Plenty of brotherly love early on at Sixers camp
BARCELONA -- Sending the Philadelphia 76ers, one of the most dysfunctional units in the NBA, 4,000 miles across the Atlantic for over a week of training camp was a recipe for disaster, an international incident looming. Right?
It might be too early to tell whether the defense-first training camp currently being conducted by Mo Cheeks actually will make the Sixers a better team once the real business of the NBA regular season gets underway. But perhaps the fact that a group who, by their own admission, could barely stand the sight of each other at season's end, has been forced to live in such close quarters with each other for such a length of time is no bad thing.
"The guys can concentrate more," said Cheeks. "They're not going home, they have more time to spend around basketball. The main thing is the mind is concentrated on basketball. If you're at home, you're going home thinking about friends. Most NBA players know people in every city across the world, except, hopefully, Barcelona. There are no distractions, all they can think about is basketball."
Cheeks and the Sixers have found a city and nation that is also thinking intensely about basketball in the wake of Spain's gold medal performance in the World Championship this summer. And, so far, a sign that the team's visit to Barcelona has been a success lies in Allen Iverson's incredible popularity.
The 16,000 tickets for Thursday's exhibition game against host Winterthur Barcelona at the Palau Sant Jordi sold out quicker than they did when prodigal son Pau Gasol and his Memphis Grizzlies played there three years ago. Iverson must have lost count of the number of times he has been told by Spanish media members that he is the nation's favorite NBA star.
"It always means something when you're number one. It feels good to have fans all the way over here," said Iverson with genuine humility.
"It says a lot about what I've done in my career, what I've accomplished, what I've tried to do. I went out to eat yesterday and got recognized. When stuff like that happens you feel good about yourself. Honestly, I feel I've come a long way. To come all the way over here, to walk from the hotel around the corner and people recognize you is just a good feeling."
Of course, Iverson's relationship with his adoring Spanish public is not the issue. How he fits in with his Sixers teammates is.
And, in that respect, the team bonding that Cheeks had hoped to see has taken place.
Sunday, for example, saw the team closeted in an Irish bar watching a British TV feed of the night's NFL games while eating burgers, wings and chicken. Sampling tapas while watching European soccer champs Barcelona might have been more in keeping with a true Catalan experience, but this suited Cheeks perfectly, muchas gracias.
"Being in another country you have to get along because you don't know anybody else," said Cheeks. "You don't know a whole lot of other people. It forces other guys to learn things about their teammates they wouldn't know by being in the States.
"Sunday was like a regular Sunday, it was fun. Any time you're in a situation when players are going places they all have a good time."
Iverson and Chris Webber were the most conspicuous and vocal Sixers, leading the children in drills and competing against each other in fun competitions for an hour. Sixers and fun: Two words you probably wouldn't have seen in the same sentence last season.
It is hard to stray too far from the traumas of last season when the Sixers imploded and failed to reach the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. On the plus side, players seem happy to address those issues now and concede that the lack of team chemistry was every bit as bad as described.
"I don't think it was exaggerated," said swingman Andre Iguodala. "Because with the talent we've got, the group of guys we have, we should have made the playoffs and we didn't."
Indeed, public relations niceties remain superficial when these bigger Philly issues are examined, not least of all the futures of Iverson and Webber, either or both of whom might have been traded this summer but for the pending sale of the franchise.
Only when GM Billy King made a personal visit to Iverson to explain that the 31-year-old guard's future remained with the Sixers could Iverson finally relax this summer.
"Honestly, it was a lot of weight off my back, just knowing I didn't have to think where I was going to be this season, if I was going to have to move my family," said Iverson of the meeting with King.
"That was the whole thing with me -- my two kids being there in Philadelphia in school, that's where they wanted to be, where their classmates and teachers are. That was the only thing that bothered me, gave me a problem.
"I explained to my wife, and she knows by now anyway, that it's a business. If you have to, you have to get up and leave. That was cool for her and I was prepared for it but it was tough dealing with it with my kids. It felt good telling them they didn't have to move."
But Iverson's comments leave little doubt that he remains fully aware that new ownership might view the situation very differently.
"I wanted to be here, I wanted to be a Sixer, but Billy has his job, he gets pressured, a lot of areas of the organization get pressured. To be honest, I respect that and understand that, whatever they do. My time here has been great, I appreciate everything that Philadelphia has done for me and my family and whatever happens, happens. I've said before, if they trade me in the future, as long as they don't send me anywhere besides the NBA, I don't care!"
At least Iverson now knows that if he ever is forced to leave Philly and the NBA, he is always guaranteed a warm, Catalan welcome here in Barcelona.
Ian Whittell covers the NBA for the London Times and BSkyB.
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Palau Sant Jordi Annex, Barcelona, Spain; Kolnarena, Cologne, Germany
Start Date: Sept. 30
38-44 (9th in East)
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