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Little guy, big heart

Posted: Friday, June 08, 2001

Leave it to the little guy to shrink one of the biggest playoff upsets in NBA history to a sound bite -- and an inspirational one at that.

''We've got heart,'' Allen Iverson said. ''We play with that first. We'll play with talent second.''

He still looks like a hard case, but more and more, Iverson comes off sounding like a Hallmark gift card. He is always talking about heart. But until Game 1 of the finals, too many people wouldn't look past the cornrows and the tattoos that covered his body like upholstery to see what Iverson was really made of.

They believe him now because there is no other explanation. This was supposed to be a mismatch of historic proportions. Iverson's 76ers are nowhere near as talented as the Lakers and besides, they're twice as beat up. But put the rosters side by side, measure the disparity and you get a sense of how life looked to Iverson from Day One all the way through Wednesday night.

He was always matched against somebody bigger, stronger, better off. It wore down most of the kids and every one of the basketball players on the streets where Iverson grew up. But not him. Somewhere along the way, he learned to play every game as if it was his last.

Maybe that's why almost every time coach Larry Brown talks about his star, he couches it in terms of a journey. He learned to appreciate how far the kid has come.

At the start of the season, Iverson and Brown were miles apart, the selfish young superstar and the old-school coach. Iverson asked to be made team captain and Browns answered that leadership was more about purpose than talent. Challenged in those terms, Iverson started showing up to practice on time, showing his coach and his teammates respect. Today, he and Brown are soul mates, little guys whose hearts are synched to the same beat.

''Everyone said we can't do it,'' Iverson said, ''and that drives us.''

The 76ers did not win two Game 7s, against Toronto and Milwaukee, or the opener against Los Angeles, with mirrors. Most of what they accomplished, the points, rebounds, assists and steals, are easy enough to find listed in black and white. What the box score doesn't cover is how. That's where Iverson's heart comes in. It has become the motor that propels not just the little guy to amazing heights, but an entire team of overachievers

''The most impressive thing about him right now is his stamina,'' said Isiah Thomas, the Indiana Pacers coach and former NBA great. ''That, plus his energy and talent, makes him quite a handful.''

Thomas, the last great ''little man'' in the NBA, was almost the anti-Iverson. It wasn't just his image, but the way he played. Thomas was smoother, more analytical. He led the Detroit Pistons using his head, finding holes in an opponent's defense and exploiting them with clever passes and freeing up teammates for open shots.

But even he is mesmerized by Iverson's helter-skelter brand of basketball madness.

''He's going to have peaks and valleys because of the way he plays,'' Thomas said from Chicago, where he is scouting prospects at the NBA pre-draft camp. ''But he is definitely on a peak right now.''

That part surprises no one. What should is how Iverson has dragged Philadelphia's ragtag army along with him. NBC put a graphic on the screen during Game 1 using bright yellow dots to highlight the various ailments Iverson is playing through. By the time the graphic was complete, you couldn't see the 6-foot, 155-pound wisp through all the dots.

That explains why Eric Snow played the end of the Milwaukee series with a stress fracture, and soldiers on even now. Ditto for Aaron McKie. It's why Dikembe Mutombo was too embarrassed to mention his broken finger at first -- because he thought it was insignificant alongside the multiple hurts Iverson and just about everyone else on the 76ers was enduring.

The aches and pains didn't go away, but the 76ers got the best medicine they could sitting in the visiting locker room some 15 minutes before the tip-off for Game 1. A few hundred yards away, surrounding the court at the Staples Center, they heard a raucous crowd chant ''SWEEP! SWEEP! SWEEP!''

That put Iverson in his element.

''We've been in wars all season, games where we proved to ourselves we could win if we played the game like it's our last,'' he said.

His heart won't let him play any other way.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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