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Dressing Down the Opposition

Beginning his 10th season with 76ers, Iverson is more mature but still doing things his way

November 06, 2005|From Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Allen Iverson's metamorphosis might be aptly described as Extreme Makeover: Conformity Edition.

Iverson's tattoos are more likely to be covered by a business-casual collared shirt or a designer suit these days than a throwback jersey; the cornrows are no longer concealed by an askew cap, and his signature sneaks are for games only, please.

Thanks to an NBA dress code that's wiped out the so-called hip-hop element, Iverson looks more like a million bucks than 50 Cent.

Iverson's changes are more than cosmetic, however.

Not only is Iverson talkin' bout practice, he loves it so much under new Philadelphia 76ers coach Maurice Cheeks that he wants to arrive early and play as hard when the baskets don't count as he does when they're official.

Then there's how Iverson prays -- even with his cross now tucked safely under his shirt -- first to become a better person, husband and father before asking for blessings on the basketball court.

Then again, that last prayer was answered a long time ago.

Throw a suit on him, throw whatever you want at the 76ers' franchise player, and what will never change -- what no league edict can ever control -- is the way the undersized guard with the supersized heart plays, as he always says, like every game is his last.

"I just continue to play the way that made me successful in this league," Iverson said. "Once I stop being aggressive on the basketball court, I'll be hurting my team more than helping them."

It's hard to argue Iverson has done much to hurt the Sixers the last nine years. Sure, he jacks up shots like he may never get the ball again. OK, sometimes he's made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

But when it comes to Sixers greats, there seems little argument about the hierarchy:

Wilt. Dr. J. A.I.

Hard to believe it's season No. 10 for Iverson, a decade during which he made nearly as much news for his off-court theater as his gutty play. Now he's the elder statesman on a Sixers team that he helped grow into a title contender -- and a city that helped him grow into a man.

"I had a lot of growing up to do," Iverson said. "A lot of times, I learned the hard way."

His run-ins with the law and his ill-fated rap career (remember "40 Bars") are behind him for now. It's been at least a Lakers' title ago since Iverson's legal woes surfaced.

"A lot of times I just reacted instead of thinking," he said. "That's what got me in a lot of situations that I've been in, even before I got into the league."

Always popular with his teammates, Iverson now leads them instead of letting other veterans take charge. He almost has to -- at the ripe old age of 30 -- on a team where 19-year-old rookie Louis Williams was still in grade school when Iverson was a rookie.

Iverson says he's learned how easy it was to stain his reputation from his infamous clashes with former coaches Larry Brown and, briefly, Chris Ford. He's determined not to let it happen again because he refuses to have "coach killer" stamped as a lasting part of his legacy.

Iverson said his beefs with practice, domestic disturbances and selfish play can be partly traced to asking a 21-year-old with a troubled background to transform the franchise.

"I wasn't used to the attention, I wasn't used to having money, I wasn't used to being the main focus on an NBA team," Iverson said.

When Jim O'Brien was fired in May after only one season, Iverson joked no one could blame him. He was right. Iverson and Brown have long since reconciled and the vagabond coach named his former star a co-captain of the U.S. Olympic team.

Once nearly traded to Detroit, only Minnesota's Kevin Garnett has been with one team longer than Iverson among active players. Iverson is signed through 2008-09 and, despite the occasional trade demand rumor, says he wants to end his career on South Broad Street.

"I gave a lot to this city, I've done a lot for this organization," he said. "I fought my whole career here. I became a man here. From coming in at 20, 21 years old with my talents, everybody expected me to be some 30-year-old man like I am now when it wasn't possible."

Former Sixers guard Aaron McKie, now with the Lakers, said it was natural to see Iverson mature.

"I think he's always going to be the same person," McKie said. "As you get older and a little wiser, you've got younger guys coming up and you teach them just like older guys taught you. I don't think you can live a full life if you don't experience hardships."

Cheeks was a Sixers assistant the first five years of Iverson's career and was amazed, when he returned, at the point guard's maturation.

"I could hear how grown up he'd become," Cheeks said. "That's what happens with most people. They've got to grow up at some point and I could hear the growth in his voice. It was refreshing and it was amazing."

Now don't go thinking this is a more polished Iverson, all dressed up and living a Stepford life, ready to be featured as someone that can be embraced by those in the red states.

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