. He was so much trouble; Larry tolerated him a great deal. But look at him now. He's the most exciting player to watch. He's very alert. I just want those big fellas to leave him alone. I can't stand the way they knock him around.
The trouble is, Larry keeps all his problems inside. He doesn't sleep. I'm the same way. I miss him terribly, but he has no time—but I forgive him. He hasn't got a meanness in him. He's given me so much pleasure. You can tell him that.
"Wherever I go, everyone goes. Whenever I eat, everyone eats." This Allen promised his family and friends on the eve of his selection, at No. 1, in the 1996 NBA draft. He called that Keepin' It Real.
His eyes moist, he told his aunts and uncles that his talent was God's compensation to the Iversons for all their pain and loss, for Grandma Ethel's death in a diabetic coma in 1994, for the wrongful death of Ann's mother's in the early '70s, for the fathers who had vanished and the poverty that had rushed in to fill their place. He was the payback. He'd carry them all to the top, buy them houses and cars and cut them checks, shout down their squabbles on his cell phone in the bowels of arenas 40 minutes before games, go out and drop another 40, and sometimes, when it was all too much, check into a hotel rather than stay at one of his crowded houses. "I make all that money," he said, "and it ain't enough. I gotta make more to help all the people around me."
That's how the Iversons saw life: It was a circle, forever arcing back to old times and old pain. Keepin' It Real meant keeping the same friends and girlfriend he'd had since he was 16, before jail and before fame made everything suspect. It meant covering himself with 21 tattoos, virtually all about loyalty and strength, and wanting desperately to wear the same team's uniform his entire pro career. It meant staying inside the circle, never looking beyond it to find himself. At 4 a.m., on his way home from a club, he'd dial his mother—the third time he'd spoken to her that day—and say, I just called to tell you I love you and to thank you for having me. When his shooting touch went cold, she hurried to the bench and rubbed holy oil on his forehead, while Larry did a double take.
Keepin' It Real permitted Allen to sell without selling out. Permitted him to accept $50 million to hawk Reebok sneakers—as long as they had to drag him from his bed to get to the Reebok ad shoot two hours late and he didn't have to backslap or small-talk anyone. Permitted him to take white man's money after white justice had flung him in jail. Permitted him to blow off shootarounds, as long as he treated every game like a bayonet charge. To be late for a team bus, then stroll aboard and crack up everyone with his impersonations of players and coaches, his uncanny caricatures of them sketched on napkins, his rendition of Michael Jackson's Thriller video, staggering zombies and all. To be the Man of the House, as long as he could remain the little boy. To launch 27 shots a game because life was not about winning the Right Way, but any freakin' way you could.
Is it any wonder what those first three years together held for the son of Ann Iverson and the son of Ann Brown? Any surprise that the kid who lived life in a circle and the man who lived it in a line—away, straight away from the past and the pain—forever bewildered and enraged each other? "This team," says Sixers general manager Billy King, "felt the tension between Larry andAllen every day."
Of Allen's story Larry knew but a little, mostly about the bowling-alley incident and his two years at Georgetown. Of Larry's past, Allen knew virtually nothing beyond what a few players on other teams had told him: The cat knows the game, but he'll try to get in your head, try to mess with your game, look out.
No, the only wonder was that they remained together. After all, Larry possessed complete control over personnel decisions, more power than he'd ever had over a franchise: He could have traded Allen whenever he wished. But where would he again find such a warrior, such a bundle of quickness and energy and heart? So, instead, he traded or cut everyone else, literally—including such offensive talents as Jerry Stackhouse, Jim Jackson, Derrick Coleman, Tim Thomas and Larry Hughes. He began surrounding Allen with so many players who did it the Right Way that Allen could do it some other way and it might still turn out right, and the Sixers might yet become a lopsided but lovable family that delivered Larry the one thing he didn't have to go with the Olympic gold medals he'd won as a player and as an assistant coach, and his NCAA title: an NBA ring.
That is, until last summer, when Larry couldn't bear another day of selling out Dean and Phog and James. He had King cobble together a four-team, 22-player trade. Allen paced the floor at night, unable to sleep or eat, tormented by the knowledge that Larry could leave him by the roadside.
Allen called Croce, the tattooed team president who sat with him in the trainer's room before every home game, one of the few white men he'd trusted since the handcuff creases had faded from his wrists, perhaps the only executive in sports who could have held this relationship together even as long as this. For an hour and a half, he said the same words over and over: I'm gonna change. I'm gonna get married. I'm buyin' a big house. I'm ready to be a leader. I wanna be a captain. I'm gonna be on time. I can do it. Croce believed him, but it was only the decision by one of the other players involved in the deal—Sixers center Matt Geiger's refusal to waive his contractual right to a 15% bonus should he be traded—that kept Larry from turning Allen into a Piston.
Allen met with Larry just before camp and repeated his vows. "I want to have the kind of relationship with you," he said, "that Magic Johnson had with Pat Riley and Michael Jordan had with Phil Jackson." Those words touched Larry. That's all he'd ever wanted, too. The reaching out began.
It's still a work in progress. Remember that, no matter what you might've read or seen on TV. It began in chaos, a training camp convulsed by controversy over lyrics on Allen's as-yet-unreleased first rap CD. Coach Brown held his tongue. Co-captain Iverson kept his vows. The Sixers shot out to a 10-0 start, opening a gap their Eastern Conference rivals never closed. Teammates who'd quietly resented Allen's trigger finger when he wasn't showing up in the weight room or at practice were satisfied now that he was, and the victories kept piling up.
No doubt you know about Larry and Allen's shiniest moment, when Allen's fourth-quarter explosion carried the East All-Star team, which Larry was coaching, to a back-from-the-dead win over the West, and Allen's first breathless words at the podium after receiving the game's MVP award were, "Where's my coach? Where's my coach?" What you didn't see was what the Jewish grandfather carried in his pocket the second half of the season: a black crucifix given to him by Ann Iverson.
What you didn't hear was Allen stepping into the van awaiting him after practice one day and announcing, out of the blue, to his bodyguard-driver, "Man, I'm gonna win this man a ring. He's been in the league all this time and come so close and never got one. His first one gonna be my first one. Can't wait to see his face when I pour that champagne on his head."
What you might've noticed was Allen beginning to dish the ball more often to teammates when he was double-teamed. What you might've missed was Larry making a point of smiling and saying hello to Allen's tribe as he departed the locker room. Allen making eye contact and nodding when Larry gave him on-court instructions. Larry asking Allen into his office for input before February's Theo Ratliff-and-Toni Kukoc-for-Dikembe Mutombo trade. Larry giving Allen pats on the butt, and Allen giving Larry hugs.
Each man keeps forcing the other to discover the piece of himself he'd left somewhere behind. Allen began learning that a little trust and responsibility didn't make him someone's lackey. Larry began learning that he could let go a little without the world spinning out of control. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but traces of the circle began appearing in his life. He asked his brother, Herb, to be an assistant coach with the Sixers this year, and the two men who once barely spoke now talk away the half-hour in the car on their way to and from games.
"I'm learning how to talk to him when I have a problem," says Allen, "and he's learning to talk to me. We've both learned a lot about basketball and life. I know one thing. Coach's voice will never leave my head as long as I live."
"There are things that still drive you crazy," says Larry. "I've never had a challenge like this, but it's happening in little steps. It's 8,000 times better than it was. I don't judge anymore. I don't look at things so much as right or wrong. I realize now he's not trying to disrespect his teammates or provoke a reaction. It's just the way he is. I keep reminding myself of how he treats his mother and his family. He's got such a big heart. If I were a player, he'd be one of my best friends. It's a joy to see people focusing on the good things. He could do more for the game than anyone because of who he was and how he's changing. It could be the story of what our league is all about."
In living rooms and NBA arenas everywhere, people who once recoiled from Allen now watched him in a conflicted state of grudging wonder at his will and his work ethic. But beware, because the bridge between Allen and Larry still trembles. Allen stormed out of a practice in December when Larry waived Vernon Maxwell, a buddy of Allen's. At a team breakfast meeting in Chicago that same month, Allen let his coach have it. Larry's ceaseless dissatisfaction, he said, was grinding down the Sixers, making them feel as if they were losers instead of a first-place team.
Larry waited—surely someone would come to his defense. The room remained silent. All the old pain flared through his heart, all the old need to leave before he was left rushed up his throat. He coached that night's victory over the Chicago Bulls in monosyllables, thinking it might be the last 76ers game he coached. Then he flew back to Philly so distraught that he felt ill, unable to step onto the practice floor but nauseated by the knowledge that if he didn't—if, in mid-season, he left an unheralded team that then owned the NBA's best record—his legacy would be sealed as a hit-and-run driver instead of as a Hall of Fame coach. He missed two practices. His wife, an unending source of encouragement, looked at his sallow face and told him that perhaps he should quit.
Larry returned, but a few months later, as pain kept stabbing his chest wall, he submitted to tests that revealed a hiatal hernia and acid reflux. Somehow, Mr. Brown, said his doctor, you'd better take more care with your diet and stop swallowing so much stress.
Before every Sixers playoff game this year, Larry's 94-year-old mother will turn on the television and sit in the green chair beside the flowery bedspread in her nursing home in Charlotte. If the Sixers cannot forge an early lead, she'll slowly rise, turn off the TV, grip her walker and pace the living room, kitchen and bedroom, noticing the spots that needed dusting, until she feels it's safe to return to the TV and check again.
Four-hundred-and-fifty miles north, in a house just outside Philadelphia, Allen's mother will wake up late in the afternoon, get all her "tootin' and burpin' out" on her abdominal exercise machine, then do a half hour on her cardiovascular machine to keep her blood pressure from climbing to the near-fatal numbers it reached a few years ago. She'll bathe, dress and work the phones, make sure no one in her vast clan is in need, then apply the finishing cosmetic touches. She'll gather her folder full of pictures of her son to sign and give, along with hugs and admonitions to stay in school and Keep It Real, to the children who'll flock around her. Right before the game starts, she'll look over at the bench, at her son and that man.
Every young man needs an old man. Because getting older is like climbing a mountain. Each year, the older you get, the higher you are, the more distance you can see. You can warn the people below you what you see, so they don't run up against things. An old white man told me that once.
Larry asked me to help him this year, and I am, because Bubba Chuck had so many people around him against Larry Brown. That means nothin', 'cause I'm for him. Larry's got so much determination and caring in him—I can see it in his big brown eyes. Sure as my name is Ann Iverson, Larry Brown's gonna win a championship here.
I met him in the X-ray room when he came back to check on Bubba Chuck's shoulder during a game. I told Larry he was meant to be here. Why question it? Why run? Sure, soon as Larry takes Allen out of a game, there's gonna be a stink in the air. That's just how Bubba Chuck is. I told Larry if you let Allen Iverson think you're a softy, you'll lose Allen Iverson. But if Allen Iverson sees you stick to your guns, he'll respect you. Told Larry Brown, God put you here for a reason—to guide my child. Told Larry Brown, please don't leave my son.