Young Iverson and the Team Concept

Larry Platt's Allen Iverson book Only the Strong Survive is nothing new, but it's still good. I just ran across an interesting episode from Iverson's high school days. I love this story because it doesn't lend itself to easy conclusions. It comes after a loss, in which Iverson was benched for an entire second half by his coach at Bethel, Mike Bailey, who wanted Iverson to share the ball more.

In the locker room, Iverson's teammate and close friend Xavier Gunn called a twenty-minute team meeting. "Allen, you're selfish," he said.

Iverson leaped to his feet. "How can I be selfish when I average ten assists a game?"

"Not the basketball part," Gunn replied. "You gotta be right all the time. When Coach Bailey said what he said to you tonight, when we say things to you sometimes, you always gotta be right."

No one raised his voice. Iverson stewed in silence, taking in the criticism from considerably lesser talents. In the next game, against Menchville, he decided he would prove a point: he wouldn't take a shot. He'd show Bailey and Gunn and everyone else just how unselfish he could be. Bethel found itself down 41-25 at halftime. Iverson made some beautiful passes, but his teammates--never expecting, or wanting, to be taking this many shots--were befuddled by this apparent new strategy. Bailey knew he had to so something, so in front of the team, he decided to appeal to his star's most prominent and laudable quality: his competitiveness.

"Allen, if you honestly feel that not taking a shot is the best way to win a game, then by all means, pass the ball--I have no problem with that," Bailey said. "As long as your decision making is driven by what's going to make us win, we'll be all right. We all have confidence in your judgment and competitiveness."

Iverson said nothing. As would often be the case, Bailey wasn't even sure he was getting through, so sporadic was Iverson's eye contact. But Bailey knew from experience that Iverson was a much better listener than he appeared to be. In the second half, Iverson started draining threes and penetrating at will. With him leading the way, Bethel scored 37 points in the eight-minute fourth quarter and won, 86-74. Iverson had 21 of his game-high 40 in the final quarter.

"That game was our turning point," Bailey recalls. "I think Allen saw that his teammates, and me, would both stand up to him and stand by him. And that's the key with him. It's why he's so loyal to those guys from back home. They've stood by him."