|The evolution of Larry Brown|
By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2
Has it been 41 years already since Larry Brown and I were teammates?
We were both on the gold-medal-winning USA squad in the 1961 Maccabiah Games in Israel. I was 20, a small-time big-man out of Hunter College, abysmally inexperienced and overwhelmed. Larry was five months older than me and already seasoned in the fiery cauldron of ACC competition. The headliner and self-appointed comedian of the team was Art Heyman, who decided that Larry was destined to be prematurely bald and thereby christened him "Rodney Rottenroots." Me? I was "Hi," because I could barely jump over the Manhattan telephone directory.
Though I'd seen Larry around and about the NBA several times in the intervening years, we hadn't hooked up for a while; so I was happy to drive down to New York when his Philadelphia 76ers made their first appearance this season, on Nov. 16 in Madison Square Garden. I was also delighted to see that Larry still had a full head of hair, and that, despite a pair of hip replacements, he was still looking fit and trim. And I remembered what it was like playing with him.
At 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, Larry wasn't very strong, nor did he have exceptional hops. But he could stop-and-pop as quickly and as accurately as Calvin Murphy. Larry could also scoot and defend, and he was a sensational passer. Nothing fancy, mind you, but always on target. He was the kind of point guard who made big men want to run. Larry's specialty was triggering the fast break, during which (like John Wesley Harding) he never made a foolish move.
We both laughed to beat the band. Then Larry said this: "What goes on in the NBA has nothing to do with team basketball anymore. Take this game today, Charley ... it's not Philadelphia versus New York. It's Iverson versus Sprewell."
Everybody knows about the poverty, the mean streets, and the absence of a father-figure in Iverson's childhood. "But Allen was also deprived on the basketball court," Larry said. "Coming up, he never had good coaching. I mean, the kid was so talented that his coaches just let him do whatever he wanted to do. None of his coaches held him accountable for his selfish attitude. But I'll give him this ... Allen always plays hard and he always wants to win."
Playing for Larry Brown is no picnic for anybody, but he's always been toughest on his point guards. From Mack Calvin to Charlie Scott. From Ray Williams to Alvin Robertson. And don't forget Rod Strickland, Gary Grant, Haywoode Workman, Mark Jackson and Travis Best. Larry demanded perfection from one and all.
When Larry took over the Sixers in 1997, Iverson was firmly ensconced at the point. OK, Larry was going to fashion Iverson in his own image, and the youngster was going to be the most dynamic point guard in NBA history. Hell, he'd be nothing less than Larry Brown's crowning achievement -- his legacy to the game.
Too bad Iverson couldn't accept the possibility that a point guard could initiate a play with a pass. What Iverson wanted to do, what he'd always done, what he believed he was destined to do, was drive the ball to the hoop, and then pass only if he couldn't create a shot for himself. The ball was made of gold and Iverson was a miser.
So player and coach had famous battles. How many times since then has Iverson demanded to be traded? And how many times since than has Larry hinted at retiring? But they're still shackled together -- the prisoner and the warden.
The game is under way and, on Philly's first possession, Iverson is isolated on the left elbow extended. Dribbling, dribbling, beating the ball to death. Until Philly's center, Todd MacCulloch -- expecting a shot -- gets whistled for a 3-second violation.
On his next five touches, Iverson uncorks five quick shots -- all of them misses.
But then The Answer tosses a perfect lob pass to Keith Van Horn cutting backdoor. And, almost hidden in a forest of big men, Iverson whips a sensational behind-the-back rocket to a wide-open Eric Snow, who buries the jumper.
Larry Brown is a North Carolina alum, so his guru is Dean Smith, who was the rarest of combinations -- an outstanding coach and an outstanding human being. One of Smith's most fundamental precepts was that ballgames are won and lost in practice.
That's where game-habits are forged, mistakes become learning tools, strategies become instinct, and where players coalesce into a team. So, more than most other NBA coaches, Larry insists that his guys practice with game-time intensity.
"In the championship series against the Lakers two years back," Brown said, "Allen was totally involved in the team concept. He did a lot to show the kids who worship him how they should be playing. Then last summer, Allen undid all the good he'd accomplished when he was quoted as saying that practice means nothing."
At least Iverson practices what he preaches: An ex-teammate reports that Iverson habitually loafs his way through practice sessions. "It's a bad example for the rest of the guys," the player says. "Everybody else has to really dig deep to keep working hard when Number One is on cruise control. Philly's practices were so bad that whenever we were running through drills, coach Brown wouldn't even look at Iverson. He'd just walk over to the other end of the court where a different bunch of guys were working."
Iverson scores his first bucket at 5:30 of the second quarter -- a crossover, two speedy steps, then some kind of acrobatic change of direction in midair that's even too swift to be decisively tracked by a slo-mo replay.
Then come another six consecutive misses -- none of them with less than 12 ticks left on the shot clock.
According to the same ex-teammate, "Iverson is very hard to play with. Basically, you just have to stand around and wait for him to give it up."
There's 7:19 left in the game and the Knicks lead 79-72 when Iverson steals an errant pass, dashes downcourt, leaps toward the rafters, and ever so politely drops the ball through the hoop. .... One minute later, he cashes in a long, off-balance jumper.
Three seasons back, Larry Brown gave up. He realized that Iverson could never (and would never) evolve into his Dean Smith-inspired vision of what a point guard should be. Someone who shoots only when he has to pick up his team. Someone whose guiding principle is to help make his teammates better players. A coach on the floor. Dependable. Unselfish. Larry finally got the picture -- if he kept playing Iverson at the point, none of the other players might ever touch the ball.
So Iverson became a 2 guard, whose primary responsibility was to score. Which he did -- leading the NBA in point-making for the past two seasons.
There goes Iverson, whirling headlong to the hoop -- disdaining the menace of the Knicks big men, too quick, too clever to be hit by them, faking three ways at once, until he finds Snow again with a nifty pass. Snow's shot falls, and the score is tied at 85.
Allen Iverson simply refuses to be intimidated, and his courage is unquestioned. He's a lightweight and a runt to boot, yet he constantly challenges players a foot taller and 150 pounds heavier. But ... over the past four years, various injuries have forced Iverson to miss nearly a season's worth of games (including 22 last year). Sometime, somewhere, somebody's going to nail him (perhaps a Philadelphia cop, or a young big man looking to make a rep) and put Iverson's career in jeopardy. David beat Goliath once -- but which one would prevail if they went at each other 82 times every year?
The Sixers squeeze out a victory, 93-92 -- and the high- and lowlights of Iverson's line reveal 5-22 FG (ouch!), 0-7 on 3s (ooch!), six A, three S, four TO and, most impressively, a total of eight rebounds. His game this afternoon was a strange mixture of bumbling and brilliance, of selfishness and sacrifice. He's a flawed genius, who has ready answers for questions he doesn't fully comprehend.
Larry is happy with a win on the road. And before we part, he jokingly challenges me to a future game of HORSE. With his artificial hips, and my arthritic hands, one game might last for days.
Then Larry Brown says this: "There's one thing that keeps me sane. Or at least as sane as I'll ever be. And it's that Allen is starting to get it. In tiny, tiny increments. But he's definitely headed in the right direction. Some day, when he does see the whole picture, and if Shaq retires before he does, then Allen Iverson just might lead us to a championship."
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."