Every time Pat Croce sees Allen Iverson, he shouts: "Yo, Bubba Chuck!" And every time, Iverson gives him a delectable smile. "I guess I'm as close to him as a white guy can be," says Croce. And it's a good thing, because this is also the man who every day referees Allen Iverson vs. Larry Brown.
Croce quite possibly has the best people skills in pro sports, and what he's done best is give Iverson the benefit of the doubt. He does it because he sees what others do not see. That Iverson never lets TV cameras follow him to his charity work. That Iverson cracks the team up with his Michael Jackson impersonation. That Iverson's way of saying hello is, "What's up, Cat Daddy?" That Iverson won't wear deodorant during games, to keep the defense off him. That if it's time for practice and the basketballs aren't out yet, Iverson will shoot tube socks at the rim. That Iverson was the first to console Eric Snow this season when Snow broke his foot, and that Snow's wife couldn't believe Iverson was so kind.
"That's what I'd been telling her about Allen," Snow says. "He's a good kid. Give him a chance. To whom it may concern, give him a chance."
Croce gives him chances because he knows Bubba Chuck's father was an absentee and because his own father could be a bully. Croce grew up in a Philadelphia row house, where he was often black and blue. His father, Pasquale, was an orphan and a former boxer who would slap his son around to get points across. "We lived in a split level, and you had to go up six steps to get past him," Croce says. "He'd kick you down them, and tell you to get the belt. I had to get the belt he'd beat me with."
At church, his father was an usher who greeted every woman with a kiss. He would pass around the collection plate, and if someone didn't pay, he'd drop the plate in his lap and wait. And a young Pat Croce became his spitting image. Croce says he fought "if someone looked at me crooked," and even in grad school at the University of Pittsburgh, he stabbed his finger deep into someone's eye during a brawl and wouldn't let go. He traveled in packs, with friends who threw darts at each other or shot store mannequins with handguns for fun. He once got caught in rifle crossfire at a South Carolina saloon, and police nearly arrested him. "I realized in college it was either crime or physical therapy, and I chose physical therapy," he says.
The rest is history. He built a conglomerate of physical therapy centers, worked as a Sixers strength coach, got Charles Barkley to give up pizza and sold his businesses for millions. When he teamed with Flyers owner Ed Snider and cable operator Comcast-Spectacor to buy the Sixers, he also did something Iverson would do: He hired friends to work at the arena. "And if my father hadn't died, he'd be mayor of the place," Croce says.
So Croce -- who has a tattoo of a pirate ship on his left forearm -- knows why Iverson never turns his back on his posse, even if they carry guns. He knows why Iverson has 21 tattoos himself, including one on his neck, written in Chinese, that means "Loyalty." Knows why Iverson will finally settle down this summer and marry the mother of his children, Tawanna Turner.
And so this is why Croce goes to Larry Brown and sells Bubba Chuck. Sells him hard. But if you could only hear what he's heard. "A year ago, neither one of them wanted the other," Croce says. "One of them wanted him traded or he wasn't coming back, and the other wanted him fired or else. I said, 'I take no ultimatums, never took 'em on the corner, don't give 'em to me now.' "
The crises have come in waves, which might be why Croce says he'll sell his share of the Sixers if they win it all. Last season in Detroit, Brown benched Iverson for sloppiness, and when the reserves led a comeback, Brown kept Iverson out. Afterward, Iverson ripped the coach in a meeting with Brown and Croce, a meeting Iverson described as an alley fight. "Bubba Chuck just had to vent," Croce says. "And Coach just took it in."
But Brown is temperamental too, and he told Croce it's not an owner's job to be a liaison. And that's when Croce learned Brown needs to be stroked like Bubba Chuck. That Brown has issues too. That he went years without speaking to his older brother Herb. That Larry and Herb have only recently rebonded. That Larry then wanted to hire Herb as an assistant coach. (He eventually did.) And that Larry and Herb, around Christmas, had their best talk in 40 years.
Of course, the subject of part of that talk was Bubba Chuck. The Sixers had held a team meeting around the holidays, and Iverson told Brown he was nagging the team too much and needed to back off. Herb and Larry discussed it afterward, and Brown decided to take a two-day hiatus. Word got back to Croce that Larry might resign, to which Croce replied, "I won't let him! I'll break his legs and throw 'em in the casket with him. He won't be able to walk away."
So Croce did what he does best: He called Brown every morning and told him he loved him. And he told Bubba Chuck he loved him, too. "Thanks, Cat Daddy," Bubba Chuck said. It was that dance again, that dance that they all do. Croce then asked Brown and Bubba Chuck to meet, and the coach and Bubba Chuck met, and Bubba Chuck agreed to bust his back on defense, and Brown agreed to coach, and the next thing you knew, the Sixers had the best record in the NBA.
And then it was All-Star Sunday, and the East was down by 21 with about eight minutes left, and the East coach, Larry Brown, gave the ball to Bubba Chuck and said, "Let the little guy try to win it." And Bubba Chuck poured in 15 points in those eight minutes, and suddenly had an MVP trophy to give to his mother. And when it was time to give a speech at center court, the first thing he said was not "thank you" or "kiss my ass."
It was, "Where my coach? Where my coach?"
This article appears in the March 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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