There are theories upon theories as to why, at age 25, Iverson has gone from chronic truant to Webelos. (He's not a Boy Scout just yet.) Some Allen-watchers, such as Philly forward Tyrone Hill, chalk it up to natural maturation. McKie says Brown's signals are finally reaching Planet Al. Pat Croce, the 76ers' president (and John's older brother), believes Iverson is motivated to become the league's most complete player.
All the theories are interesting. All are very wrong. The answer to the Answer goes back to last summer.
The worst off-season of Iverson's career reached its nadir in early July. He had heard whispers that the Sixers might try to trade him. He figured that the odds were against it, that it was meaningless chatter. Then he saw his name attached to the phrase that translates to "Your NBA life is over": Los Angeles Clippers.
Although Pat Croce insists his team never had serious talks with the Clippers, Iverson was floored by the rumors. "The Clippers?" he says. "Nobody wants to play for the Clippers."
Still, the Sixers were shopping Iverson. In late July, Philadelphia had a four-team, 10-player deal lined up with the Detroit Pistons, the Charlotte Hornets and the Los Angeles Lakers that would have sent Iverson and center Matt Geiger to Detroit. Had the deal not fallen through at the last minute, Iverson's idiosyncrasies (not to mention the last five years and $61.9 million of his contract) would be Motown's concern. Iverson says it was the trade talk, above all, that made him change his attitude.
"I was seriously mad," he says. "From that point on I promised myself that I would never give anyone the ammo to [use against me]. I looked back at the practices I missed. It was ridiculous—I missed so many, and I was late for so many. I gave them ammo."
On July 8, Pat Croce flew to Hampton, Va., to take part in Iverson's annual celebrity softball tournament. The two spent several hours chatting—Iverson begging not to go to Clipland, Croce explaining how things had to be. "He was pissed," says Croce. "I told him that no one I know controls his destiny better than he does. All he has to do is follow Coach Brown's rules, and he won't go anywhere. It's that simple."
The trade talk died, but the heat did not. On Aug. 7—one month after Magic Johnson had played in the softball fund raiser—Iverson was to be a featured performer in A Midsummer Night's Magic, Johnson's charity basketball game at UCLA. Iverson, however, stayed out late the night before, overslept and missed his flight to L.A. Orlando Magic swingman Tracy McGrady also was a no-show. After thanking the participants, a livid Johnson, who had been counseling Iverson in weekly phone conversations, told the crowd, "You already know I am mad at the ones who didn't show and told me they were coming."
Iverson tried to prove he was serious about growing up by requesting the captaincy. Then in October—to the surprise of the 76ers, who knew Iverson was working on a rap album but had no idea what was on it—Universal Records provided The Philadelphia Inquirer with lyrics to 40 Bars, the first single on Iverson's debut CD, Non-Fiction. In the song Iverson, a surprisingly skilled rapper who goes by the alias Jewelz, uses the word nigga 12 times, bitch three. The line that has evoked the most outrage: "Come to me with faggot tendencies./You be sleepin where the maggots be."
"People who are into rap know what I'm talking about," says Iverson, who insists that most of the offending references are hardly outrageous by rap standards. "If I was trying to make everyone happy, I could only rap about cartoons and the Rugrats. My hip-hop fans wouldn't accept that."