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Grizzly task: Memphis needs A.I. to play role

Marc J. Spears
Yahoo Sports

Lionel Hollins' coaching style is best defined as "keep-it-real." If he has a problem with you, he lets you know it. The Memphis Grizzlies coach hopes that approach serves him well as he faces the biggest challenge of his career. Somehow, Hollins must blend Allen Iverson's(notes) domineering game and personality with his young, impressionable Grizzlies – without curbing the team's development.

Hollins met with Iverson in Atlanta this week, along with Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley and general manager Chris Wallace. He made it clear to Iverson that communication will be essential to a good relationship.

"I told him to talk to me anytime," Hollins told Yahoo! Sports. "He might not like what I have to say. I might not like what he has to say. But we will talk."

For all of his talent, Iverson has often bristled under the authority of his coaches. Yet his most successful partnership was also with his most demanding coach. Iverson and Larry Brown had a stormy relationship, at times, during their days in Philadelphia, but there's also a reason why Iverson had hoped to reunite with Brown in Charlotte this season: He always knew what to expect from him.

That wasn't the case with some of Iverson's other coaches. Chris Ford was a strong disciplinarian, but never earned Iverson's respect. Their relationship became irreparable after Iverson missed a practice and failed to notify Ford he couldn't play because he was sick. Iverson then became insulted when Ford asked him to come off the bench.

Iverson and Maurice Cheeks once had a strong relationship, but that deteriorated, too. Another of Iverson's former coaches used to joke that A.I. "never saw a bed before 6 a.m." But he was also serious about this: Iverson's love for the nightlife made it nearly impossible for him to be a true leader.

Hollins has heard a lot of the stories, but says he's focusing only on the here and now. Iverson is 34, in the twilight of his career, and the struggling Grizzlies were the only team willing to extend him a legitimate offer. During their meeting in Atlanta, Hollins said Iverson seemed both humbled and mature.

With a big free-agent class looming next year and his career in flux, Iverson needs a successful season – with no drama – to have any hope of landing one final good contract.

"You have to give him a clean slate in part because I wasn't there, wasn't in the confrontations," Hollins said. "I only read what I read. How much is fact? How much is fiction? The observation is a matter of opinion.

"You have to have an open mind. I'm not a judge. I'm a coach. His resume speaks for itself. … He's a Hall of Fame player."

Hollins respects Iverson. But he also had no problem telling Iverson what he expects from him.

"I'm not a dictator," Hollins said. "But I have to get respect. I'm not out to disrespect Allen or anyone. I want to put the team in a position to win and I don't believe in names or numbers on the back of a jersey. I've always been that way."

Said Iverson: "He doesn't cut any corners. He came to me straight with the concerns that he had and he wanted me to come with any concerns that I had."

A straight-up approach might have worked better with Iverson during his failed experiment with the Detroit Pistons last season.

A source close to Iverson said his problems with the Pistons began when former coach Michael Curry told him he would never bring a future Hall of Fame player off the bench. Curry then did just that. Iverson began to simmer after sitting late in some close games, and no longer thought he could trust Curry. On April 1, Iverson said he'd rather retire than come off the bench. Not long after, the Pistons shelved him for the rest of the season, citing a back injury.

Hollins has two talented young guards, Mike Conley(notes) and O.J. Mayo(notes), he has planned to start. While Hollins told Iverson the lineup will be determined in training camp, he does believe Iverson's decision to sign with Memphis was a sign he'd be willing to accept a reserve assignment. He thinks Iverson could have an impact off the bench similar to San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili(notes) or other famous sixth men like John Havlicek and Michael Cooper.

"It's not about how well he performs in training camp," Hollins said. "It's about how he helps the team. Sometimes you can get the most from people off the bench with the second team.

"I'm looking at weighing all options. If A.I. has a great camp, he will start if it's best to utilize him that way."

Iverson, however, made it clear he intends to fight for the starting job. Starting, he said, still matters to him.

"I never was given anything I wasn't rewarded for," Iverson said. "I always earned it by my play. When we go to training camp, if I get beat out then obviously that's the right thing to do, to start that guy that plays the best. If it helps the team for me to come off the bench, than so be it.

"It's not something that I want to do. But if it's something that's going to help us win basketball games, than that's the right thing to do."

Hollins, who has a 31-72 record for his career, isn't in an enviable position. Heisley thought the Grizzlies needed a proven star to sell tickets, sponsorships and bring attention to his floundering franchise. Now, Hollins, who is in the last year of his contract, must deal with one of the league's most combustible players. For the Grizzlies to win – or even just continue to grow – Hollins must make this partnership work.

He's banking on the one trait that's never changed with Iverson. Through all his battles, A.I. has always considered himself a winner. And he thinks he can help the Grizzlies win, too.

"There are a million rumors about who Allen Iverson is and I'm pretty sure if it's not a million, there is two million or more rumors about me," Iverson said. "People that don't know me, people that do know me or that think they know me. We had to express some of those issues. "They let me know they were trying to add in a winning direction and they were trying to do things to get to that point. They kind of sold me. I sold myself to them."

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