Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Thursday, May 9, 2002
Updated: May 13, 12:31 PM ET
Doin' it the hard way in Philly

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

The eternal question begged here is:

Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson's press conference provided incredible theater.
Who could coach Allen Iverson but Larry Brown?

Who could live with Felix Unger except Oscar Madison?

And who could satisfy Eddie Murphy or Hugh Grant other than a man dressed up as ... well, never mind. That's more about why I Love L.A.

Fact: If the Sixers had won a playoff series this year, we wouldn't be enduring this soap opera of Brown vs. Iverson. If this Cat-Dog fight occurred during the NFL playoffs, we wouldn't be hearing as much about it. But things are kinda slow in Tombstone, so ...

So let's see this as a win-win instead of "He said what?!"

Of such great spectacles are legends not made.

On such great disputes, life on earth does not hinge.

Doesn't mean we can't lead SportsCenter with it. And do well.

Let's look at the jackets of our so-called combatants (since I've met and know the games of the parties, I claim prior knowledge).

Larry Brown has been the best coach in the NBA for so long that he might not even be that anymore. But for a long time, he was. He has the imprimatur of Michael Jordan, who once told Road Dog and me, "I'd play for Larry Brown in a heartbeat." Jordan did not say that about, say, Don Nelson, or Pat Riley, or Lenny Wilkens. But Jordan had not conceived of Rick Carlisle, Paul Silas, and probably in particular Byron Scott, not as coaches, anyway.

Still, Larry Brown has done the most with least of any hoop coach in history. That is his way, and he might have grown to like it that way. Betting a pat hand is not good for the more emotional type.

Larry Brown
Larry Brown would prefer to coach the underdog, not a team loaded with talent.
Brown took UCLA to the 1980 NCAA title game with a 6-foot-6 center, Mike Sanders, a lead-footed scorer, Kiki Vandeweghe, and a point guard named Rod Foster so painfully skinny he could've used a Honey-Nut Cheerio for an emergency flotation device. He made Iverson look buff. Getting all the way to Dunkenstein with that? It's when I began to notice and, indeed, love Larry Brown.

Love's a big component here. LB claims to love AI. AI claims to love LB. As an old Motown siren female group sang, "Love, love, love ... makes you do foolish things ... Sit alone by the phone ... a phone that never rings. Hoping to hear the sound ... of your knock on my door ... knowing that sweet sound will be no more."

Whatever. They fight, they get chippy, they snipe, they rant, they smolder over each other's inadequacies, they pine to be loved, they ball hard as well, they are the s---, in a good way, and then they run each other down in public, and if you tried to separate them, they'd be miserable the rest of their freaking lives.

Remind you of anybody? Look next to you in bed. Um-hm.

LB took the L.A. Clippers to the playoffs. He took the San Antonio Spurs to the playoffs, pre-Tim Duncan. He took the Nets to the playoffs, when they played their home games at Rutgers and Jason Kidd couldn't grow hair on his face and was sifting through offers already as a 13-year-old prodigy out in Oaktown. LB took the Indiana Pacers to the playoffs, and made no friends of Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose doing it. Until this day, when those two think of Larry Brown, love is not the word that springs to mind.

LB: "I got a kid with a big heart who cares about the right things, and he needs help, and I'm gonna do what I can to help him."

Yeah? Well, then ease off on making practice the Meaning Of Life, Lar. Everybody ain't cut out to be first one in, last one to leave. Their circumstances don't allow for it. Especially not if he's got two young kids, a wife whose trying to stay out the way of a new mother-in-law, who redefines the terms "high maintenance," and "needs attention," and has claimed squatter's rights to her son.

Just as a general rule Larry -- wake up.

Allen Iverson
Iverson was certainly good enough to carry Philly to the Finals in 2001.
With the hand Iverson has been dealt, it's a wonder he shows up for practice at all. Has that cut his productivity? Who do you think eggs him on in the first place? Probably didn't even hear of LB's seemingly innocuous quotes until he got home and somebody sucked their teeth or called and asked, "Who does Larry Brown think he is? What? You didn't hear what he said? He played you!" They'd never play him. Right.

Hint. For a 26-year-old, 6-foot-tall skinny guy with four dependents, minimum, a couple of babies to care about and provide for, not to mention two young children, a Section 8 upbringing to overcome, the proclivities of which have to be fought off not just in himself, but in the woman who gave him life, I'd say Alley I. is bringing heat. I'd say he was as well-adjusted as Bill Cosby.

Alley I. was good enough to take the Sixers to the Finals in 2001.

Now he's a shirker?

"Motivate me!!?" Allen asked, in his own way trying to make that point. "How you gonna motivate me?!" Meaning, how would you, compared to how his circumstances and his own internal combustion engine had already motivasted him. He made himself one of the five best basketball players in the world. Consider the enormity of this achievement in the value system of the very harsh environment from which he sprang. Consider the odds. "I was the MVP, man," he said.

You have to read in the spaces and between the lines with a guy like this -- with most guys.

"The hardest thing for me is to coach a guy with great talent," Brown said Wednesday. "It's easy to coach guys with limited ability. They listen." Key admission. Brown likes to coach the underdog. He likes to be the Miracle Worker. He's Anne Bancroft and the players are Helen Keller. Thats what he does, his m.o.

Larry Brown won the '88 NCAA title at Kansas with Danny Manning and four guys. Get too much talent, make expectations too high, Larry's gone. Never stayed anywhere longer than five years. Got the most out of every hand, then moved on.

Larry Brown
Brown is a well-decorated coach, but he never stays in one spot for long.
The Sixers were not as talented defensively this season as last, having lost George Lynch, Tyrone Hill, Matt Geiger, Rodney Buford and Jumaine Jones off their NBA Finals roster. No danger of anybody making the Hall of Fame there, but they were all 6-7 or better, and they all could -- and would -- defend. Allen's focus at practice didn't seem to affect the way they played. The crunch-time scoring was accounted for by the "Little Fella," as Brown called Iverson.

Larry's the Anti-Phil. Phil Jackson specializes in coaching talent. As a coach, Jackson is weighted down with eight NBA title rings, because he knows how to handle great talent, and one way he doesn't do it is by continuing to harp on the same character traits (or flaws, depending on how you want to have it) for a half-decade. Sooner or later, Phil thinks, "I can live with that."

Or not. For any and all of their character flaws, Phil Jackson never got to the point where he walked out on Jordan, Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. Yeah, he might've gotten tired of them. But not that tired.

Contrary to the consensus, I don't know how much better Alley I. can get by practicing, anyway. It's not like he's trying to get his footwork down or anything. I understand Larry's point about being an example to the other players by how hard he practices, and how working hard in practice, getting there early and shooting, say 200 3s, so that his self-described bony ass might be able to crack 50 percent from the field every now and then, just as a change.

There's room for Allen to improve. There just might not be room for him at his own house. You'd think he'd practice just to get away from the fragrant aromatic delights of Huggies pull-ups and wig glue.

Having said all that, the jacket on Allen Iverson as a player is really no different from Larry Brown's as a coach. He likes it hard.

Allen Iverson was the 2001 NBA MVP. He is the three-time NBA scoring champion. And I don't care what he says about wanting to win and these invididual awards and titles meaning nothing -- they do mean something. Nobody's done more with less physically in the history of the league. Iverson is the best 6-foot player ever. Period. End of story. He too has the imprimatur of Jordan. Jordan once said it to me and Dog, without saying, after Alley I. famously crossed him up as Air tried to guard him -- Air Jordan, trying to guard somebody? Boggles the mind. Air could guard anybody.

  For a 26-year-old, 6-foot-tall skinny guy with four dependents, minimum, a couple of babies to care about and provide for, not to mention two young children, a Section 8 upbringing to overcome, the proclivities of which have to be fought off not just in himself, but in the woman who gave him life, I'd say Alley I. is bringing heat. I'd say he was as well-adjusted as Bill Cosby. 
  

Except Allen Iverson.

"You can't expect me to guard a 6-foot man, at 6-6," Jordan sniffed.

It was the closest Original Air ever came to admitting he couldn't guard somebody. And it made it official -- AI was unguardable.

"Practice? We talkin' about practice, man," Iverson said, and repeated, at his outpouring. Judging from the laughter in the room, his sarcasm was not lost on the assembled Philly media. "He said practice more times than he's actually practiced," said Brown the next day, to more laughter from the same assembled Philly media.

In the words of sports consultant Maximus Decimus Meridias:

"Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained!!?"

Yes, I suppose we are. Apparently we're easy, comparatively.

Other than that: The lesson to Larry Brown is, Allen Iverson is still young, but he's no longer a kid. So stop saying he's a kid, and stop saying how much of a challenge it is to coach him. That was true two, three, five years ago, but you're past that, or should by now be at least used to it. You were kind of a father figure/uncle/older brother for him; eventually, even a real father knows it's time to let go. It might go better for you to trust Iverson's instincts about practicing, getting better. If, in fact, he can. George Karl thinks by being harder Ray Allen can be the best player in the league. Everybody can't be right, especially in the world of Shaq & Kobe.

Let Allen come to it. If he doesn't get better, it won't reflect on you. And if he stays the same, he's one of the 10 best. If they're having an All-Star Game, AI is starting. You had the Skywalker, David Thompson, in Denver. He was a great player. You gave him the green light, and he nearly won the ABA scoring title by scoring 73 points in one game. But it wasn't your fault when he went out for a while behind the pipe. He's a little twisted up, but compared to the pitfalls some people have fallen into, Allen Iverson is a walk in the park. You should be glad you have to think to come up with something to have a problem about with Alley I.

Allen Iverson
Sitting out practice doesn't seem to have hurt Iverson's game too much.
Nobody knows his body better than an athlete does. He knows what he has to give. And nobody knows what he has to deal with behind closed doors. You might be better off -- certainly after an end-of-the-season wrap-up meeting -- by saying, "Look, guy, I trust you. I need you to get better now. Can you? If you can, how you do it is up to you." If some new players on the roster want to loaf in practice because Alley I.'s not there showing them how it should be done, then you know what. That's not on Allen. That's on them. And you. As for Allen, just say, "Take better looks," and if he says, "Then get me some more help," say, "We'll try."

The lesson to Allen Iverson is, don't be so damn sensitive.

You're a man now, and a serious one, who showed the world what you were like, and what you are like is interesting and, in the end, admirable; that's the thing, they're both admirable men. Flawed, it goes without saying. They're human. Admirable first. A man does what he feels like he has to do, and is unaffected by what people say about it. If the media takes a Larry Brown quote and runs with it, let them. Don't be hurt or disappointed because Larry Brown says something to the media. That's part of the process. Part of the game. No different that beating a double-team. You don't worry or complain about that. You find a way. You compete. Hard. That's your trump card. Trust that. Other than that, trust ye not a living soul. Walk even carefully among the dead. The papers come out every day. SportsCenter, too. Just tell them to get the name right.

The lesson to us: Enjoy the Odd Couple, together, but also keep them away from Roman broadswords, and other sharp objects.

If Billy King and the Sixers bring back Larry Hughes, truck in more size, suggest Mount Mutombo take ballet lessons, so he won't trip over his own feet and get a clue of how to defend the pick-and-roll, you'd be surprised how quickly this Cat-Dog beast would be hugging itself all over again.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."