The chaos behind the scenes of Allen Iverson's 'practice' press conference

The chaos behind the scenes of Allen Iverson's 'practice' press conference

Pat Devlin is the Assignment Manager at NBC Sports Philadelphia and was working 18 years ago on the day of Allen Iverson's "practice" press conference. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2002. The Philadelphia sports landscape had hit the lull in the game schedule that happened when the Sixers' and Flyers' seasons ended.

The Sixers had been trounced by the rival Celtics the previous Friday night, in Game 5 of a best-of-five series to knock them out of the NBA playoffs. The Flyers were bounced in the first round by Ottawa in April. The NFL draft had been two weeks prior, and Eagles were coming off one of the most successful drafts they'd have for a long time (though they didn’t know it yet) when they took four pretty successful NFL players in Lito Sheppard, Michael Lewis, Sheldon Brown, and Brian Westbrook, guys that would make Pro Bowls and be key members of their Super Bowl run a couple years later. The Birds’ Veterans Stadium roommates, the Phillies, were starting their turn as the only team in town playing games for the summer.

So the talk on Daily News Live that day was supposed to be about the Phils' game that night at the Vet vs. the Astros. Our friendly neighborhood relief pitcher Ricky Bottalico was supposed to be a guest on DNL that day, and he pitched a scoreless eighth inning in a win later that night. DNL would also touch on two other events from the weekend — War Emblem winning the Kentucky Derby and the Philadelphia Kixx winning the MISL championship. In the old Comcast SportsNet newsroom, it was supposed to be a pretty standard day. But one thing you learn working in sports news is you can’t rely on any day being standard.

Monday’s DNL had been heavy on Sixers talk, with the late, great Phil Jasner on the panel with John Smallwood. The previous Saturday, the day after the Sixers' season had ended, the team held what we call “cleanout day." The players come in to meet with coaches, gather whatever they had at the facility and then meet with the media one last time before summer vacation. For some, it is a last hurrah. For others, a look ahead. Iverson was at the cleanout day but wouldn't speak with reporters. As we later found out, for a couple of reasons, he came back in on the 7th. And it didn’t go well.

According to Kent Babb’s 2015 book “Not A Game," Iverson was still mourning the death of a close friend from Virginia. On Tuesday, Iverson and Brown got into a heated discussion in the parking lot at the team’s practice facility at PCOM. AI was angry that there were reports he was on the trading block, and the two finally calmed down after Brown promised he wasn’t getting traded. The organization then asked Iverson to do a media availability at the First Union Center (now Wells Fargo Center). But we didn’t know any of that at that time. All we knew was that AI hadn't spoken to the media at the cleanout day. By Tuesday, he was not expected to be around.

I remember the question like it was yesterday. A little before 4 p.m. one of our studio techs, Chris Melchior, asked me, “Do we have to set up for the press conference?" I asked him “What press conference?" He replied, “They’re setting up a presser downstairs."

For reference, where the Sixers have done their press conferences for the last 20 years or so is right outside of our television news control room, literally on the other side of the wall. So when we walk in or out of the door, the whole setup is right there. Can’t miss it. So, I asked Chris if he knew which team it was for, and he said they hadn’t put up a backdrop yet. I was trying to figure out which organization to call to find out what was going on (the Flyers also did pressers there for some time, and Comcast Spectacor could have been announcing something for the building).

I went out to our lobby and asked our Emmy-winning guard, the late Fred “The Security Guard” Bibbo, if he could call up a security camera at his desk so I could see the area. We could see a part of it, but still no backdrop.

Back then, we had a different way to transmit our signal for live shots at press conferences and courtside. Everything had to be hardwired. And for us, within the building, we had to use a camera similar to a studio camera, not like what we would use out in the field. So it took more time to get set than it would nowadays. And that’s why Chris needed to know. He wouldn’t be the cameraman for it, but he would have to set up the cabling, communication, etc. And once 5 p.m rolled around, he had to be in the control room. I told him I’d try to find out what was going on. He headed back downstairs, and a couple minutes later he called me saying there was a Sixers backdrop up. I said, if you have time, please set up our shot. We may not use it, but at least we’ll be ready.

I called the Sixers PR and talked to one of the assistants. I asked if there was going to be a press conference we needed to cover. The staff member said he didn’t know about any press conference. I told him there was one being set up in the usual spot, I just needed to know if it was happening that day, the next day, if it was even a news event. I needed to know for planning purposes. He didn’t know. And I believe he didn’t. If you know you are going to have a press conference, you let the media know. Why would you hide that when we can obviously see a Sixers logo behind the podium? But he wasn’t the head of the department, so he may not have been in any meeting discussing what was happening.

Turns out we may have known before him, strictly because of where our control room is. Around 4:30, we got an email from the PR department saying they were having a press conference at 6 p.m. That didn’t leave much time, so I’m glad we set up the live shot. In the end, I think only two stations were able to get cameras there. Our guy Kevin Foy rushed back from the Vet, and NBC10 also had a guy there (we were not affiliated at the time). 

During the DNL broadcast, we were just waiting for the signs that the presser was going to start. We were obviously going to join it live. When people start moving around, PR reps show up near the podium, writers start putting recorders up there, we know it’s about to start. But for a while, there was little to no movement. So the producer of DNL, Rob Ellis (yes, that Rob), kept the panel talking. We probably made a couple calls to the Sixers, just to make sure this was still happening. And then there was a murmur and movement, and AI walked out of the back door of the locker room around 6:20.

A lot of press conferences can be pretty basic. Media asks some questions, players give standard answers. Iverson’s pressers were never that way. He almost always spoke from the heart and was honest in what he felt and said. Even if teammates, coaches or fans wouldn’t like it, he would say it. It’s just who he was, and it made his postgame pressers must-see. But as he started talking on this day, you could tell this was going to be a little different, even for him.

Before he even sat down, he mocked our Neil Hartman, who had been doing a live shot and doing a “talkback” with Michael Barkann on DNL. As the questions started coming in, you could tell he was agitated. One question about practice led to another. We’ve all heard how many times he says “practice," especially to Neil after he asked about it. Some questions were about his workouts and conditioning. That led to my favorite line from the whole presser: “I’ve been the MVP, boney as hell!"

As the presser wore on, we just stayed on the air live. Once we passed our regular DNL time, Michael rushed out of the studio, headed downstairs and asked a few questions. Our first handful of years, we didn’t do dedicated pregame shows — we usually had SportsNite at 6:30. That worked in our favor this night because we went right past the start time of SportsNIte with the presser. AI dropped a few curses, and someone brought up the idea of going on delay. But to do that, we would have had to go to a commercial break to reset the control room, and I remember our news director saying, “No way can we go to break. This is way too compelling.”

We were just riding it out, and we had no idea when it would end. I was taking calls from stations and feed services all over the country asking if we were at the presser. I was trying to feed video back, then took a number of phone calls and coordinated with the only other CSN at the time, our station in D.C. The phone was ringing off the hook.

Finally, just before 7, AI got up from the podium, told the reporters to “Have a lovely life, live it up to the fullest” and walked away.

When it was all over, I remember thinking that was an incredible couple of hours. We went from having no press conference scheduled, to getting everyone ready and in place just in case one did happen, to showing one of the most famous press conferences in sports history live for almost an hour. AI showed all his emotions — angry, mournful, at times light-hearted, and as always, honest. You just knew this would be something people would talk about for a long time.

My head was spinning, trying to take in what had happened. And in the newsroom, we took a deep breath and then got ready to cover Ricky Bo and the Phils beating the Astros.

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Why Shake Milton could thrive in strange NBA playoffs this year

Why Shake Milton could thrive in strange NBA playoffs this year

On March 1, Shake Milton introduced himself to the NBA world by dropping 39 points on the Clippers in L.A on national TV.

Not bad for a guy that was told he was out of the rotation before an injury to Ben Simmons thrust him into the starting lineup.

But that seems to be the story of Milton. He’s unflappable. Whatever his life or career presents him, he keeps moving forward.

As the Sixers continue their training camp at Disney World to prepare for the resumed NBA season, Brett Brown has been using Milton as his starting point guard, moving Simmons to the four. That means the 23-year-old that’s played 52 career NBA games appears to have the inside track on a starting job for a team looking to go on a deep playoff run.

No pressure or anything there.

There are people that just thrive in these circumstances. You can throw them in intense situations, and they act so calm you have to wonder if they even have a pulse. Milton’s imperturbable demeanor has likely helped him get to where he is. 

He was a freshman in high school when he lost his father. Myron Milton was just 43 when he passed away suddenly. The two were close and basketball was a big part of their bond. His dad told him to “just go out there and play like you’re the best player on the floor,” Shake said to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters.

The Oklahoma native was recruited to play at SMU by former Sixers coach and Hall of Famer Larry Brown, who said he “got lucky” in landing Milton over the likes of the University of Oklahoma and Indiana. Milton had a strong college career but that’s also where injuries became an unfortunate part of his story.

Milton suffered a hand injury that limited him to 22 games his junior year and final season for the Mustangs. A back injury presumably caused him to slip to the back end of the draft. After making strides at the NBA level his rookie season, he suffered another hand injury. Just three games into the 2019-20 season — and when it appeared he had a legitimate chance at a spot in the rotation — a knee injury sidelined him.

Ironically, injuries are what led to his next prolonged NBA opportunity. When Simmons went down, Milton stepped in and produced in a big way, averaging 17.8 points and shooting 60.4 percent from three over his last nine games before play was suspended.

All the injuries and time spent with the Delaware Blue Coats has led to this moment, where he could potentially be the team's starting point guard in the postseason.

“You won’t find a better kid than him, and somebody that really trusts the process,” Larry Brown said as a guest on the Sixers Talk podcast in May. “And Philly did a remarkable job with him. Playing in the G League in Delaware, Shake told me was huge. …

“The greatest thing is they had patience with him. They had some injuries and you never know when the opportunity is going to be there for you to show you can play.”

Milton has rewarded that patience already. Now, he’ll have to try to carry the momentum he built before the season was suspended onto one of the biggest NBA stages.

But it’s all part of Milton’s story and why if anyone can do this at a young age and with so little NBA experience, it could be him.

“There’s a poise that he has as a person that I’m assuming everybody on this call that has interviewed him feels,” Brett Brown said in a video conference call with reporters Tuesday. “And I think that can help him navigate through a pressure situation of the NBA playoffs. I do believe how he’s wired from a human perspective can help him deal with that environment I think in a more calm way.”

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Ben Simmons responds to potentially playing a different role for Sixers

Ben Simmons responds to potentially playing a different role for Sixers

Ben Simmons is exceptionally versatile, and he does not have a difficult time describing the multitude of things he can do well on a basketball court besides shoot. 

“I’m a basketball player at the end of the day,” he said in a video conference call Tuesday. “You know me, you put me on the floor, I’ll make anything happen, whether it’s plays, buckets, stops. I’ll guard anybody 1 through 5, I’ll run the floor, I can get to the rim, I can score the ball and I make plays happen. 

“So wherever you put me — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — it’s going to happen. I don’t really look at it as a title or position. That’s mainly for you guys to put down in your articles.” 

Reporters’ articles on Monday were obligated to mention that Brett Brown said he has been using Simmons exclusively as a power forward in the Sixers’ practices at Disney World, and that he’s been employing Shake Milton as the team’s starting point. Simmons did not seem worried about whether that shift meant he’d now have the ball in his hands less often. 

“It’s basketball, you’ve gotta get the ball,” he said.

Fair enough. 

In the eight games Milton and Simmons started together between Jan. 25 and Feb. 9, the two-time All-Star was often stationed as a playmaker at the elbow and still had many chances to be the hub of the offense, like on the play below vs. the Lakers. Milton dished the ball off to Simmons and then set a cross screen to free Tobias Harris, who Simmons hit for an open three. 

Simmons averaged 20.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.4 assists during that stretch, and the Sixers went 4-4. He may not be as commanding an all-around presence as his star teammate, but Milton is a multi-dimensional offensive player, one Simmons feels complements him effectively. 

“He plays really well,” Simmons said of Milton. “He can shoot the ball, he has a high IQ, he can get to the rim, he can finish. He’s just somebody you can play with, and you can say something to him and he’ll put it into play and try it out. And that’s what you need in somebody like Shake or players like that. He’s developing still and he’s come a long way since the first day I’ve seen him play. He’s only getting better.”

If the Sixers ultimately decide to start the never-used lineup of Milton, Josh Richardson, Harris, Simmons and Joel Embiid — Brown emphasized again Tuesday that it’s still “incredibly early” in this second training camp of sorts — one imagines we’ll see less of Simmons as a middle pick-and-roll ball handler and more of him as a screener. Ideally, that would mean fewer possessions where the defense sags off and Simmons’ weakness as a shooter hurts the team.

It also should mean greater opportunity for Simmons to grow pick-and-roll partnerships with Milton and Richardson.

Given how the Sixers had fallen short of their expectations before the NBA’s hiatus, Simmons is open to experimentation. He just doesn't care about the labels.

You've just gotta work with different things,” he said. “You’ve gotta try different things out, see if they work. We’re not at a stage where we can be comfortable yet. I’m still trying to figure it out myself ... what feels comfortable, what’s right for this team and how we’re gonna win. 

“If it’s this way, then I’m all for it. I’ve been having fun in that position — whatever you guys say, the four — whatever it is. But at the end of the day, when you see me I’m on the floor, I’m making plays.

As for who will handle the ball late in close playoff games, Brown has not yet settled on an answer. 

“He does have the ball at times,” Brown said of Simmons. “I have played him as a four-man. And so I suspect that will continue where I use him in many ways, and I think that when it gets a little bit closer than four days into practice, I’ll probably be able to give you more detail. 

“But I think about it all the time and we still have a lot of things as it relates to just to the preseason games, the eight regular-season games — the runway is long. We have enough time to establish a lot of these things that might remain a little uncertain or flexible.”

With Simmons’ unique skill set, the ultimate correct answer might not be a simple or conventional one. 

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