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IVERSON'S improving image could lead to endorsements

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Allen Iverson can drive to the basket and play defense with the best in the NBA. Selling cars and cereal is another matter.

The Philadelphia 76ers' star and league MVP always has been a tough corporate sell. His cornrows, tattoos, derisive rap lyrics and rap sheet make large companies skittish about using him as their pitchman.

But his recent attitude adjustment off the court and his star turn in the NBA Finals could make Iverson more palatable to Madison Avenue, sports marketing experts say.

``His improved attitude and behavior will lead to more endorsements,'' said Brian Crow, a sports marketing expert at Hampton University in Hampton, Va., Iverson's hometown. ``It just has to be the right match for the right company. The dollars are out there.''

Where he was once seen as selfish, immature and threatening, the diminutive guard is now being praised for his courage, toughness and heart. Iverson has played valiantly through injuries and helped the underdog Sixers make it a thrilling series against the defending-champion Lakers.

``He's come a really long way in less than a year. He's on the verge of being viable for certain advertisers, which I think is a tremendous accomplishment,'' said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports & Celebrities Inc., an Evanston, Ill., company that pairs athletes with companies for commercials and other marketing.

But Williams cautions that Iverson will not be hawking Buicks or Bics anytime soon.

``I still think it'll ultimately take an extended time for advertisers to embrace him,'' he said. ``I still think Allen's endorsement potential is going to be limited.''

Although Iverson remains tremendously popular with youths _ his Sixers jersey is the league's top seller and his Reebok basketball shoe is also a best-seller _ marketing experts say he probably never will be in the same league as Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan when it comes to product endorsements.

Iverson has but two endorsement deals, one with Reebok that pays him $5 million per year and another with Sega for about $1 million a year. Bryant, the smooth-talking Lakers superstar, has deals with Adidas, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Mercedes-Benz and a slew of other companies.

But Iverson's advisers say he has received an assortment of offers in recent weeks and will pick and choose once the season is over. They believe he can sell soft drinks, cell phones and other products and services targeted to the youth market.

``At the end of the day, Allen makes his own decisions about what types of things he wants to involve himself in,'' said Larry Woodward, Iverson's attorney.

Iverson, who turned 26 last week, said he won't change who or what he is _ in his words, become a ``crossover figure'' _ just to please people.

In April, a barechested, dour Iverson appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Last week, after the Sixers' opening-game victory over the Lakers, Iverson showed up at a news conference wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jersey, a diamond-encrusted cross necklace, dark sunglasses and a black skullcap.

``I'm still the same person. I'm just older, more wiser. I still make mistakes, I just try to learn from them and get better in who I am as a person and basketball player,'' Iverson said.

While Iverson was always mesmerizing on the court, his off-court troubles have often brought him just as much attention.

In 1993, he was arrested in a Hampton, Va., bowling-alley brawl and spent four months in prison before then-Gov. Douglas Wilder granted clemency. The Virginia Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in 1995.

In 1997, Iverson pleaded no contest to a gun charge after police stopped a car in which he was a passenger and found a gun belonging to Iverson and two marijuana cigarettes.

And last year, NBA commissioner David Stern rebuked Iverson for lyrics from his unreleased rap CD that contained derogatory references to gays and women. The NBA once airbrushed his tattoos from a league magazine cover photo.

In his basketball life, Iverson often courted trouble, too. He showed up late to practices and games and he clashed repeatedly with coach Larry Brown. Their relationship deteriorated to a point that the Sixers tried to trade him last summer.

That seemed to be a wakeup call for Iverson. He showed up to practices early. He trusted his teammates more. He listened to Brown. He spoke about his desire to win a championship and his maturation as a person.

``I think Allen's always been a good guy but he's been misunderstood a lot,'' Woodward said. ``He's made some mistakes in the past, and he's grown from them and learned from them just like everybody else grows up between the ages of 20 and 26.''
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