Iverson finds peace in Denver as a co-star
By Jon Saraceno, USA TODAY
DENVER Allen Iverson, peeling off his civvies, isn't as concerned about the Minnesota Timberwolves 90 minutes before tip-off as he is about listening to another kind of game plan.
"What properties does she have?" Iverson, just named to his ninth All-Star Game, asks via cellphone. "Yeah, she's done. Ain't no coming back. Who has the red and green properties? You've got the green and Boardwalk and Park Place? You got hotels on that? Oh, my God, it's over. Gotta go."
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With that the Denver Nuggets guard looks at his locker room visitor and feigns exasperation. "That was my manager 50 years old, and he and his family don't know how to play Monopoly. They keep calling me every five minutes asking me about the rules. Crazy, man."
It seems as if everyone wants Iverson for, well, The Answer.
Thirteen months ago, Iverson relocated to the Great Plains from Philadelphia, the city that sometimes gave him great pains and vice versa. The Nuggets (25-16 entering Thursday) turned to the bona fide lightning rod, as did coach George Karl, when they acquired the disgruntled former league MVP from the 76ers.
"A lot of times," Iverson says, "I deserved all of the criticism because of my own actions just being young and making dumb mistakes. Not thinking before I reacted; not thinking before I said something; not thinking when I was mad or angry."
Trading row houses for a view of the Rockies has done wonders for the league's most tenacious pound-for-pound offensive force, who for so long seemed to be a young, confused man angry at the world. Next season is the end of his four-year, $76.7 million contract, but Iverson, 32, says he wants to remain a Nugget for life until 39, when he plans to retire.
"I dig it. I'm a lot happier here that's an understatement," he says in the trainer's room as his legs are massaged. "I don't want to become a journeyman. Hopefully this is my last stop. But that probably won't end up being up to me."
The Nuggets aren't saying what they will do, but they are off to one of their best starts and are among 11 teams jockeying for eight playoff positions in the free-for-all Western Conference. Last spring they were ousted in the playoffs by the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. Iverson shot 37%, averaging almost 23 points.
He and teammate Carmelo Anthony on Thursday were named All-Star starters for the Western Conference in the Feb. 17 extravaganza in New Orleans. "This will never get old," Iverson says.
"What tickles me most," says John Thompson, his former coach at Georgetown, "is when people say, 'For a player his size.'
Hell with that if he were Paul Bunyan-sized, this (dude) would be phenomenal, the way he plays, his longevity, how hard he plays.
"There are Allen Iverson imitations, but I haven't seen a duplication."
The guard still vigorously attacks the rim with vengeance, creating havoc in the paint and getting to the free throw line. He is third in the NBA in scoring (27-point average), but his game, and influence, is muted. Despite being a co-captain, the Nuggets are not "his" team they belong to Anthony, a co-captain with center Marcus Camby.
Folks wanted to see if the Anthony-Iverson merger could succeed because they're big-time scorers. Anthony, the 23-year-old former Syracuse standout, says they have disproved the notion two superstars can't co-exist on one team.
"They said it about (Alex Rodriguez) and (Derek) Jeter, and they said it about (Dwyane) Wade and (Shaquille O'Neal)," Anthony says.
Anthony is a bigger fan of Iverson since being a teammate. "I catch myself sometimes being in awe of him," he says. "I say, 'Did he just do that?' I've never seen anyone like him."
Defensive effort still lags
Denver's on-court chemistry experiment has produced mixed results. The run-and-gun Nuggets lack the consistent defensive intensity Iverson and Anthony (fourth in the NBA in scoring, 25.5 points) deliver on offense.
Iverson, as of Thursday, was first in the league in minutes a game (41.7), third in field goals attempted (at 801, one behind Anthony), second in free throws attempted (409) and sixth in steals a game (2.07). Camby says Iverson is pro basketball's "ultimate closer."
Still, the championship shot clock ticks for player and coach.
The Nuggets were bounced in the first round of the playoffs four consecutive seasons. The last three times came under Karl, 56, who has collected an impressive 854 NBA victories but zero championship rings. The Nuggets have never won a title in their 40-year existence, starting with the old ABA.
"We definitely need each other that's the good part of the relationship," Iverson says, a bit mysteriously. "We've accomplished a lot in this league, but not the No. 1 goal. It's something he strives for every day. I have the same mentality. I'm pretty sure he understands my struggle, and I understand his. Our careers aren't complete until we do" win a championship.
The elephant-in-the-room question reverberates like the sound of a bouncing ball in an empty arena: Can one of the league's most thrilling offensive machines be unselfish enough to help the Nuggets mine playoff gold? Analyst Charles Barkley, a frequent Iverson critic, said on TNT that Iverson remains a one-dimensional player a prolific scorer who disdains defense, who does not elevate a team.
Karl describes Iverson as a "very good" defender "at times" but adds he "doesn't make the defensive commitment with an every-possession mentality." That is "not only psychological, it's subconscious."
"Here's a guy who has made his career scoring, and with big numbers," Karl says. "All great players figure out how to pace themselves and save their energy for what they do best. My feeling is, at times, (Iverson) 'cheats' the defensive end.
"I had Detlef Schrempf (in Seattle) and Sam Cassell (in Milwaukee), who took possessions off. But they had this great instinct when to take them off. AI, sometimes, doesn't have that instinct. Sometimes he takes off a possession that I wish he wouldn't. But when you're asked to play as many minutes and score as many points (as he is), I don't know if Superman could play hard every possession."
The enigmatic Iverson believes he is fortunate to play for the laid-back former CBA coach, whose offensive philosophy dovetails his. As Iverson says, Karl "wants to run and no one wants to run more than me. I've never been on a team my entire career where a coach talks more about offense than defense.
"It can't just be me," Iverson says. "It's my teammates and the coaching staff it's all of us. We can't have any slippage."
A tinge of regret
Karl says he "never has had one headache" with Iverson unlike fellow North Carolina alumnus Larry Brown, who had everything but migraines trying to rein him in.
Playing at altitude, it is Iverson's attitude that seems to have undergone a humbling transformation. Unlike when he chafed during frantic-filled days under Brown's coaching in Philadelphia, Iverson appears more pliable, more coach-friendly. Talk of suspensions and fines have vanished into thin air.
And there are regrets
"A lot of the clashes I had with Coach Brown, looking back on them, they're embarrassing to me," says Iverson, who says Brown is the best X's and O's coach in the business. "I could have handled those situations differently. There are a lot of things that I wish I could take back. But I wouldn't because I think they made me the player I am today they made me the person I am today. I just hope it won't ever happen again.
"Everything I went through in Philly, those experiences helped me become a better husband, a better father, a better teammate. It helped me become a better person. I don't make the mistakes I did."
Last week Iverson donated $100,000 for a gun buyback program sponsored by the police in his native Newport News, Va.
"When you talk about a kid who came from hard knocks and difficult times, he is what a lot of African-Americans try to make believe they are," Thompson says. "It's in to say, 'I'm from poverty, I came up hard.' But that kid pulled himself up. Allen is a survivor."
Iverson's increased maturity led him to observe in The Denver Post last month, "I'm just happy I got it before it was too late, before I was out of this league or dead or in jail."
The biggest misconception he says people have is, "I don't care about nothing but myself."
"I think that's my biggest problem I care about other people too much," Iverson says. "At times, more than I do myself."
His controversial lifestyle as a young player, his scrapes with the law and some of his questionable relationships and bad decisions have prompted Iverson to rethink his life as the married father of four.
"Every day, I pray to get better as a person and a player," he says. "I think I am better because I don't have the surroundings I (did). I actually thought (some of) my friends cared about Allen Iverson the person before the NBA, the money, the fame. That's a cold reality.
"I'm totally different from what I used to be (with) the company (I keep), the decisions I make. A lot of times, I used to react. That's what I concentrate on most now, especially when I'm mad. I think the hardest thing in the world for a black man to do is think when he's mad."