Iverson show has become a class act

This article was originally published in the Inquirer on February 12, 2001.

There he stood, cornrowed and tattooed, the sneakered sprite who so enchants the children and so exasperates their parents, a triumphant smile splitting his glowing face, hoisting the hunk of MVP crystal over his head, while the flashbulbs winked like a thousand fireflies.

In a sport that thrives on 360s, the 76ers' Allen Iverson had just come full circle.

How's this for a kick? The player who was going to ruin the sport made a strong move to save it last night.

Once the reviled poster boy of all that was wrong with the NBA, now suddenly he embodies all that is right with a league struggling in the throes of transition to the next generation. Just about the time it was fretting where its leaders would come from, up stepped the littlest warrior.

He was pyrotechnic in his play and downright the diplomat in his responses. In his deportment and his words during the NBA all-star weekend, he showed the beginnings of maturity. Folks, the little guy appears to be getting it.

There was the commissioner, David Stern, who as recently as a few days ago was fining him yet one more time, saying how this was a reminder that good things still come wrapped in small packages.

The tiniest player on the floor scored more points (25) than anyone else, and stuffed 15 of them into the final quarter, and Larry Brown coached the pebble grains off the ball with a brilliant substitution rotation to a smaller lineup, and the East team wiped out a 21-point deficit to win one of the most entertaining all-star games ever.

Iverson surely deserved to be its MVP.

And Atlanta's Dikembe Mutombo deserved to be co-MVP.

Mutombo was the only big man the East had, but he seized 22 rebounds in 28 gallant minutes and, in Brown's admiring words, "defended everyone. " Without Mutombo's hard labor, Iverson's charge wouldn't have mattered.

Iverson, who always seems to be in the center of some storm, offending some group or other, is trying mightily to grow up. He is doing this tricky thing right in front of us, and just as he gets barbecued for all the things he does wrong, he deserves the sound of two hands clapping now.

He appeared on Meet the Press yesterday, and though the Sixers held their breath, he came off charming and sincere and left the host fawning and gushing. Then he not only scored 25 and fueled the East's rally, while he put up 21 shots he also led the East team in assists. He also had four steals, a category in which he leads the NBA.

What all those numbers suggest is a game that is taking shape, a game with depth and dimension, not just an undisciplined, uncoachable, single-minded gunner.

And then he was a most gracious recipient of the MVP award, properly modest and respectful. Not all that long ago, he was dismissing the whole all-star weekend as meaningless and irrelevant, while the league elders seethed at his punkish arrogance. Ungrateful little squirt, they fumed.

Now, at 25, an awareness has come. The concepts of accountability and responsibility seep in. He is trying, and you pull for him to make it, and you do so because so many children are captivated by him and want to go fly with him like Peter Pan swooping to Never Never Land.

This award brings Iverson to a point that he, and certainly the rest of us, thought beyond imagining as recently as six months ago.

Last summer, he had been traded. The deal was done. The Sixers called Allen Iverson to tell him he was going to become a Los Angeles Clipper. They might as well have said he was going to the Black Hole of Calcutta.

At the last minute, it fell apart. It has turned out to be the best deal the Sixers never did.

Since then, he became a tri-captain, at his own lobbying. He infuriated much of the country with a rap song splattered with sewage lyrics. He got into a scrape with a courtside fan who spewed his own brand of sewage.

And in most of the printed musings before all-star weekend, he was still being held up as Exhibit A of a breed of player beyond salvation.

It was obvious from the start how popular he has become with the rest of them.

You would have thought during the pregame introductions that the West team regarded Iverson as its mascot. When they were lining up, Iverson walked into the midst of them and it was like seeing a child disappear into a forest.

One by one the redwoods pawed at him playfully - Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace - all the tall timber passed him around affectionately.

He missed his first three shots and then made three in a row. And he sat down in the first quarter and never played a single possession in the whole second quarter. There was a time when he would have scowled and sulked, pouted and tossed profanities at his coach.

But, no, he was in this game on the bench, attentive and supportive. Nary a discouraging word, nary a single hard look, not a peep about minutes. (Brown, who fretted about playing time, gave Iverson one minute less than Mutombo. Four players on the West had more minutes than Iverson. )

The East fell behind, 11-0, and was soon being routed. The West had a huge size advantage, and as long as the game was half-court, the East was overmatched. Well, if being overmatched is possible in an all-star game.

With 10 minutes, 45 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Brown sent in Iverson and then three more scorers, smaller but quicker, around Mutombo.

And off they went.

Iverson buried a three from the deepest part of the corner and the East had its first lead at 103-102.

Earlier, when he had gone bravely into the thick of all those 7-footers and ended up sprawled on the floor, the man next to me, the retired and redoubtable Spencer Haywood, said, "He is the toughest little guy I have ever seen in the NBA. "

The game became a game, rather than the usual all-star dunkathon.

On the bench, Iverson had kept chirping away even when the East fell way behind. He offered to bet benchmates that, somehow, they would win.

And when it was over, Allen Iverson, the same player who not so long ago had been mostly ungrateful and unaware, was paying props to the older generation. He mentioned, in one sentence, Magic and Bird, Jordan and Wilt and Bill Russell, saying:

"We're not going to be able to replace those guys. You're asking too much to replace something like that. They brought everything to the game. They made it, you know, they made us able, to be able to come with our own identity and our own image and try to be ourselves.

"We're not going to be able to put our feet into those shoes. It is going to take a collective effort from everybody to try to put their foot in those shoes and try to make this league what it is, and it is a great league. "

Well, what do you know? The sun has begun to come up.