Going Hard To The Hoop

A DOZEN PHILADELPHIA PLAYERS ARE streaking up and down the court in three-on-three drills, but new 76ers coach Larry Brown only has eyes--and instructions--for one. ""Allen, go down the lane sooner,'' Brown urges. ""Allen, get to your position sooner.'' ""Allen, space out.'' Allen Iverson acknowledges his coach with a slight nod and hustles to comply. Only when the coach is finished with his tutelage does Iverson relax with some hip-hop dance steps and jocular high-fives. Those awaiting the conflagration or, at the very least, clash as the NBA's most controversial young star begins play this season for one of basketball's most relentless teachers have so far been disappointed. ""All those people who were saying that we wouldn't get along were so full of bull,'' said the 22-year-old point guard. ""Coach Brown is a great coach who can help us win, and that's something I can definitely get along with.''

Having proclaimed himself--by both word and tattoo--""The Answer'' before he played a single pro game, Iverson last season went out and won both NBA Rookie of the Year and MVP in the rookie all-star game. And he set a first-year record by scoring 40 or more points in five consecutive games. But never has a rookie achieved more to less acclaim. Iverson seemed the prototype of today's selfish star, more interested in personal stats than team accomplishments. His biggest misstep, though, was dissing Michael Jordan during a game when the Bulls superstar suggested the trash-talking rookie show him more respect. ""I wasn't trying to disrespect the best player ever,'' Iverson explains. ""But when you're on the court, you can fear no one. Do that, you lose your game. But the season sort of went downhill from there. People were looking for something to bring me down.''

Those people won't have to look very far this season, either. Iverson has already been suspended for next week's opener, the result of his no-contest plea to a misdemeanor gun charge this summer. (He is appealing the suspension.) After Virginia police stopped a speeding Mercedes in which Iverson was a passenger, they found a Glock Model 21 handgun under his seat and a marijuana cigarette on it. His plea-bargain agreement includes three years' probation and random drug testing. ""There are certainly signs Allen is becoming wiser, but no one changes overnight,'' says NBA superagent David Falk, who represents Iverson.

With the 76ers, Falk and Reebok, which invested $50 million in the rookie, all urging him to be more accountable, Iverson admits he's made ""mistakes.'' Still, he believes himself mostly a victim of ""bad luck . . . I don't go looking for trouble. I just went out with the wrong brother that night.'' His critics say that's been true too many nights. Last season Iverson careered around the league with a pack of his homeboys. They were involved in a succession of raucous incidents--credit-card spending sprees and parties in hotel rooms and elevators. Iverson knows where ""bad luck'' can lead. At the age of 18, he was sentenced to five years in prison for his part in a bowling-alley brawl. The then Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder granted him clemency after four months, and Iverson's felony convictions were later overturned. ""I wear a gold necklace in the shape of handcuffs to remind me of where I never want to go back,'' he says. ""That's all I want to say about that.''

Unlike so many pro athletes, who flee all reminders of their past poverty, Iverson is in no rush to sever ties with his. Rather, Allen views loyalty to ""my crew,'' his childhood pals from the projects in Hampton, Va., as the test of whether he can ""keep it real''--stay true to the world he comes from. ""My friends are me. These guys have been with me since I was a kid and were always down for me,'' Iverson says. ""We're being criticized because we're young black men who dress a certain way, talk a certain way and are hip-hop--not preppy and not what people want to see.'' Coach Brown is one of many who have tiptoed around that issue. ""I wouldn't dare try to tell him to abandon the people who are a part of his life,'' says Brown. ""But he's in a different position than his friends. Kids wear his shoes and shirts and look up to him.''

Reebok, which has successfully marketed two Iverson shoes, The Answer and The Question, says it remains committed to the player it views as ""the future of the NBA.'' Says Reebok spokesman Dave Fogelson: ""Adults really don't relate to him, but kids do.'' Indeed, with Reebok telling the tale, Iverson seems more role model than ruffian. ""People are always saying that when blacks become successful they leave the community,'' says Henry (Que) Gaskins, who markets Iverson for Reebok. ""Well, here's a young man who refuses to do that.''

Those who know Allen well insist that behind his defiant swagger and edgy style is a decent young man with a good heart. Iverson's sweet side shows when he talks about the women in his life: his mother, a single parent since the age of 16 who ""taught me how to go inside and drive the hole and basically the game of basketball,'' and his daughter by a high-school girlfriend. He says he wants Tiaura, 2, ""to grow up and think, "What a great dad I had'.''

Coach Brown praises Allen's love of the game, his receptivity to teaching and, of course, his immense talent. Nobody could mistake the latter. Iverson boasts extraordinary speed, enabling him to leave the best defenders flat-footed. He can leap, he can shoot; indeed, he can do it all. Which is usually what he seemed to be trying to do. As a result, Iverson led the league in turnovers, and the 76ers won only 22 games--just four more than they had the previous season. The coach is encouraging him to play a little more like a classic point guard, thinking pass before shoot. ""I'm working on distributing the ball more this season,'' Iverson says. ""But I am still going to get my shots--don't get me wrong.''

Brown, who has coached five other NBA teams, is calling on all his experience to get Iverson right. The first thing he asked Allen was what he wanted from his coach. ""Allen said all he wanted was one person who believed in him,'' says the coach. Brown has vowed to be that person and has backed up his commitment by naming Iverson team captain. If Iverson can make a similar commitment to his team, this could be his season of more answers than questions.

                         POINTS PER GAME      ASSISTS

1996-97 Allen Iverson          23.5             7.5
1981-82 Isaiah Thomas          17.0             7.8
1979-80 Magic Johnson          18.0             7.3
1960-61 Oscar Robertson        30.5             9.7
1950-51 Bob Cousy              15.6             4.9