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Mama's Boys
Gary Smith
April 23, 2001
Two fiercely competitive small men in a big man's game, two sons of hardworking single moms—Allen Iverson and Larry Brown are so much alike that only their mothers could tell them apart...and bring them together.
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April 23, 2001

Mama's Boys

Two fiercely competitive small men in a big man's game, two sons of hardworking single moms—Allen Iverson and Larry Brown are so much alike that only their mothers could tell them apart...and bring them together.

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I'd open the shop at 6 a.m. and work till 10 p.m. or sometimes midnight, seven days a week. I got varicose veins from being on my feet all day—I was exhausted. What I wanted was to be a toe dancer, or play the piano or take art lessons. But I never complained. Who would I complain to? I think I was an asset to the business. Does it sound like I'm saying that in conceit?

Larry was like me, hating having to depend on my family for money and things. Do you know, he'd go buy cookies from the A&P a couple doors down rather than come into the bakery and eat the cakes for free? A lot of days, I'd leave before the boys were awake and come back home when they were asleep. I worried they were lonely. I knew they were unhappy. I thought of them all day. But I always knew where they were. I could look out the window and see them playing basketball across the street at Central School. Larry became a wonderful player. Do you know he scored 50 points in a high school game?

We moved to different apartments, looking for a better place. There were wealthy children all around the boys, and they were embarrassed because we didn't have much. Larry was so upset when he only had an accordion player at his bar mitzyah and his friends had all had bands. I felt terrible, but I never told the boys I was hurt or how hard things were. I just wouldn't. I felt so bad for them, not having a father. I felt they were cheated. I couldn't even face them. It was easier in a way to work those hours. I'd forget everything when I worked. Then they'd go to camp for two months each summer. That was a wonderful experience for them, don't you think?

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Larry walked onto the campus at North Carolina to play basketball in 1959, and his story was no longer one that his mother could tell. The Tar Heels were the closest he'd ever come to what he'd dreamed a family could be. All a boy had to do was sacrifice his ego and do things the Carolina way, the Right Way, to belong.

You set picks. Helped teammates on defense. Practiced over and over the footwork on a drop-step or a box-out or an L-cut. Hit the boards. Hit the floor. Hit the open man. Acknowledged the assist. Celebrated the assist. It all smelled so much like the first-generation immigrants' code he'd inhaled throughout his childhood: People who came along before you figured out the right way to do things. If you failed to follow them, you disrespected them, you put yourself above them. It spilled over to life off the court. Opening doors for people, hustling across the street to help an old woman carry her bags, being on time, dressing sharp, shucking off praise, controlling your emotions were all part of the Right Way. Once you got everyone around you doing it that way, the victories piled up, the family grew tighter, and years after you had left, you remained part of a clan that at any hour could call or visit the father who never left: Dean Smith.

Larry led the ABA in assists his first three years as a pro, set the ABA assist record with 23 in a game. Then he became a coach, the keeper of a legacy, a branch of his sport's most legendary family tree. James Naismith, who invented the game, taught Phog Allen. Phog Allen taught Dean Smith. Dean Smith taught Larry. It was a source of deep pride, the only thing Larry ever came even close to saying in conceit: "My background," he'd say softly, ducking his head, "is probably better than anyone's."

No coach was ever quicker than Larry at converting a collection of guys into a family. At UCLA he'd teach the freshmen at dinner how to start with the silverware on the outside. In the pros he took new players to look for apartments or cars and shoved restaurant tables together so his team could gather for a feast.

No coach was ever quicker at spotting the smallest misstep, the slightest detour off the Right Way. He could stop a slam-bang scrimmage and tell every player exactly what he'd done on his last two trips up and down the court, as if a camera were clicking at each instant, seeing each of the pieces in the swirling whole. He'd stop game film and inspect the body language of players on the bench to see who was truly committed to the Right Way.

It was a purist's approach that seemed more suited to college than the pros, yet it worked, almost instantly, everywhere. He took the next-to-last-place Carolina Cougars to a 57-27 first-place finish in his first head coaching job, in 1972-73, then, two years later, the last-place Denver Rockets on an ABA-record 65-19 ride. His first UCLA team started four freshman in 1979-80 and reached the NCAA championship game. Three years later he had the laughable New Jersey Nets humming at 47-29 when he left to coach at Kansas. Five years after that, he and his assistants felt so much like family that they all squeezed their left testicle in crunch time for luck, and the Jayhawks squeezed out their first NCAA crown since 1952. In the nine years that followed, his San Antonio Spurs, L.A. Clippers and Indiana Pacers all went further than they'd ever gone before.

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