At the 2002 Winter Olympics, the coach, parents and five siblings of gold medal skater Sarah Hughes followed her around. There was scant talk of her having a posse. Instead we were told ad nauseam that the 16-year-old Hughes has a close-knit family. When 17-year-old Ty Tryon made his PGA Tour debut earlier this year, he was ringed by an 11-member brigade that included a trainer, a yoga instructor, an image consultant, an agent, a sports shrink and two massage therapists. It was a retinue to rival any rapper's, but there was no hue and cry. For years hangers-on and self-styled gurus have been native fauna on the tennis circuit. No one has cared much. Why is there so much consternation when basketball players bring along similar phalanxes?
One answer: The NBA, unlike individual sports, has team dynamics that might be disrupted by entourages. In Philadelphia during the 1996-97 season, the entourages of Stackhouse (then a 76er) and Iverson reportedly engaged in a brawl that became part of NBA lore. The source of the purported conflict was that each crew claimed die other's "guy" was taking too many shots. Stories also abound about entourage members accosting coaches and team officials to complain about substitution patterns or the way their player was or wasn't being used.
What's more, good team chemistry usually requires that players bond. How much social interaction can a player have with teammates when he's perpetually surrounded by his own set of friends? As Charles Barkley grouses, "It used to be your teammates were your posse. Now everyone has his own circle."
On the other hand, taking steps to exclude an entourage can also ruffle feathers. Two seasons ago Seattle management barred entourage members (as well as the media) from attending team practices, claiming that their presence was a distraction. When Nate McMillan took over as coach last season, he went a step further, barring entourage members from the training facility. Those assigned to pick up players are made to wait in the parking lot, their cars idling. In the Payton camp, at least, this was taken as an affront. Responds McMillan, "I don't have a problem with [entourages] as long as they understand the boundaries. But you can't be hanging around the locker room or practice or riding the bus."
Then there's this nettlesome question: Would there be any such angst if the entourage members weren't black and didn't wear billowy jeans and copious jewelry? No, says Poussaint, the Harvard psychiatrist, "these are African-Americans making lots of money, and having these entourages looks like loose spending, and I think that turns people off."
The posse cited most by critics is Iverson's, which he calls Cru Thik. It's composed mostly of Iverson's childhood friends, whom he imported to Philadelphia from his hometown of Newport News, Va. At times the crew has had more than a dozen members, not including Iverson's personal hair stylist from New Jersey, whom he flies to most road games. Some members have shown themselves to have something less than sterling characters. In 1998, for instance, Michael Powell, who was convicted of felony possession of cocaine in 1990 and weapons possession in '92, was pulled over while in Iverson's car and charged with cocaine possession. (The charge was dismissed.)
Two seasons ago Iverson took his friends along on a road trip to Miami. After a night of partying on South Beach, Iverson missed a morning practice and was suspended by the 76ers for one game. At the time Iverson's friend Alonzo Mourning, the Miami Heat center, said, "I don't think [Allen] has the right people around him." (Mourning should know. In April 1996 federal investigators raided his house in Potomac, Md., and seized guns, ammunition and more than $40,000 in cash as part of a drug search. The subject of the sting was Earl Lee Nolton Jr., a Mourning associate who had been living off and on in the house. Nolton later pleaded guilty to distributing crack and was sentenced to 21 years in prison.)
While Iverson stands steadfastly by his entourage—among his panoply of tattoos one reads CRU THIK and another is the Japanese characters for loyalty—its members haven't always reciprocated. One "friend" allegedly charged a $7,000 watch to Iverson's credit card. Even so, one would be hard-pressed to argue that Cru Thik has had a harmful effect on the play of the league's reigning MVP. Besides, Cru Thik has thinned; Iverson seems to have pruned his social circle recently. These days Iverson's closest confidants—yes, even the inner circles can have concentric rings-are Henry (Que) Gaskins, a Northwestern M.B.A., and Gary Moore, Iverson's former youth football coach. "Things have really calmed down," says Miles, who got to know Cru Thik when Iverson and Tim Thomas were teammates. "Like a lot of young guys Allen had to figure out who really had his best interests at heart. When you find those who don't, it's time to make some changes."
Fortunately, for decamped aides-decamp there is a secondary labor market. A few seasons ago in Minneapolis, a member of Garnett's OBF decided he wasn't getting sufficient respect, so he switched over to Marbury's entourage. Then there is the case of former guard Vernon Maxwell, who is somewhat akin to the National Basketball Development League of entourages. When Maxwell played in Philly in the mid-'90s, he was joined by, among others, his friend Brian (Cigar) Thompson. When Maxwell was traded to San Antonio, Cigar stayed, got in good with the Iverson crowd and is now a peripheral member of Cru Thik. Similarly, when Maxwell was traded to Seattle in 1999, he hung out with Mandrell Hall. Maxwell was cut by the Sonics after the season, but Hall stayed around the Pacific Northwest and now bills himself as an assistant to Vin Baker.
"Like all the guys I hang with, Mandrell can help make my life easier, and I can help make his life easier," says Baker. "I hear it all the time, 'Vin's entourage this, Vin's entourage that.' But I'm telling you, if people took the time to see what we're really about, they'd realize that it's a win-win situation." Put another way, like so many NBA players, Baker is not worried about staying one step ahead of the posse.