Each man keeps forcing the other to discover the piece of himself he'd left somewhere behind. Allen began learning that a little trust and responsibility didn't make him someone's lackey. Larry began learning that he could let go a little without the world spinning out of control. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but traces of the circle began appearing in his life. He asked his brother, Herb, to be an assistant coach with the Sixers this year, and the two men who once barely spoke now talk away the half-hour in the car on their way to and from games.
"I'm learning how to talk to him when I have a problem," says Allen, "and he's learning to talk to me. We've both learned a lot about basketball and life. I know one thing. Coach's voice will never leave my head as long as I live."
"There are things that still drive you crazy," says Larry. "I've never had a challenge like this, but it's happening in little steps. It's 8,000 times better than it was. I don't judge anymore. I don't look at things so much as right or wrong. I realize now he's not trying to disrespect his teammates or provoke a reaction. It's just the way he is. I keep reminding myself of how he treats his mother and his family. He's got such a big heart. If I were a player, he'd be one of my best friends. It's a joy to see people focusing on the good things. He could do more for the game than anyone because of who he was and how he's changing. It could be the story of what our league is all about."
In living rooms and NBA arenas everywhere, people who once recoiled from Allen now watched him in a conflicted state of grudging wonder at his will and his work ethic. But beware, because the bridge between Allen and Larry still trembles. Allen stormed out of a practice in December when Larry waived Vernon Maxwell, a buddy of Allen's. At a team breakfast meeting in Chicago that same month, Allen let his coach have it. Larry's ceaseless dissatisfaction, he said, was grinding down the Sixers, making them feel as if they were losers instead of a first-place team.
Larry waited—surely someone would come to his defense. The room remained silent. All the old pain flared through his heart, all the old need to leave before he was left rushed up his throat. He coached that night's victory over the Chicago Bulls in monosyllables, thinking it might be the last 76ers game he coached. Then he flew back to Philly so distraught that he felt ill, unable to step onto the practice floor but nauseated by the knowledge that if he didn't—if, in mid-season, he left an unheralded team that then owned the NBA's best record—his legacy would be sealed as a hit-and-run driver instead of as a Hall of Fame coach. He missed two practices. His wife, an unending source of encouragement, looked at his sallow face and told him that perhaps he should quit.
Larry returned, but a few months later, as pain kept stabbing his chest wall, he submitted to tests that revealed a hiatal hernia and acid reflux. Somehow, Mr. Brown, said his doctor, you'd better take more care with your diet and stop swallowing so much stress.
Before every Sixers playoff game this year, Larry's 94-year-old mother will turn on the television and sit in the green chair beside the flowery bedspread in her nursing home in Charlotte. If the Sixers cannot forge an early lead, she'll slowly rise, turn off the TV, grip her walker and pace the living room, kitchen and bedroom, noticing the spots that needed dusting, until she feels it's safe to return to the TV and check again.
Four-hundred-and-fifty miles north, in a house just outside Philadelphia, Allen's mother will wake up late in the afternoon, get all her "tootin' and burpin' out" on her abdominal exercise machine, then do a half hour on her cardiovascular machine to keep her blood pressure from climbing to the near-fatal numbers it reached a few years ago. She'll bathe, dress and work the phones, make sure no one in her vast clan is in need, then apply the finishing cosmetic touches. She'll gather her folder full of pictures of her son to sign and give, along with hugs and admonitions to stay in school and Keep It Real, to the children who'll flock around her. Right before the game starts, she'll look over at the bench, at her son and that man.
Every young man needs an old man. Because getting older is like climbing a mountain. Each year, the older you get, the higher you are, the more distance you can see. You can warn the people below you what you see, so they don't run up against things. An old white man told me that once.