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A picture Marc Iavaroni would love to forget belies successful career that started in summer league

Marc Iavaroni started for the 1983 NBA champion Sixers and had a 12-year pro career. But there’s one image from it he wished didn’t exist.

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

What began recently as a discussion of summer league took a left turn, and suddenly one-time Sixers forward Marc Iavaroni was talking about a photo he loathes, and for good reason. It dates back to a 1983 Sixers-Celtics preseason game in Boston Garden, and shows no less a player than Larry Bird grabbing the front of Iavaroni’s jersey with his left hand and cocking his right as if prepared to deliver a punch.

The photo resurfaces every now and then on social media. It even showed up on Twitter (or whatever we’re calling that nowadays) in February. Never mind that Bird didn’t actually take a swing just then; video shows he waited until a few moments later, when it appeared things were simmering down.

To Iavaroni, the damage was done, and lingers still. He called the photo “very hurtful” and added, “It was a moment where I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ And it was captured perfectly. I looked, like, scared to death. So yeah, I have to admit, that’s one of my least favorite photos of all time. It’s the least favorite.”

I suggested to Iavaroni that Bird’s actions were typical of the Celtics in that era, my point being that they were trying to deliver a message to their long-time rivals in the aftermath of the Sixers’ ‘82-83 title run. (And indeed, that game – it was the preseason, remember – also saw Celtics president Red Auerbach come out of the stands to bark at Moses Malone, after not only the Bird-Iavaroni incident but a dust-up between Moses and Cedric Maxwell. The undercard featured Gerald Henderson and Sedale Threatt.)

Iavaroni wasn’t buying my premise.

“No, no – it was so him,” he said, referring to Bird. “It was him.”

In the interests of journalistic rigor, I dialed up Bob Ryan, once a legendary Celtics beat guy for the Boston Globe, to see if Bird was reachable. Ryan said he was not, that indeed he was “very reclusive” these days, and noted that Bird, an infamous trash-talker, was apt to go after anyone on the court verbally. Physically, too, as has often been pointed out by others. (The foremost example is Bird’s scuffle with Julius Erving in 1984.)

So the infamous photo is just part of a larger collage where Bird is concerned. And if it remains a troubling one to Iavaroni, understand there are others he holds dear. Of starting for a championship team as a rookie in ‘82-83, after spending the previous four seasons trying to break into the league. Of playing alongside a “very caring teammate” like Erving, his fellow Long Islander. Of crafting a career that saw him play seven NBA seasons in all, and coach in the Association for another 16.

And again, summer league proved to be the springboard. By the summer of ‘82, Iavaroni, a third-round pick of the Knicks four years earlier, had spent three seasons in Italy and another as a graduate assistant at the University of Virginia, his alma mater. He said that he wasn’t sure how much longer he was going to pursue his NBA dreams, but he was 26 by then. Clearly the clock was ticking.

As detailed by the Inquirer’s Matt Breen in April, Iavaroni drove a battered van cross country to participate in the Los Angeles Summer League at Loyola Marymount University, after things fell through with Washington. He wound up playing on the same team as the Sixers’ first-round pick, Mark McNamara, and caught the eye of Philadelphia assistant Matt Guokas. Guokas passed word along to his boss, Billy Cunningham, who after taking a look himself invited Iavaroni to the team’s rookie/free agent camp.

The Sixers had yet to acquire Malone – that would happen in September of that year – but they were still a formidable team, coming off Finals appearances in two of the previous three years. While the Bulls and Jazz had also expressed interest in Iavaroni, the choice was an easy one in his eyes.

“The opportunity to play with Julius Erving was certainly attractive,” he said. “And the team without Moses was pretty damn good. It was better than Chicago’s and Utah’s.”

He was off and running. And all these years later, he wonders at the way things fell into place. The man who would become his agent, Bill Pollack, pulled some strings and found him a spot in summer league, where Iavaroni played for a coach, Bob Gottlieb, who a few years earlier had tried to recruit him to Jacksonville. Then there was the fact that the Sixers were looking to go the same route the Lakers had with Kurt Rambis – start a player who would soak up the minutes at the beginning of each half, enabling a top-flight reserve (Michael Cooper in the case of the Lakers, Bobby Jones in the case of the Sixers) to be at full strength in crunch time.

“They were like, ‘We’ve got our Rambis now,’” Iavaroni said.

He would average five points and four rebounds in 20 minutes a night across 80 regular-season games, and now describes that first year as “a little surreal.” His teammates – Erving in particular – made it somewhat less so, by treating him as an equal.

“Julius, if you were open, he gave you the ball,” Iavaroni said “I looked at the tape about a month ago, and I’m wide open at the Cap Centre later on (in a game against Washington), and I’m not looking for the ball, and it goes whizzing by my head. And I should have been looking for the ball, because I was open. That was Julius.”

Certainly there were rough patches, beginning very early in the preseason against, predictably, Boston. Again and again Maxwell posted him up, as the other Celtics chanted “Torture chamber … torture chamber.”

“For sure, Larry was the one yelling it out,” said Iavaroni, who remembers fouling out in 18 minutes. “Larry continued to talk trash to everybody in the league, myself included. He’s legendary for his trash-talking.”

But Iavaroni also remembers Cunningham being encouraged by the way the rookie held up in that crucible. As a result the Sixers continued to trot him out there. And Iavaroni continued to do his part, while negotiating the psychological potholes that had plagued him to that point in his career.

On the latter score, noted sports psychologist Bob Rotella proved invaluable. They knew each other from their days on campus at Virginia, and Rotella, who to this day works with prominent golfers, shared with Iavaroni imagery tapes – i.e., audio recordings that would, he hoped, help the younger man visualize success.

It was, Iavaroni said, a matter of “seeing the floor, feeling the ball, playing confidently, reacting well.”

“You run through situations,” he added. “What happens when you get a foul and you sit on the bench? What are you going to be thinking about? What are you going to be preparing to do when you go back in? What happens after this play on the court, and how do you feel? And how good it feels to just be playing the game and being in the moment. And I would listen to this tape regularly, and it really helped me.”

Helped him collect a championship ring, in point of fact. Iavaroni remained with the Sixers for another season-plus, before he was dealt to San Antonio. The year after that he landed in Utah, and he wound up playing over three years there.

He would then return overseas – between foreign and domestic stops, his playing career spanned 12 seasons – before launching his coaching career as an assistant at Bowling Green. He went on to spend time in similar roles with Cleveland, Miami and Phoenix of the NBA before going 33-90 in a season-plus as the Grizzlies’ head man, then returned to assistants’ positions with Toronto and the Clippers, ending in 2013.

That’s a lot of snapshots, a lot of positive memories to buoy him as he has settled into retirement in Santa Monica. You would think that would be enough to blot out a horrible memory from 40 years ago in Boston Garden. But every now and then it bubbles up. Every now and then there are reminders. And just as when he played, Marc Iavaroni must see his way through. He must find a way to envision the best of times, difficult as that can sometimes be.

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