Basketball's Bad Boy

It's 1:30 a.m. in a small recording studio in a seedy South Philly neighborhood where NBA superstar Allen Iverson and his boys are laying down tracks for his debut album, "Non Fiction." After 30-minutes of nonstop rap, Iverson, dressed in oversize jeans, a black T shirt and matching do-rag, orders a break to talk with a reporter about his musical venture. But when his pals don't quiet down, the NBA's quickest point guard erupts in a fury as explosive as his first step to the hoop. "Motherf-----r, don't you see me doing a motherf-----g interview? Shut the f--k up, you bitch-a-- motherf-----r. That's what's wrong with y'all a---s. That's why you ain't got s--t."

Iverson's crew is stunned into silence, embarrassed to be dissed so publicly. If the Philadelphia 76ers star can disconcert his own posse, it's hardly surprising that his rookie rap song--with its disdain for "bitches" and "faggots"--has distressed so many, from the NBA to the NAACP. While the album won't be out till next year, The Philadelphia Inquirer printed the lyrics to one single, "40 Bars," which created a furor. A "gangsta" pose may help sell music. But it's anathema to the NBA. With the season starting Tuesday, it can't afford to alienate its largely white, middle-aged ticket-buyers in a slumping post-Jordan era. But Iverson views the flap as evidence that--his six-year, $70.9 million 76ers contract and 10-year, $50 million Reebok deal notwithstanding--the world is dead set against him. "It's like anything else in my life," says Iverson, 25. "People attack everything I do."

But it is Iverson's lifestyle (a penchant for partying) and his attitude (a disdain for any rules but his own) that threaten his reputation and his continued success in the NBA. Despite his nonpareil offensive skills, the Olympic basketball team conspicuously omitted Iverson from its roster. And the perpetual talk of the "next Jordan" now seems to bypass him for younger, straight-arrow stars like Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter. He was genuinely shocked to discover that the 76ers were trying to trade him during the off season--and doubly shocked that there were no takers. "He thought the team was like family," says a confidant, "and that you keep everything in the family and deal with it one-on-one."

But the Philly "family" had begun to implode well before Iverson began recording his album this summer. Veteran coach Larry Brown began to go public with his grievances last season after Iverson showed up late for a playoff game. Brown had already counted 50 separate practices last season to which Iverson was late; there were others he simply skipped. And the coach views the recent rap flap as one more unwelcome sideshow. "I was blindsided by the album," Brown told NEWSWEEK before a recent preseason game. "He had come to everybody and told them this year was going to be different, things were going to change--and then this. I mean that's not the music I listen to so I didn't really understand what was being said or why. I just knew it wasn't the way we wanted to start the season."

Still, Brown's words remain rather temperate, given that one NBA veteran calls it the worst relationship between coach and star player he's ever witnessed. Although the tension did not keep the team out of the playoffs last season, it was always palpable and weighed on everyone. "Hate and disdain," says the veteran. "How that team and Larry has survived is truly amazing to me." Typically, Iverson says his relationship with his coach doesn't matter all that much. "You don't have to be friends with the coach or even like him," he says. "All you got to do is play and can't nobody say anything bad about my game."

That's mostly true. Iverson's blend of speed and offensive creativity is unique in the NBA. Over five stellar seasons, he has averaged 25 points per game, third highest among active players behind Shaquille O'Neal and Karl Malone. He regards himself as a natural talent who hasn't needed to work on his game--or his body. Iverson refuses to lift weights or do conditioning work during the off season, something most everybody in the league regards as essential to longevity. Iverson says he has always played himself into shape. But this summer, friends say, he didn't even play ball. The scrawny six-foot guard reported to training camp 15 pounds lighter than last year, a potential problem given the NBA's long season.

Brown considered quitting after last season rather than endure another tortured year trying to coach "someone who takes any criticism as a personal attack," he says. His wife, though, urged him to stay: "Don't let one player run you away,'' she said. Seldom do coaches survive public spats with their best player. But Iverson's teammates were equally displeased with his antics and sided with Brown. They say they're sick of apologists for Iverson blaming his irresponsibility on childhood hardships: an all-too-familiar tale of extreme poverty, a 15-year-old mother and both a father and stepfather in prison. "I grew up without s--t and no daddy, but I know how to come to work on time," says one teammate. "Half the brothers grew up in so-called 'hard lives' and we're doing what we're supposed to. It's a bulls--t excuse."

The coach has agreed to back off a bit and let his veteran players take a crack at Iverson. Aaron McKie is one of the 76ers who is trying to steer him straight. "Growing up the way Allen did makes you hard and defiant," says McKie, 28, who himself grew up without a father and whose family lived for a time in a car. "I'd probably have jumped off a bridge if I had his pressures. But I tell him that being late and fussing with the coach doesn't help matters at all. That's gotta go."

Iverson is such an immense talent and can, at times, be so engaging that others have been tempted by the mentoring role. Magic Johnson began phoning him regularly this year and believed he was having some positive influence. But Johnson was devastated when Iverson, the featured star at Magic's annual charity game for the United Negro College Fund, failed to show up. "You know who's not here," Magic told the huge crowd at UCLA, "and you know I'm mad about it." Iverson admits he was out late partying and missed his flight to L.A. The two men have halted their regular talks, they say.

For all the turmoil surrounding Iverson, there remains plenty of affection for him. Even Brown calls him "a good family man" with his two kids, Tiaura, 5, and "Deuce" (Allen II), 2, by his fiancee. And those close to him talk about "Allen's good heart." Today he not only supports more than a dozen relatives, but also a host of old pals from the Hampton, Va., projects. There remains sympathy, too, for what he has endured; at age 18, Iverson was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in a bowling-alley brawl. (After four months, he got clemency; the conviction was later overturned.)

Iverson is seldom predictable. He initially apologized to anyone offended by his song and convinced NBA boss David Stern that he'd make changes in the album. Soon after, Iverson was insisting, "I ain't changing s--t." Now, with so many people watching his every move, he has been on his best behavior--at least on the court. He has shown up on time and even put in extra hours. "So far, so good," says Brown, adding that any repetition of last season would be unacceptable. Indeed, any further Iverson misstep could result in a seriously bad rap for everyone.