You know him as The Answer, or A.I., but ESPN The Magazine's Tom Friend introduces you to Bubba Chuck -- the real Allen Iverson. Here's Part 1 of our March 16 cover story. Click here for Part 2.
Happy birthday, Bubba Chuck, you're about to be traded to the Clippers! Bubba Chuck is hearing this over the phone last summer, hearing this from the man who runs the franchise, hearing this from the loudest talker he's ever met. But Bubba Chuck is going to get a word in, bitch, and he's going to get it in now.
He's saying, You want to trade me? Trade me for Grant Hill, but don't trade me for some lame-ass Clipper. Don't trade me for holding up the bus, or for eating tacos for breakfast, or for hiding in the can during weightlifting sessions, or for showing up for practice with only one Reebok on. Don't trade me for all that silly BS because I can control that. You hear me?
I'm 25 now, man, just turned the other day, and 25 means I'm all grown up now. I'm getting married, man, you hear me? I'm gonna buy me a bigger house in Philly, and I want my boy, Deuce, to be proud of me, to know that I do what I'm told, that I'm a pro, that I'm captain of the whole damn team. Where I come from, not a lot of people make it to 25, but I made it, and I didn't even have some whup-ass party to celebrate it. Because I want a ring, and I want to pour champagne on Coach, and you may think I'm a thug punk, but I'm not.
So, if you're gonna trade me, trade me for basketball reasons, trade me because you can get a superstar in return. But don't trade me because I wear do-rags to and from games, man. Tell that to Coach, tell that to him, please.
And then Bubba Chuck shuts up for a second, and the man who runs the franchise, the man who went from taping Sixers ankles to owning Sixers ankles, is thinking, Hallelujah. And then he hollers to Bubba Chuck, Do it then. You do it! That's all you gotta do. You will not be traded. Walk the talk, Bubba. You walk it.
And he and Bubba Chuck went on to chat for 90 minutes, and the man who runs the franchise did only 10 or 12 minutes of the talking. And they were about to hang up when Bubba Chuck said, Now go tell Coach, go tell Coach, and he didn't refer to Coach as the bleeping coach, either. And the man who runs the franchise called his general manager, Billy King, and he said, I've just had the most amazing conversation with Bubba Chuck and if 50% of what he says is true, we're in heaven.
But they didn't want to be gullible, because Bubba Chuck had made promises before, ever since he entered the league from Georgetown. Back then, the man who runs the franchise wanted to get to know the kid and his people. So, when he drafted the kid, he said, Hi, I'm Pat Croce. I run the team, and asked the kid for his nickname. The kid said his posse called him Bubba Chuck, back from his days growing up in Hampton, Va., and Croce thought that was cool; that was what he was going to call him too.
But Bubba Chuck's posse began dragging him down, and soon they and Bubba Chuck got arrested for gun possession (he got three years probation), and the man who runs the franchise warned the posse to clean up its act, and some in that posse talked back. So this is what the Sixers were dealing with, a raw 20-year-old, and even though he scored 40 points or more five games in a row his rookie season, Bubba Chuck needed to be reeled in, needed to be coached. And the man who runs the franchise brought in a doozy, too. For Bubba Chuck's second year, he brought in someone a whole lot like Bubba Chuck: Larry Brown.
And for three years Brown tried to get inside Bubba Chuck's head, and it was futile -- until last summer when Bubba Chuck turned 25 and finally said to the coach, I'm yours. He showed up for training camp 15 pounds under his playing weight. (Well, you wouldn't eat either if you were going to be traded to the Clippers, he says.) And the team started 10-0, and Bubba Chuck was busting his bony rear end. Not only was he always on time, but he played with a sore hip, a raw elbow, a partially dislocated shoulder, a twisted knee and a sore quad. He played hurt and scored a career-high 54 at Cleveland, and he scored at least 40 at least a dozen other times, and then he kissed the ground when the coach and the man who runs the franchise traded for Dikembe Mutombo.
And so the team is now a legit championship contender, and he is a legit MVP contender, and the three of them have done it. And that is what this tale is about. Three men who have figured it out. Three men who have lost their fathers, and, at various times, their minds. Three men who keep the Sixers rolling because of a simple dance they do, where the coach tears Bubba Chuck down, and the man who runs the franchise builds Bubba Chuck back up. It is obviously all a work-in-progress, because the coach or the player could snap at any moment. But like Bubba Chuck says, he is 25 now, and he can take it. Come on, man, Allen Iverson says. I'm halfway to 50.
Allen Iverson cannot live with Larry Brown or without him. This is some mess Bubba Chuck is in, prospering under a coach he sometimes wishes he wouldn't prosper under. How these two got in synch is the mystery of the year, but it probably has to do with a simple premise: They're the same damn guy.
Iverson doesn't know Brown's story, but Brown knows Iverson's, because he has spoken to Iverson's mother, Ann, and Ann has told Brown she wants the best for her son even if it means Brown must scold him incessantly. And that made Brown think of his own life, and his own mother, because it was just he and she and a brother for a while. Living over a bakery. Living without any heat.
The coach is 60 now, and he can talk about it, can talk about going more than a month without knowing his father was dead. He can talk about his temper, how he got kicked out of the Atlantic Coast Conference for punching Duke's Art Heyman. How he grew up in a black and Jewish neighborhood on Long Island. How he was semi-adopted by an unbelievable family. How he found discipline. How today he alternately loves to coach Allen Iverson and hates to coach Allen Iverson. All of this helps explain the vagabond in Brown -- the nine jobs in 29 years -- and his hypersensitivity. All of this helps explain why earlier this season, Brown contemplated quitting the Sixers.
But it all goes back a ways. He was the 7-year-old son of a furniture salesman, back in Brooklyn, and his father would leave for Pittsburgh on Sunday nights and be there until Friday at dusk. It was taxing on the family, and the road gave his father a heart attack, and the only way to solve it was to pack up and move to Pittsburgh.
They found a house to buy there, but 22 days before move-in day, his father caught a cold. It was a Sunday night, and his father seemed listless. His mother dropped him at the hospital, and later that evening a nurse called to say hurry back. By the time his mother arrived, her husband was dead from a second heart attack.
The next morning, a relative gave the news to Brown's 12-year-old brother, Herb, who reacted angrily. So the family decided to keep it all from Larry, who simply thought his father was on a long business trip. All Larry knew was that they were flying back to Brooklyn, to live in the attic over his grandfather's bakery, where the workers would share the family toilet. He had no idea he'd missed a funeral, and it was more than a month before he heard the truth. "How did I react?" Brown asks now. "I think you probably block some of that stuff out."
He played ball all the time, well enough to win sponsorship to a basketball camp in the Poconos every summer. He became a camp counselor, and that's when teaching and coaching got in his blood. All the campers begged to sit at his dinner table because he was the coolest and best-dressed counselor. But he'd shock them by making them eat their vegetables. It started then, the discipline.
A camper named Brent Glass was Larry's favorite. Brent played hard, got the most out of his ability, and that was Larry's MO too. Larry then hit it off with Glass' father, Joe, and before long, the Glasses were asking Larry to move into their Woodmere, N.Y., home. When Larry enrolled at North Carolina to play for Frank McGuire, the Glass family could find his games only on a car radio. So they'd pile into their sedan, eat snacks and listen close.
At Chapel Hill, McGuire needed to rein in Brown. In one early game, Brown was a 5'8" kamikaze, challenging post men twice his size. McGuire's post-game comment was, "I go to Long Island to get one smart Jewish kid to run my team, and Brown comes down and plays like a crazy Irishman."
But eventually McGuire taught Brown what Brown would later try to teach Iverson. He would scold him, Brown would mope, and Joe Glass or Brown's uncles would always tell Brown, "If they're not on you, they don't love you."
It is 40 years later, and Larry Brown is being Frank McGuire. He is always trying to get Iverson to defend, to play the right way, to distribute a little. He does not mean to tear him down; he's just nagging the way he's always nagged. "My advice for Iverson?" says Danny Manning, who got tired of Brown at Kansas and with the Clippers. "Listen to what Coach Brown says, not how he's saying it."
The coach had a plan; always has. When Brown arrived in Philly, he realized he had to surround Iverson with lunch-pail players, which meant Derrick Coleman, Jerry Stackhouse, Tim Thomas and Larry Hughes all had to go. Brown seemed reactionary and power-starved, but what he did was give Iverson the cocoon he needed. The new acquisitions were Aaron McKie, Theo Ratliff (later sacrificed for Mutombo), Eric Snow, Tyrone Hill and George Lynch, and it wasn't their nature to gripe for the ball. They'd do the dirty work, Iverson the scoring. Brown convinced him if he gave up being point guard, if he simply let go of the ball, he'd get it back tenfold. He gave Allen a great gift: freedom.
Of course, Iverson had no clue. He abused everything Brown had created for him, showing up late to practices, games, buses and weight room sessions. "Allen would hide in the toilet when we'd lift weights," says John Croce, Pat's brother and until recently the team's strength coach. "He'd come in and eat 20, 25 tacos for breakfast -- I mean, he'd be in the locker room with bags of them -- and I don't know if they made him sick, but he'd spend the rest of the morning in the bathroom. There's no way he'd want to lift. He'd be, 'John, I'll be right there,' and then he'd disappear. I called him Casper."
Brown initially showed mercy on Iverson. Maybe part of it was he'd heard the whispers about Iverson from people in the organization. Whispers from people who called Iverson and his mother "The Beverly Hillbillies." Whispers that Iverson's mother wore sneakers with her mink coat. Whispers that Iverson had his posse pick up his mother at an airport one day, that they couldn't remember where they parked his sports utility vehicle and that she just went out and bought another one. Whispers that Iverson sold his house to teammate Matt Geiger, and that Geiger moved in to find a Mercedes in the garage and 25 pairs of new Timberland boots in the front bedroom. Whispers that Geiger also found cash just lying around on the rug.
So, for whatever reason, Brown protected Iverson -- against his own instincts. Brown had been taught long ago by McGuire and then Dean Smith to put the team first. By tolerating Iverson's insolence, he was breaking Tar Heel law. This burdened him, and he worried what other Sixers thought.
He pulled McKie aside to say, "I can't keep avoiding these issues with Allen being late and overlooking it, because you guys won't respect me." But McKie and Snow told Brown, "Let us handle it." Their idea was to drive Iverson to the arena themselves. But Brown's guilt kicked in, and he was trying to rationalize this double-standard he'd created when he told McKie, "Well, the little kid has had a pretty tough childhood." McKie's response: "Well, 12 guys in that locker room could probably say the same." And that's the statement that rocked Brown.
McKie was right -- what made Iverson so special? And that's when Brown started climbing all over Iverson, which in turn was when Brown learned the dos and don'ts of coaching Bubba Chuck.
Rule No.1: Critique him in private. If not, he'll rebel. "Aaron McKie once told me Allen had some loose wires; that he doesn't respond in a group setting very well," Brown says. "And I told Allen that. And Allen kind of laughed, and he said, 'No, no, no, Coach, I can do it. You can get on me.' But there's no way. He's got too much pride. He can't."
Rule No.2: If you yank him from the game, cover your ears. Brown, who normally spreads playing time around, has given Iverson more minutes than any player he's ever coached. But Iverson still whines. "Every time I take him out now, he gets upset," Brown says. "Even this year against Golden State. He'd just dislocated his shoulder five days earlier, and it was his first game back, and I took him out, and I hear, 'If I'd known I'd be sitting on the bench, I wouldn't have come back tonight.' I mean, he was playing 40-something minutes and saying this. But I go through this every game."
Rule No.3: If you get rid of his friends, cover your ears. It came to a head when the team released his pal Vernon Maxwell this season. A despondent Iverson went storming to Brown to say, "All my best friends are released or traded," which Brown denied to his face. "I said, 'Vernon isn't gone because he was close to you,'" Brown says. "But Allen said, 'What about Stackhouse?' And then he himself said, 'No, you're right, I couldn't have played with Stackhouse.' And then he said, 'Larry Hughes!' And then he said, 'Oh, you're right, I knew Larry had to leave because he and I play the same position.' And then all that stuff stopped."
Of course, while Brown was learning these rules, he nearly traded him. Iverson almost went first to the Clippers and then to Detroit in a four-team, 22-player deal last summer that would have brought Eddie Jones, Jerome Williams and Glen Rice to Philadelphia. "It came close, brother, it came close," says the man who runs the franchise. And that was why Croce called Iverson this summer, to say goodbye, and that's when Iverson tried talking him out of it. No one will disclose why the deals fell through, and Iverson says, "I'm glad because I never want to leave Philly."
It's strange he says that, considering he's received e-mails in Philly threatening the life of 2-year-old Deuce, who's already in cornrows, and his 5-year-old daughter, Tiaura. Or considering he's had racial epithets spray-painted in his backyard. But ever since the trades fell through, he has rarely been tardy. He has lifted his weights, gained 17 pounds and given up tacos for eggs and fruit. "He calls it his 'get-thick' program," John Croce says. And Brown named him co-captain.
"I mean, this is a different animal," Brown says of Iverson. "This is a kid who's just so different from any other that's ever been put on this planet, and it just takes time. You'll go through peaks and valleys, and you just have to fight through it. I think in his own way, he's made unbelievable strides, and he's trying real hard. And I think in five years if I'm still here, I could be saying the same thing. That he's still trying to find himself."
The truth is, Iverson is always in some maelstrom. Last season in Indiana, a heckler shouted that Iverson was "born from a dog" and that his mother was "a German shepherd." Iverson bit his lip that day, but during a national TV game against the Pacers this season, he called a heckler a "faggot," saying the fan called him a jailbird and a monkey. Considering the June release of his much-hyped Misunderstood, a CD full of homophobic and sexist lyrics, his timing was awful. But this is Iverson, and there are more raw stories out there.
For instance, against Utah in Philadelphia this December, when Iverson was lighting up John Stockton for 45 points, a Jazz official says Iverson got in Stockton's ear and said, "No f---ing white boy is going to stop me." Karl Malone was livid.
So, it is always something. And that's where the man who runs the franchise comes in.
Next: Pat Croce referees the tempestuous relationship between star and coach. Click here for Part 2.
This article appears in the March 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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