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Mama's Boys
Gary Smith
April 23, 2001
Two fiercely competitive small men in a big man's game, two sons of hardworking single moms—Allen Iverson and Larry Brown are so much alike that only their mothers could tell them apart...and bring them together.
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April 23, 2001

Mama's Boys

Two fiercely competitive small men in a big man's game, two sons of hardworking single moms—Allen Iverson and Larry Brown are so much alike that only their mothers could tell them apart...and bring them together.

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Is it any wonder what those first three years together held for the son of Ann Iverson and the son of Ann Brown? Any surprise that the kid who lived life in a circle and the man who lived it in a line—away, straight away from the past and the pain—forever bewildered and enraged each other? "This team," says Sixers general manager Billy King, "felt the tension between Larry and Allen every day."

Of Allen's story Larry knew but a little, mostly about the bowling-alley incident and his two years at Georgetown. Of Larry's past, Allen knew virtually nothing beyond what a few players on other teams had told him: The cat knows the game, but he'll try to get in your head, try to mess with your game, look out.

No, the only wonder was that they remained together. After all, Larry possessed complete control over personnel decisions, more power than he'd ever had over a franchise: He could have traded Allen whenever he wished. But where would he again find such a warrior, such a bundle of quickness and energy and heart? So, instead, he traded or cut everyone else, literally—including such offensive talents as Jerry Stackhouse, Jim Jackson, Derrick Coleman, Tim Thomas and Larry Hughes. He began surrounding Allen with so many players who did it the Right Way that Allen could do it some other way and it might still turn out right, and the Sixers might yet become a lopsided but lovable family that delivered Larry the one thing he didn't have to go with the Olympic gold medals he'd won as a player and as an assistant coach, and his NCAA title: an NBA ring.

That is, until last summer, when Larry couldn't bear another day of selling out Dean and Phog and James. He had King cobble together a four-team, 22-player trade. Allen paced the floor at night, unable to sleep or eat, tormented by the knowledge that Larry could leave him by the roadside.

Allen called Croce, die tattooed team president who sat with him in die trainer's room before every home game, one of the few white men he'd trusted since the handcuff creases had faded from his wrists, perhaps the only executive in sports who could have held this relationship together even as long as this. For an hour and a half, he said the same words over and over: I'm gonna change. I'm gonna get married. I'm buyin' a big house. I'm ready to be a leader. I wanna be a captain. I'm gonna be on time. I can do it. Croce believed him, but it was only the decision by one of the other players involved in the deal—Sixers center Matt Geiger's refusal to waive his contractual right to a 15% bonus should he be traded—that kept Larry from turning Allen into a Piston.

Allen met with Larry just before camp and repeated his vows. "I want to have the kind of relationship with you," he said, "that Magic Johnson had with Pat Riley and Michael Jordan had with Phil Jackson." Those words touched Larry. That's all he'd ever wanted, too. The reaching out began.

It's still a work in progress. Remember that, no matter what you might've read or seen on TV. It began in chaos, a training camp convulsed by controversy over lyrics on Allen's as-yet-unreleased first rap CD. Coach Brown held his tongue. Co-captain Iverson kept his vows. The Sixers shot out to a 10-0 start, opening a gap their Eastern Conference rivals never closed. Teammates who'd quietly resented Allen's trigger finger when he wasn't showing up in the weight room or at practice were satisfied now that he was, and the victories kept piling up.

No doubt you know about Larry and Allen's shiniest moment, when Allen's fourth-quarter explosion carried the East All-Star team, which Larry was coaching, to a back-from-the-dead win over the West, and Allen's first breathless words at the podium after receiving the game's MVP award were, "Where's my coach? Where's my coach?" What you didn't see was what the Jewish grandfather carried in his pocket the second half of the season: a black crucifix given to him by Ann Iverson.

What you didn't hear was Allen stepping into the van awaiting him after practice one day and announcing, out of the blue, to his bodyguard-driver, "Man, I'm gonna win this man a ring. He's been in the league all this time and come so close and never got one. His first one gonna be my first one. Can't wait to see his face when I pour that champagne on his head."

What you might've noticed was Allen beginning to dish die ball more often to teammates when he was double-teamed. What you might've missed was Larry making a point of smiling and saying hello to Allen's tribe as he departed the locker room. Allen making eye contact and nodding when Larry gave him on-court instructions. Larry asking Allen into his office for input before February's Theo Ratliff-and-Toni Kukoc-for-Dikembe Mutombo trade. Larry giving Allen pats on the butt, and Allen giving Larry hugs.

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