A player worth the trouble?


PHILADELPHIA - He is, depending on the point of view, one of the most misunderstood players ever to lace up a pair of sneakers or simply misanthropic, a symbol for all that is wrong with the National Basketball Association.

He is, depending on the hour of the day, the kind of supernova who will lead the Philadelphia 76ers back to their glorious past or just too selfish and irresponsible to be part of a championship team.

Revered and reviled, Allen Iverson has won grudging respect from the critics who followed him here from Georgetown four years ago and grew in great numbers as he showed little reverence for the league's stars or its history.

The critics are still there - including his own coach, Larry Brown - but even they can't overlook what Iverson has accomplished this season."Last year he started to get some credit as being a terrific player because our team won, he got us into the playoffs, and we won a playoff round," Brown said yesterday. "I think his respect grows each time we win games and move further along. I think he's starting to realize that."

What Iverson has done for the 76ers in this year's playoffs, in particular against the highly-favored, top-seeded Indiana Pacers in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals, could elevate the scrawny-looking, tattoo-shrouded shooting guard to a status reserved for few professional athletes in this town.

If the 76ers overcome what had been a 3-0 deficit to tie the series tonightin Game6 at the First Union Center, it will be one of the most mystifying turnarounds in NBA history. It would be only the third time a team forced a seventh game after losing the first three.

If Philadelphia goes on to win Game7 in Indianapolis on Sunday and reach its first conference final since 1985, the 76ers will have their own place in the record books. No NBA team has ever come back to win a playoff series after being shut out the first three games.

But it could happen. All because of Iverson, who started the series with a badly inflamed elbow on his shooting arm, a broken toe and a chipped bone in his ankle before bruising ribs in Game4 last Saturday. Neither the mounting injuries nor Indiana stopped him in Game5 Monday, when he scored 37 points.

Asked Wednesday before practice whether he is looking toward tonight's game or a possible spot in the NBA record books, Iverson said, "Just the game. If we don't concentrate on the game, there's no way we're going to make history. We've got to win the next game."

Iverson might be zeroing in on tonight's game, but yesterday's practice was another matter. As has become his custom, Iverson showed up late. Considering how many practices his complex star has completely blown off in their three years together, Brown didn't even blink.

Nor would he talk about his unsteady relationship with Iverson.

The positives and negatives

When team president Pat Croce looks at Iverson, he doesn't see what's on the outside, a mish-mash of body art that does little to soften the image."It's easy to look at the thug image," Croce said recently. "You should look at the inside. He's got a great heart. A lot of guys wouldn't put on their uniform and play if they had the injuries Allen does."

Yet Croce's defense of Iverson only goes so far. A former physical therapist and athletic trainer for the 76ers, Eagles and Flyers, Croce attributes Iverson's frequent injuries nearly as much to how hard he plays as to the fact that he never lifts weights.

It is only one issue upon which Iverson and Brown differ.

Iverson, 24, is one of the NBA's new-age stars, a Generation Xer who has had a difficult time removing himself from his friends back in Hampton, Va. Brown, 59, is clearly one of the league's old-school coaches, a Generation X-and-O guy who still preaches the defensive principles he learned from mentor Dean Smith.

It has often left Croce trying to negotiate peace settlements between Iverson and Brown, including a two-hour, face-to-face sitdown in December. It came after Iverson missed several practices, was benched by Brown and asked to be traded. Brown then privately offered to resign."It's very tough," Croce said yesterday. "I adore both of them. It's like three friends and you have to make sure the bond stays between the different personalities. Everyone has a common goal in the relationship, but I understand where the coach gets upset."

Croce was disturbed to see that Iverson, the day before the team's biggest game in 15 years, was late for practice. He called Iverson's tardiness "unacceptable" and said he planned to mention something to Iverson, though he knew it probably wouldn't make any difference."He won't want to hear it," Croce said. "Then again, I don't want to jeopardize anything regarding the focus of the team. But I want him to know that the tardiness is more than a fine, it's a reflection on his leadership skills. I'm hoping one of the times I mention this is one of the times it seeps in."

Having come back himself from a serious leg injury - Croce's left ankle was shattered in a motorcycle accident last June and he was faced with the prospect of amputation below the knee - the team's 45-year-old majority owner has tremendous respect for what Iverson has done."He has four injuries, and he continues to throw his body out there, playing at the highest possible level," said Croce.

Iverson has altered his game to compensate for the injuries, particularly the aggravated elbow tendon and chipped bone in his ankle. Add to that the dislocated thumb that forced him to miss 10 games earlier in the season and still gives him problems, as well as the partially torn rotator cuff.

His teammates admire his pain threshold and the fact that he has done a better job getting everyone on the team involved in the offense. While he is still averaging more than 27 points during the playoffs, Iverson seems more aware of the need to get the ball inside."Allen's a winner," said forward Tyrone Hill. "He thinks he can control the whole game. We don't want to put that much pressure on him. We know he'll get his 25 [points] or 30 a night, but we want Allen to realize that if we got ours and he gets his, we'll win."

While Iverson's off-court incidents that seemed to be a staple on the nightly news - including having a $130,000 car impounded after police found drug paraphernalia belonging to his friends - have quieted, his reputation for staying out to the wee hours and sleeping through practice have not.

Those close to the team believe that if Toni Kukoc, acquired from the Chicago Bulls for the playoff run, doesn't re-sign after the season, it will be because he can't play with Iverson. Accustomed to playing with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, getting used to Iverson is an acquired taste.

Asked yesterday if his perception of Iverson as a teammate has changed than the one he had as an opponent, Kukoc said obliquely, "I don't think I still know him that well as a teammate, and knowing his game playing against him, we had a certain system playing against him. I think he still plays the same way."

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