A Turn For The Better All it took were missteps, harsh critics and a switch to a new position to help the 76ers' Allen Iverson develop into the NBA's most explosive scorer

March 15, 1999

There is no way to accelerate the process. Some things just take
as long as they take, even if you are Allen Iverson. That's the
real lesson that Iverson, the Philadelphia 76ers' breathtakingly
talented guard, had to learn. It doesn't matter that he's a
6-foot, 165-pound blur, so quick that when he goes to the
basket, you half expect him to leave a trail of smoke. His NBA
education still had to happen at its own pace, in fits and
starts. The lightbulb over his cornrows had to flicker a bit
before it finally illuminated everything.

During his first two years in the league, Iverson raced
recklessly around the court, claiming to be the Answer but
raising only questions about his game. The harder he tried to
impress his critics with his acrobatic shotmaking and
lightning-quick crossover dribble, the more undisciplined he
looked and the louder his detractors howled. Charles Barkley
disdainfully dubbed him Allen Me-Myself-and-Iverson and "the
playground rookie of the year." But if Iverson hadn't slogged
his way through all of the errors and the insults, he might
never have figured out that the harsh words of his coach could
actually make him better. He might never have tried to adapt to
a new position, shooting guard, that seems perfectly suited for
his style. Iverson can see the purpose behind his missteps now.
He can see that sometimes the hard way is the only way.

"I didn't come into this league thinking I knew everything, the
way some people think I did," the 23-year-old Iverson says. "I
knew I had a lot to learn. I just wanted to learn it all right
away. One of the things you find out is that you can't rush
things. You just have to keep working. You have to go through
the good times and the bad times to get to where you're trying
to go."

Iverson may not be quite there yet, but he is accelerating along
the learning curve, zooming toward a scoring title with a
league-leading 29.2 points per game through Sunday. More
important, his enlightened approach had sparked the Sixers to a
10-7 record, their hottest start since 1990-91, which was also
the last time they reached the playoffs. "I'm the best guard in
the league," Iverson says flatly, and an increasing number of
his opponents agree. When it comes to defending Iverson, says
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Bob Sura, "I'd rather have my teeth
pulled, because at least there aren't 20,000 people watching.
He's the best player in the league right now."

Iverson's improvement on defense has been less obvious but no
less significant. At week's end he ranked fourth in the league
with an average of 2.47 steals and his increased hustle had
helped Philly hold opponents to 84.9 points a game, fourth
lowest in the NBA. In a 102-86 win over the Bulls in
Philadelphia on March 3, Iverson scored on a three-point play,
then immediately picked off a pass and scored again. On
Chicago's next trip down, he fought through a pick by 270-pound
Andrew Lang to cut off Randy Brown. That was an effort he might
not have bothered to make in his first two seasons. "When you
look at what he's doing, both offensively and defensively, it's
amazing," says Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino. "If he ever
gets the Michael Jordan thing--the hatred of losing--he'll be
unstoppable. He's a one-man wrecking crew."

Now that Jordan only comes to NBA arenas to sit courtside with
movie stars, Iverson ranks as the backcourt scorer most able to
create his own shot at will. But the similarities between the
Answer and His Airness go deeper than that. Early in his career
Jordan was the target of the same criticisms that have been
leveled at Iverson: He was supposed to be too much of an
individualist, a mind-boggling talent who did little to make his
teammates better. But Jordan learned, just as Iverson is now
learning, how to pick his spots, how to use his abilities to
enhance his teammates', not stifle them. Which is not to say
that Iverson necessarily has six NBA championships in his
future, only that the frightening possibility exists that like
Jordan at the same stage, he has shown just a glimmer of the
player he will one day be. Says Iverson's backcourt mate, Eric
Snow, "He's only scratched the surface."

Larry Brown, who took over the Sixers last season, could be for
Iverson what Phil Jackson was for Jordan, the coach who helps
him to channel his talent. Brown's decision to shift Iverson
from point guard to shooting guard on offense--he still usually
plays defense against point guards and spells Snow for 10
minutes a game--may be remembered as the most significant
crossover move of Iverson's career. Instead of having to
distribute the ball and get his teammates involved, he can
concentrate on the strongest part of his game: scoring. "It's a
lot easier playing the two," Iverson says. "I give Coach Brown a
lot of credit for not just deciding that I was going to be a
certain type of point guard no matter what. He found a way that
puts me in the position to do what I do best and to help the
team the most."

Brown began to think of Iverson as a potential shooting guard
last season after the 76ers acquired Snow in a January trade
with the Seattle SuperSonics for a conditional second-round
draft pick. When Snow manned the point, Iverson moved to
off-guard, and Brown liked what he saw enough to give the
alignment a longer look at the start of this season. Any
hesitancy on Iverson's part was quickly erased by Snow. "It's
not like Allen failed at point guard," he says. "I think he was
just being asked to do things at the point that he had never
been asked to do before. I told him that he could go back to
doing the things that made him a great player in the first place."

Iverson's willingness to go along with Brown's experiment was
significant, since both men readily admit that their
relationship was rocky before this season. Brown, a former point
guard who is known for being demanding of his playmakers, had
blasted Iverson's shot selection, his defense and his
commitment, saying that "the company Allen's with is Reebok,"
not the Sixers. Iverson made it clear that he didn't appreciate
those remarks, and he implied last year that his relationship
with Brown might keep him from extending his contract with
Philadelphia.

But Iverson did sign a six-year, $70.9 million extension in
January, partly because even though he and Brown still have
their scraps, each genuinely respects the other's talent. "When
we get him the ball in the open court, he's scary," says Brown.
"When I first got him, I couldn't tell him anything. He went
crazy on the court. Now he'll listen a little bit. With great
players, you've got to be real careful not to take anything away
from them. I don't want to take Allen's gifts away. Sometimes
you have to sit with both hands on the chair and let him go."

That hasn't been nearly as nerve-racking this season as it was
in the past. There is an economy to Iverson's game at shooting
guard that he did not have at the point. At times in the past he
looked like Barry Sanders reversing his field, dribbling right,
left, and back again while he hunted for his shot and his
teammates became spectators. The idea now is for Iverson to
receive a pass in a position where he can make a quick move, at
most a dribble or two, to try to get an open look. Against
Chicago last week he was having a poor-shooting first half when
he got the ball while matched up against 6'6" Brent Barry. In
other years he might have stubbornly gone one-on-one against
Barry in an effort to get himself started. But this time when he
head-faked, Barry stayed with him, so Iverson passed back out to
Snow and the Sixers continued to run their offense. The ball
soon found Iverson again, and this time he dropped in a short
jumper from the lane.

He had his points, and the 76ers' offense didn't have to
stagnate for him to get them. "One of the things you learn at
the two is that you don't have to have the ball all the time to
be effective," Iverson says.

In the half-court, Philadelphia sets up an obstacle course for
Iverson's defender, running him through double or triple screens
to give Iverson the split second of freedom he needs to create a
shot. "They've always set screens for him," says Sacramento
Kings assistant coach Pete Carril, "but he's much smarter about
using them than he used to be. He sets his man up better, he
comes off them tighter. He's doing a lot of nice things away
from the ball that he didn't use to do."

Iverson is at his most lethal when he's in the open court and
can attack the defense before it is set, which is why the Sixers
look for him on the break at every opportunity. Defenders are so
conscious of searching him out as soon as Philadelphia gets
possession that they sometimes turn their back to the ball and
face-guard him. Snow will often take advantage by whipping a
pass to Iverson past their ear. "I just tell him to run and to
have his hands up," Snow says. "The ball is coming, even if he
doesn't think I can get it there."

Though Iverson may succeed Jordan as the NBA's leading scorer,
he knows he will never replace him as the league's leading man.
Even if his rap sheet did not include four months of jail time
in 1993 for his role in a Hampton, Va., bowling-alley brawl (the
sentence was eventually commuted), he understands that his
cornrows and 'do rags won't win him a place in mainstream
America's heart. He tends to play with a scowl, and when he
changes out of his uniform, he looks as if he's been dipped in
diamonds, glittering as he moves with jewel-encrusted rings,
bracelets and pendants that look heavier than anything he might
find in the Sixers weight room. It is not an image that tends to
play well on Madison Avenue.

"If I win that scoring title, do you know how many people are
going to be mad that I did that?" Iverson says. "Even if I don't
get in any trouble, win the scoring title and we have a great
season and go to the playoffs and make noise, they'll still be
hesitant to market Allen Iverson."

Only when discussing his public image does Iverson resemble the
angry young man he has been portrayed as. "I don't want the
bad-boy image in the league," he says. "I don't want to be seen
as that person, because I'm not."

He has become the symbol of arrogant young players who don't
respect the stars who came before them, a perception that he
insists could not be further from the truth. He missed a chance
to prove that when the lockout caused the cancellation of this
year's All-Star Game, which would have been played in
Philadelphia's First Union Center. If Iverson had been selected,
he planned to take out his cornrows and wear an Afro, as well as
a Sixers uniform with the number 6, as an homage to Julius Erving.

But the cornrows were still in place last week after the victory
in Philly over the Bulls. Iverson had them covered by a black
New York Yankees cap, which caught the attention of the
reporters, who asked if the hat had any significance. Iverson
explained that he just liked the color, then smiled slyly at the
mostly Philadelphia-area media surrounding him. "I'm a Phillies
fan," he said.

The comment drew a laugh from the reporters, who knew that
Iverson was making a transparent attempt to say what the locals
would want to hear. It was all part of the public relations
game, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that once Iverson
learns how a game really works, he can play it as well as anyone.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Unstoppable Though only 6 feet and 165 pounds, Iverson is cast in the Jordan mold of a two guard: He can get his shot off anytime. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Newly focused Though he's leading the league in scoring, Iverson's greatest improvements may be in setting up his teammates and in shutting down opponents.

He's Like Mike

In his third NBA season, 23-year-old Allen Iverson is leading
the league in scoring, just as a 23-year-old Michael Jordan did
in his third season, 1986-87. In fact, based on league rankings
in several categories, Iverson's numbers through Sunday
certainly qualify as Jordanesque.

PPG RPG APG SPG FG% FT% FGA FTA
Michael Jordan 37.1 5.2 4.6 2.88 48.2 85.7 2,279 1,098
NBA Rank 1 65 34 2 64 16 1 1
Allen Iverson 29.2 5.7 5.7 2.47 42.5 78.0 386 191
NBA Rank 1 68 20 4 65 52 1 1

"I'm the best guard in the league," Iverson says flatly, and an
increasing number of his opponents are beginning to agree with
him.

"Look at what he's doing, offensively and defensively," says
Pitino. "He's a one-man wrecking crew."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)