Likewise, there's no telling how long the detente between Brown and Iverson will last. Only two months ago Iverson excoriated the coach in front of the other Sixers, causing Brown to take a two-day leave of absence. With the two coexisting peacefully, there's no reason to wait. "Right now," the 60-year-old Brown says of the state of the union, "things have never been better."
The same goes for Iverson's play. Simply put, he has been breathtaking of late. Through Monday he was leading the league in points (31.0 per game), minutes (42.6) and steals (2.39). Iverson had left Webber flat-footed in the MVP race by scoring at least 40 points in five of Philadelphia's eight games since the All-Star break. What's more, he had been playing with a competitive resolve unseen since—dare we say it?—Michael Jordan. The 6-foot, 160-pound Iverson attacks the basket relentlessly, mocks defenders of all shapes and sizes with a stupefyingly quick crossover and has no fear of planting himself in the lane to take charges from players like 240-pound Hornets forward Jamal Mashburn. Half a dozen times a game Iverson gets slammed to the deck, only to pop right back up like a Whack-A-Mole. "He's just an incredible basketball player," said Mutombo after Iverson scored 47 of Philadelphia's 85 points against Charlotte. "You see him on television, but [his quickness] is much more shocking when you see it with your own eyes."
Even Iverson can't do it alone, however. Philadelphia's 42-16 record through Monday had also been forged by a corps of selfless, defensive-minded players like Tyrone Hill, George Lynch, Aaron McKie and Eric Snow. None are close to spectacular, but all have bought into Brown's philosophy and play with unmistakable pride, elevating their games when a teammate goes down with an injury. As long as they continue to hear that they are "glorified role players" or "over-achievers" or that " Brown is coaching with smoke and mirrors," they will stay plenty hungry. "At some point you have to admit it's more than luck," says Lynch. "We play hard, we play right, and people should respect us for playing better basketball than every other team in the league."
What will come of this one-for-all consciousness in the wake of the trade? There were few tears shed over the departure of Kukoc—who was never accused of having an outsized heart—but Ratliff was an exponent of the Sixers' proletarian mentality. Last weekend four players independently used the word hurt to describe their sentiments about the trade, while Ratliff wondered to the Philadelphia Daily News if the 76ers didn't rush his surgery to facilitate dealing him. Iverson expressed approval of the move, but even he conceded that if Brown and King's chemistry experiment combusts, "it's on them."
Mutombo knows that to some extent, it's on him as well. "It's up to me to adjust to them, to embrace them with open arms and be part of the family, not the other way around," he says. On the court, that's not likely to be a problem. Mutombo is the rare star center who doesn't demand the ball and whose performance is best judged by the output of the opposing center.
Socially, too, the early signs are that he'll be all right. Though he declined an invitation to join a high-stakes card game on his first team flight, it didn't take him long to become one of the guys. By his second game he was being ribbed for wearing an inside-out Hawks T-shirt to breakfast. He also knew enough to take it as a term of endearment when he arrived in Detroit and Iverson greeted him by saying, "Now that you're here, get your big-ass feet on the court so we can get it on." Says Mutombo, "It's easier [to fit in] when everyone wants the same things. In this case, it's to stay on the path to the championship."
If for some reason that path gets blocked? Rest assured that Philly fans will point to last week's audacious trade and then, in the manner of the Sixers' new center, wag a forefinger disapprovingly.