This article was published in the Daily News on November 24, 2000.
Are you watching with me? Are you seeing what I'm seeing? Take yourselves back to 1996-97 and ask whether you honestly ever expected to see today's 76ers?
Forget the string of victories, or even Wednesday night's 88-73 loss in Charlotte, for a moment. You're seeing ball movement, defense, players playing not merely with one another but for one another. You're seeing Allen Iverson, arguably the NBA's most popular and most exciting player, doing everything he said he would do: shooting less, passing more, taking more selective shots, accumulating fewer turnovers, making fewer steals as a result of gambling less and being in better position.
Why? How? I really believe the wake-up call was the best trade Larry Brown and Billy King never made, which would have sent Iverson and Matt Geiger to the Detroit Pistons in a convoluted, cap-driven, four-team deal that included the Los Angeles Lakers, the Charlotte Hornets and more than 20 players. And if that didn't do it, then the mere idea of Iverson being dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers definitely did it.
Iverson has said hearing rumors linking him to the Clippers was why he dropped to 155 pounds last summer. If he was going anywhere, he was positive he didn't want it to be the Elba of the league.
"Allen's an incredible thing," Brown said. And remember that Brown, weary of the daily friction and tension, was the one who wanted to make the move, even knowing fan reaction would be explosive.
Amazingly, the deal died and Iverson breathed new life into his career. I'll be stunned if he does anything but shake off Wednesday's 3-for-17, seven-point performance and come out storming tonight in Atlanta. One of his first thoughts was, he had forgotten how much it hurts to lose. And we all know coaches generally see the end of a long winning streak as a tool to refocus the players.
"I've always said if you play winning basketball, all the other stuff will come," Brown said the other day. "Now, to see all the positive stories about him, about the sacrifices he made in his game . . .he's all about playing the right way.
"If you examine it, he's just playing ball. His defense is 100 percent better, his turnovers are down, he's getting rid of the ball sooner and enjoying it more. I hear a couple of jerks in the stands yelling for him to shoot, but the one thing I had always hoped was, once he won the scoring title [two seasons ago] and made the All-Star Game [last season], he'd start to realize all of that is great but that the bottom line is about winning.
"But you can't convince a player until he buys into the program. I just hope he feels good about what he's doing, because I've had opposing coaches come up to me and say, 'I can't believe what I'm seeing. ' "
I know, I know, we still can't help being wary, wondering when the next Brown/Iverson dust-up might come, or what might trigger it. But barring something cataclysmic, I honestly see nothing like that on the horizon. And even if something is brewing, I don't see it being nearly as difficult to resolve as in the past.
The biggest hurdle I see looming is the first Western swing, a trip that starts in Cleveland and winds through Denver, Los Angeles (the Lakers), Portland and Sacramento. But I'm not nearly as concerned about the results as I am about how the entire team handles the situation.
I predicted 47 victories, and it's too soon to back off that, but if what I've seen in the East is a reasonable enough sample, the Sixers have as much chance as anyone of rising to the top.
With Iverson playing genuine team ball. With Brown and Iverson on the same page. The last time I saw a bouncing ball move with this kind of rhythm and joy was on the "Mitch Miller Show. " And if you remember that, you also know how long ago that was.
Maybe we all need to stop asking how long it can last, or when it might implode, and just enjoy the moment.
Maybe I'm wrong, but in that regard, I think Iverson is already a step ahead of most of us.
This is Los Angeles Lakers coach and pop psychologist Phil Jackson on the Sacramento Kings crowds at Arco Arena, a confined, raucous building midway between the airport and the downtown area: "It's a great home crowd. That's their team, their game, the one game in town. What else do they play? Picking fruits and vegetables? "