At each new place, he arrived flush with hope that here he'd begin carving out the long-lasting father-son relationships with his players that he treasured. Somehow, though, his sensitive heart would begin recording reasons why this was not the perfect family, the perfect home. Then—three times in 50 months in one dizzying stretch—he'd be gone. Some players would be bitter, some relieved. Many would cry.
He and his brother, Herb, a college and professional coach for 40 years, drifted apart, and barely spoke for years. His mother, aunts and uncles wondered why they rarely saw or heard from Larry...and his wives did too. He had two children in his first marriage, remarried and adopted his second wife's daughter, then married a third time and had two more children. Through it all, he remained one of the shyest, sweetest gentlemen you'd ever want to meet.
Then, in May 1997, with time running out in his coaching life, came his ninth team in 26 years—the worst-record-in-the-NBA 76ers. And the player whom he'd already told himself he couldn't coach. Allen Iverson.
I wanted Larry to get rid of him. He was so much trouble; Larry tolerated him a great deal. But look at him now. He's the most exciting player to watch. He's very alert. I just want those big fellas to leave him alone. I can't stand the way they knock him around.
The trouble is, Larry keeps all his problems inside. He doesn't sleep. I'm the same way. I miss him terribly, but he has no time-but I forgive him. He hasn't got a meanness in him. He's given me so much pleasure. You can tell him that.
"Wherever I go, everyone goes. Whenever I eat, everyone eats." This Allen promised his family and friends on the eve of his selection, at No. 1, in the 1996 NBA draft. He called that Keepin' It Real.
His eyes moist, he told his aunts and uncles that his talent was God's compensation to the Iversons for all their pain and loss, for Grandma Ethel's death in a diabetic coma in 1994, for the wrongful death of Ann's mother's in the early '70s, for the fathers who had vanished and the poverty that had rushed in to fill their place. He was the payback. He'd carry them all to the top, buy them houses and cars and cut them checks, shout down their squabbles on his cell phone in the bowels of arenas 40 minutes before games, go out and drop another 40, and sometimes, when it was all too much, check into a hotel rather than stay at one of his crowded houses. "I make all that money," he said, "and it ain't enough. I gotta make more to help all the people around me."
That's how the Iversons saw life: It was a circle, forever arcing back to old times and old pain. Keepin' It Real meant keeping the same friends and girlfriend he'd had since he was 16, before jail and before fame made everything suspect. It meant covering himself with 21 tattoos, virtually all about loyalty and strength, and wanting desperately to wear the same team's uniform his entire pro career. It meant staying inside the circle, never looking beyond it to find himself. At 4 a.m., on his way home from a club, he'd dial his mother—the third time he'd spoken to her that day—and say, I just called to tell you I love you and to thank you for having me. When his shooting touch went cold, she hurried to the bench and rubbed holy oil on his forehead, while Larry did a double take.
Keepin' It Real permitted Allen to sell without selling out. Permitted him to accept $50 million to hawk Reebok sneakers—as long as they had to drag him from his bed to get to the Reebok ad shoot two hours late and he didn't have to backslap or small-talk anyone. Permitted him to take white man's money after white justice had flung him in jail. Permitted him to blow off shootarounds, as long as he treated every game like a bayonet charge. To be late for a team bus, then stroll aboard and crack up everyone with his impersonations of players and coaches, his uncanny caricatures of them sketched on napkins, his rendition of Michael Jackson's Thriller video, staggering zombies and all. To be the Man of the House, as long as he could remain the little boy. To launch 27 shots a game because life was not about winning the Right Way, but any freakin' way you could.