Iverson's emerging image

76ers: Until this season, Allen Iverson was defined by his hip-hop look and controversial past. Now, with a scoring title and his team in the playoffs, he has the NBA abuzz about its brightest young star.

May 23, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- It was a volatile situation that threatened to destroy the Philadelphia 76ers' season, the clash of egos between the high-salaried superstar and the well-paid coach.

That's when millionaire team president Pat Croce decided to get involved, in hopes his young, promising team would stay the course. He sought an audience last month with the two principals, guard Allen Iverson and coach Larry Brown, to smooth over the situation.

"It was a major concern, because I want a harmonious family -- I want a family that loves each other," Croce said. "So I stepped in. Because I know we all have a common goal, and that's to win a championship."

That championship won't likely come this year for the 76ers, who play host to the Indiana Pacers today in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference playoffs, trailing the series 3-0. But with Iverson leading the way on the court and Brown calling the shots from the bench, the team has made tremendous strides, first dominating third-seeded Orlando in the opening round of the playoffs and now playing the veteran Pacers tough in the conference semifinals.

In the process, Iverson has emerged as one of the league's biggest stars. He averaged a career-best 26.8 points a game this season, barely beating out Shaquille O'Neal for the NBA scoring title. He recorded career lows in field-goal percentage (41.2) and assists (4.6 a game), but those stats have little bearing on what the NBA's smallest-ever scoring champion (Iverson stands 6 feet) means to his team.

"I don't think you guys have a concept of the impact this kid has on a game," said Orlando coach Chuck Daly, after Iverson averaged 28.2 points in the opening round against his Magic. "He's a tremendous competitor. What he does for the Sixers, I don't think they realize."

What he does is provide the team a competitor with the same, positive mind-set of the league's last scoring champion -- Michael Jordan. And you can even compare Iverson in his third season to Jordan in his third season -- both, while inconsistent jump shooters, were unstoppable scorers with a tremendous sense of self worth.

"I don't feel like anybody can guard me," Iverson said, a phrase he has repeated many times this season. "That's not being cocky or conceited or anything like that. That's just me believing in my God-given ability."

And, like Jordan, the fans flock in droves to see Iverson. In the just-completed, lockout-shortened season the Sixers averaged 18,336 fans on the road to finish as the league's No. 2 road draw, behind the over-hyped Los Angeles Lakers (19,449).

Perhaps the public is warming to the anti-Jordan. While his airness went for the bald look, Iverson has made cornrow braids fashionable. Where Jordan in his later years was almost always neatly attired in expensive, tailor-made suits, Iverson is more comfortable in baggy pants, sweat shirts and numerous expensive chains dangling from his neck. When Iverson did wear a suit to the news conference following the Game 2 loss in Indiana, he sported a matching black doo-rag to keep his braids neatly in place.

"I love his image -- live outside the box," Croce said. "He's a kid. Let him enjoy life. I like that he doesn't follow the trend. Let him make the trend."

While Iverson has the market on a best-selling shoe, the living "outside the box" image he projects has probably cost the 23-year-old millions in endorsements off the court.

His prior arrest in high school on an assault charge, his friends getting arrested in his home state of Virginia for violations while using his car, his getting sued by Mercedes-Benz Corp. for nearly $30,000 in back payments on three automobiles -- all have attached some negativity to his name. It didn't help that he acquired a reputation as an out-of-control player on the court.

Iverson, who has a tattoo on his left shoulder that reads "Trust No One," seems to take it all in stride. Still, it's not lost on him that another flashy and often out-of-control guard with a similar shady background, Sacramento's Jason Williams, appears to be universally embraced by the same public and media that criticized Iverson.

"I like his game and I wish him well," Iverson said, in his gravelly voice, of Williams. "But he hasn't faced nowhere near any of the stuff that I've been through."

And that bothers Croce.

"Without a doubt, I don't think what has happened to Allen in the past has been forgiven," Croce said, obviously irritated discussing the issue, while standing in the lobby of the team's executive offices. "And why won't they do that to Jason Williams? So what that Allen's pants are baggy, he has tattoos and cornrows and a posse? The fact that he gets blasted for that is baloney."

At least Iverson now gets credit and respect for the incredible talent that he is.

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