To take step forward, 76ers might leave Iverson behind

ON THE NBA

February 22, 2004|By MILTON KENT

A week ago Friday, Allen Iverson sat at a table in a ballroom of a Los Angeles hotel and spoke with heartfelt sincerity about how much he wanted to be a Philadelphia 76er for life.

Within four days, Iverson had not only missed a practice, but declared himself "angry" and "upset about being here eight years and someone being here for one game and benching me."

For the first seven-plus years of his career, Iverson's teammates and Sixers management have been willing to deal with the conundrum that he presents, but there are signs that the uneasy marriage may come to an end when the season is over.

Iverson, the NBA's second-leading scorer and steals leader, is probably the league's hardest-working player. That is, on the court. It's his legendary reputation for partying, and his aversion to practicing ("Practice? We're talking about practice. Not a game. Practice.") that has been at issue.

Iverson, an Eastern Conference starter at last week's All-Star Game, missed a mandatory Monday practice in Denver, where the Sixers opened play after the break. New coach Chris Ford benched Iverson as punishment, triggering the response from the guard after Tuesday's loss.

Ford, who had been an assistant to the recently fired Randy Ayers, had no choice but to punish Iverson, if for no other reason than to gain the respect of his players. Ayers had supposedly lost that respect in the 52 games he coached this year after taking over for Larry Brown, who left for Detroit after last season.

If anything, Ayers may have done a better job of coaching than anyone realized. According to Harvey Pollack, Philadelphia's longtime director of statistical information, the Sixers lost more man-games to injury than any other team in the NBA before the All-Star break.

Iverson said he and his teammates should feel "guilty" over Ayers' departure, and the expression was genuine, as was the subsequent declaration that he was prepared to be traded, as he nearly was three seasons ago to Detroit.

That deal was quashed when former Sixers teammate Matt Geiger refused the trade, but general manager Billy King may have better reasons to trade Iverson now. Iverson is 28, but the wear and tear on his body from his playing style and his partying style may have added untold years to his body.

If the 76ers, who are hovering around the eighth Eastern playoff spot, are convinced that they can't win a title the way they are presently constituted, then there might never be a better time to deal Iverson, the team's best player and most marketable asset, than after the season. King said Thursday that Iverson was not on the trading block, despite rumors that the Houston Rockets had proposed sending Steve Francis to Philadelphia for Iverson.

The fallout in Philadelphia, where Iverson is as beloved as the statue of Billy Penn, will be huge if the diminutive ex-Georgetown guard is dealt, but this may be the only way that the story can have a happy ending for all sides.

"I always try to prepare myself for that [a trade]," said Iverson. "I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know if I'll finish my career as a Sixer. I want to and I believe I will, but I don't know. I won't be hurt if the franchise gets something out of it, because the franchise has done so much for me."

Quiz

Portland forward Zach Randolph, a leading candidate for Most Improved Player honors, has not only increased his scoring, but also his rebounding. Which NBA player saw the biggest rise in rebounding from one year to the next since 1980, minimum of 70 games played? (Hint: He recently received his first NBA championship ring.)

Union trouble

The relationship between the NBA and its players union is a decent one, perhaps more chummy than some might like, but the two sides seem destined to come to a parting of the ways over former Boston forward Vin Baker.

The Celtics terminated Baker's contract with 2 1/2 years and $36 million left on it, contending the power forward wasn't physically able to play. Baker was suspended indefinitely for violating the terms of his alcohol rehabilitation aftercare agreement.

Though Baker and the Celtics had negotiated a separate clause in his contract about his efforts to deal with his alcoholism, the fight between the league and the union is over whether waiving Baker is allowed under the terms of his basic contract. Union chief Billy Hunter says the club can't go around the guarantees provided in a contract to cut a player, while the league believes under these circumstances, it can.

"That's why they invented arbitrators," said NBA commissioner David Stern.

The two sides, who are negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement before the current one expires at the end of next season, hope to have a new deal in place before the start of next season.

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