- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A prideful David Stern made a surprise appearance here Friday morning, because the commissioner wanted to thank the NBA stars who volunteered to play for their country ... and joke about the proper way to address Allen Iverson this summer.
"Captain Iverson?" Stern wondered aloud. "Or should I say Admiral Iverson?"
Sadly, by lunchtime Saturday, any ambiguity had been wiped away.
By tipoff of Team USA's first Olympic warm-up game, the only domestic appearance for a team that will reside on a cruise ship in Athens, Iverson knew what folks across the country would soon be calling him.
Same Old Answer.
Despite all the positive press over his happy reunion with Larry Brown and how proudly he has embraced the role of co-captain so soon after the knee surgery, the aura emanating from the New Iverson didn't last a week. Iverson, LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire were late for an 11 a.m. team meeting Saturday, and all three were forced to watch a 25-point rout of Puerto Rico at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena from the bench.
The only solace for Iverson is that he wasn't alone in guilt; all three players showed up late and separate. As consolations go, though, it wasn't much. The penalty for the crime was harsh, and the reaction predictable.
Reporters who lined up in the postgame interview area, as you can imagine, weren't waiting on Stoudemire.
"Any excuse that I give is not a good-enough excuse," Iverson conceded. "Because I was late, simple as that.
"If you're late, you gotta pay the consequences, and that's what happened with me."
A full-game benching struck many in attendance as an overreaction by Brown, especially the disappointed North Florida fans who don't get a glimpse of Iverson or James (or even Emeka Okafor) every day. Why not suspend those three just a half, Larry?
Well, there are two reasons.
Carmelo Anthony supplied the first, saying: "Come on, man, that's LB."
Reason No. 2? Besides Brown being Brown with his famed Play The Right Way hammer?
LB is being so strict because he sees the possibility of losing a game (or more) in Athens as a real threat. Because he knows that the Yanks -- for the first time since NBA pros were allowed to compete starting in 1992 -- are no better than co-favorites with Argentina, Lithuania and Serbia and Montenegro. Hence, Brown is demanding a greater sense of community and selflessness from his players than he sought from the title-winning Detroit Pistons.
Now those players know how serious Brown is as they prepare to visit two of the most hostile territories in the sport: Belgrade, Serbia; and Istanbul, Turkey. The coach got their attention like Puerto Rico couldn't, with only two NBA players (Carlos Arroyo and Daniel Santiago) and a fading international star (Jose Ortiz).
"We're going to play in some difficult environments against some great teams," Brown said, "and that's why it's important that we become a team immediately. We scheduled games like that early on because we thought we'd have the same team we had in Puerto Rico, and it would be a way of continuing the progress we made there. [With a virtually new team], our learning curve has to be more or less speeded up."
Brown refused to expound on his decision to suspend the guilty trio, except to lambaste the public-address announcer who -- on instruction from a USA Basketball official -- announced the suspensions less than two minutes into the game. "What the hell are you doing?" Team USA assistant coach Gregg Popovich screamed at the scorer's table, as the boos rained down.
It's doubtful that Brown will be plunged into long-lasting despair by Iverson's latest misstep. After their six roller-coaster seasons together in Philly, Brown badly wants to see Iverson succeed on the world stage.
Some proof: Although it was initially reported that the players voted Iverson a co-captain, Brown is really the one who chose Duncan and Iverson to split the captaincy. The players were simply given the freedom to vote against the idea.
"AI is still a great captain," said Team USA forward Lamar Odom, insisting that this incident shouldn't change that perception.
Told-you-so smirking in the wake of yet another Iverson transgression is inevitable. Some in the audience are bound to wrongly assume that Iverson must have led young LeBron and Amare astray. Those of us who believed in this New Iverson, in print as well as in spirit, have to be feeling somewhat gullible.
Of course, I'm gullible enough to side with Odom on this one and give Iverson the chance to make amends.
"Today was a bad day," Iverson said. "I just want to put it behind me."
Friday was a better day. Commissioner Stern came to Team USA camp to praise all the players who agreed to be Olympians after 14 other famous names either pulled out or declined invitations to fill in.
"Not as someone from the NBA," Stern said, "but as an American citizen."
Stern also came to Jacksonville to rave about Iverson, swept up in the Captain's (or Admiral's) patriotism like so many of us. What happened Saturday doesn't change the fact that Iverson, new or not, seems to care more about winning a gold medal and representing his country than any American player of his stature in the league.
Which counts for something with me, even though the Jacksonville episode will be recorded as one more strike for Iverson's record. A strike that proves Iverson's claim a bit too literally ... the one about how he's representing Americans everywhere who "have flaws and have made mistakes."
"I let the team down by being late, but I'll make up for it," said James, offering a 19-year-old's perspective.
"It ain't the end of the world."
It was just a downbeat ending -- even AI used the words "hurt" and "disappointed" -- to what had been such an admirable week for the little guy.
Whatever you call him.
Co-captain Allen Iverson will endure heat for being late to a meeting that got him suspended, but it should not lessen his Team USA stature.