PHILADELPHIA—Did you hear the one about Allen Iverson extolling the virtues of “practice” on a recent trip to SMU?
Probably not. And we are unsure if Iverson actually did extol those virtues, although he was brought in to give a pep talk to the team.
Because Iverson and Larry Brown still have a bond, and the in-person tutorial was Brown’s idea. And the pep talk helped fuel the team’s rise to a 20-6 record.
To fully comprehend the strength of the relationship between these two men who are now out of the NBA, you have to go back to the 2001 All-Star Game in Washington. The Eastern Conference had just come from 19 points down in the fourth quarter to edge the West, 111-110, with Iverson scoring 25 points to earn MVP honors. But as Commissioner David Stern handed him the trophy, “The Answer’” had a question.
“Where’s my coach?’’ he wondered, inquiring about the man who had made it all possible despite his franchise player’s aversion to practice. “Where’s Coach Brown?’”
That was 13 years ago, a season in which Iverson, Larry Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers would go on to the NBA Finals before losing to Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the powerhouse Los Angeles Lakers in five games. Much has transpired over those 13 years, most recently Iverson’s retirement, coming nearly four years since he last played.
As for Brown, well, he is going strong as ever at 73, still teaching his players how to make the extra pass, how to work hard and always “play the right way.’’ Only not in the pros, as he did for two ABA teams and nine NBA teams.
Instead, Brown has gone back to school, taking over a virtually dormant program at SMU and turning the Mustangs into winners in less than two seasons. With two familiar faces from that 2001 Sixers squad by his side – point guard Eric Snow and defensive-minded forward George Lynch – he has transformed the Mustangs (20-6) seemingly overnight.
At least until he brought them to his old stomping grounds Sunday, where then-No. 23 SMU – with its first ranking since 1985 – came up with a clunker and was upset 71-64 by Temple (7-17). Brown’s team dropped out of everyone’s Top 25 shortly thereafter.
Afterward, Brown typically took the heat for the subpar performance.
“I’m not very proud of myself today,’’ Brown said after his team shot itself in the foot by missing seven straight free throws down the stretch while being outrebounded, 38-25. “We got outcoached.”
That’s what this Hall of Famer would have you believe. But anyone who has been around Brown – especially during the six seasons he called Philadelphia home – knows better.
Maybe that’s why so many of them turned out Sunday to welcome him back. Besides Snow and Lynch – two players who made the most of their abilities and now are trying to learn from the master as coaches – former Brown players Aaron McKie and Malik Rose were on hand. So were Tony DiLeo, Courtney Witte and Sonny Hill, all part of Brown’s inner sanctum with the Sixers.
They already know what the young Mustangs are learning now. If you let him, Larry Brown will make you better.
“I know his passion,’’ said McKie, the Sixth Man Award winner in 2001. “He enjoys teaching, developing players and watching kids grow. I just knew he believed in me and trusted me.
“It’s unbelievable what he’s done there. But if you look at all the places he’s stopped at, he’s turned them around. He has done more with less than any coach.”
That’s not to say the Mustangs bought in right away.
“They were reluctant,’’ recalled Lynch, officially SMU’s strength and conditioning coach but really much more. “But once the wins started coming, they could see it and accept it. It’s great to watch coach Brown out there working with them, to see him take on the challenge of rebuilding SMU and to see it come to light so fast.”
Even the players were caught off guard.
“I had no expectations when I heard he was coming,’’ said senior Nik Russell, whose team ranks second nationally in field-goal percentage defense and 8th in points allowed. “But I didn’t think it would be like it is now. I’m so surprised, so blessed to be in this situation with him. I had no expectations of him coming in and changing this program around.
“But he’s done a great job and we’re learning from him every day.”
Brown says he’s learning, too, having taken over a college program for the first time since he led “Danny and the Juniors” – the term affectionately applied to Danny Manning and the 1989 Kansas Jayhawks – to the NCAA title.
The nomadic Brown then left for San Antonio. Through the years and all the teams that would follow – the Clippers, Pacers, Sixers, Pistons, Knicks and Bobcats – he seemed inclined to stay in the NBA for good.
The lone exception would have been had Brown’s alma mater of North Carolina come calling. It never did, instead choosing Roy Williams, which had to secretly crush him. He never let on, though, continuing to make bad teams better with the rare exception of his hometown Knicks.
Now, three years after Michael Jordan unceremoniously dumped him in Charlotte when the Bobcats started 9-19 after their first and only playoff trip – and working on his third coach since – Brown is working wonders again at SMU.
And enjoying it as much as ever.
“I’m seeing him in a different light,” said Snow, the glue to that 2001 Sixers squad which captivated this city. “We had a great relationship as a player and coach. Now it’s more confidant and friend. I see him laugh a little more. He enjoys being a teacher and a coach. He tries to put guys in a position to succeed.”
Now he is doing it at SMU, just as he did with Snow, McKie, Lynch, Dikembe Mutombo, Tyrone Hill and, of course, Iverson.
“Thirteen years,” reflected Snow. “It just shows how those moments don’t happen as often as they may seem, how rare those chances are. Some people don’t get them. Hopefully the Sixers can get back to that point.’’
That’s a story for another time, most likely at least a few years away. Brown was extolling the virtues of Philadelphia following Sunday’s loss, saying how much he loved it here and how he has come to grips in the years that have passed with how he and Iverson were meant to be together.
“A lot of people thought we banged heads and stuff like that, but I know God put me here to coach him,” said Brown, who regrets being unable to attend Iverson’s jersey retirement ceremony on March 1. “He might not think that, but I feel that way. “The more I’m away from it and the more I meet young people, I realize the impact he had on our game.”
In fact, Brown even brought in Iverson to address his team a few months ago, which Lynch said was a turning point in the Mustangs’ development. Yes, they’ve traveled different paths since that memorable day in Washington with the star player urging his teacher to come forward and share in the accolades.
But one thing hasn’t changed about teacher Larry Brown and pupil Allen Iverson through the years: They’re both still one of a kind.
Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writer’s Association and North Jersey Press Club. His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.