Go ahead, ask: Does that mean that they're the members of Allen Iverson's so-called posse?
``They're my friends,'' Iverson said. ``They're here so I don't have to be by myself. Some days, some of them are here. Other days, others are here. I don't have to explain why. Who I need to have around, whatever, all that's personal.
``We're not a posse. I don't know why people say we're a posse, or that I have an entourage. Maybe the people who say that have no friends. Maybe they're mad because I have friends. Maybe they're scared of my friends. I don't understand, but it doesn't bother me.''
But it bothered Iverson and fellow guard Jerry Stackhouse terribly when New York Post columnist Peter Vecsey wrote a story saying that, before the Sixers left on their post-Christmas road trip, Iverson's friends and Stackhouse's friends had an ``impromptu rumble'' outside the team's practice facility in Springfield, Delaware County. Both players insist that no such incident ever took place.
There also were some complaints from patrons at Victors, the restaurant in the CoreStates Center, when Iverson and his friends visited there after a game several weeks ago.
``I was there,'' said Henry ``Que'' Gaskins, the Reebok International director of marketing for Iverson. ``They were probably too loud, but there was no anger, no negativity. But to some people, it might have appeared that something was about to start. There wasn't. It's funny, but I haven't seen stories about Shaquille O'Neal's guys, about Grant Hill's guys.
``Allen considers his friends his family. When they come to visit, they don't stay in a hotel. Allen's 21, wants his friends around. He says he has always dreamed about being able to do this. He says his friends gave him his toughness, his heart.''
The dictionary defines ``posse'' as a force of men, taken from the group sometimes put together by a peace officer in pursuit of wrongdoers. But it has also become a term used by the MTV generation, defining a circle of friends. Sometimes, though, there's a negative connotation, including groups who ride the coattails of the rich and famous.
Stop right there, Stackhouse said. His so-called entourage includes Allen Jenkins, his cousin, James Stackhouse, his brother, and Andre Thomas, his nephew.
``That's my family,'' said Stackhouse, 22, in his second season in the NBA after two seasons at North Carolina. ``Don't confuse that with friends. This is the same as living at home for me. These aren't people who latched on to me. That's my blood.
``They cook, clean, take care of my house when I'm on the road, take care of the dogs, pay the bills. When the Sixers drafted me, I was all by myself. I wasn't coming to a new city, to a new environment, alone. People see that you're alone, they'll try to take advantage, test you, to see how you react.
``We aren't all angels. I'm not. But we didn't do anything to warrant that [negative publicity]. All I can say is, judge me, not my family. They're here to support me, and instead they've had to absorb this. People look at them now as if they're bad. Why? Because of what some writer says?''
Pat Croce, the Sixers' president, can identify with Iverson. Croce's circle of friends includes bikers ``T-Bone,'' a machinist for a pharmaceutical company; ``Meat,'' who manages a cycle shop; and ``LT,'' who also works for a pharmaceutical company. But Croce says he has instructed the CoreStates security people to differentiate between the players' family and friends.
``There's no negative taint intended,'' Croce said. ``But I'm a `rules' guy. For example, we have rules for which groups wait where after games. And I expect the rules to be followed. We've explained that.
``I don't know where the term `posse' came up. All of a sudden, it was there, like they were supposed to be coming in on horses. I thought it was making a big thing out of nothing.''
Langford says that he is part of a rap music group and that Iverson is helping it get started. Gaskins, the Reebok marketing person, has invited Langford and some of Iverson's other friends to All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, Feb. 7 to 9, offering them a chance to perform at a Reebok-sponsored party that is expected to include executives from the music industry.
``We always get harassed, like people want us to react,'' Langford said. ``I don't know why. Maybe it's our appearance. I guess I don't look like I'm supposed to look. I don't know how that is. It's not like we go around fighting.''
Gaskins believes people could be deceived by their first impression of Iverson's friends.
``People think he has a posse, because of the way they dress, the way they look, their hip-hop style,'' Gaskins said.
``They grew up with rap music, and it's reflective of the way Allen plays, aggressively. People aren't accustomed to kids as `real' as they are.
``By that, I mean I grew up in a very rough part of town, but my parents made me change a lot of my patterns. These guys haven't had a lot of advisers, mentors. I learned to `play the game,' they haven't and don't feel a need to. But people on the outside looking in don't understand.''
Iverson will be a participant in the All-Star rookie game and the slam-dunk contest. He finished third among Eastern Conference guards in the fans' balloting for All-Star starters, behind Chicago's Michael Jordan and Orlando's Anfernee Hardaway. Stackhouse finished eighth.
The day Croce asked Iverson and Stackhouse about the supposed incident outside the practice facility, Iverson's friends and Stackhouse's family members were waiting together.
``What I saw was a bunch of kids hanging together,'' Croce said. ``If I were 21 and someone had just given me a bucketful of bucks, I'd want my family and friends to hang out with me, too.''
Iverson says the innuendo doesn't bother him. But it does.
``People don't know my friends, don't know what we've been through. They don't know me, either, but look at the stuff that's been said. It's like people want to use things to get in my head, to use me. Why would they want to? That's something I've asked since I got in the league.''
Stackhouse was the No. 3 pick in the draft in '95. Iverson, 21, was No. 1 last year. Iverson was told early through league channels that his shorts were too long, that his black ankle wraps didn't allow enough of his white socks to show, that his signature crossover dribble was outside the rules.
He read that he told Jordan that he didn't have to respect anyone. He heard that Houston Rockets superstar Charles Barkley said his teammates should be his entourage.
(``I don't recall that, as a young player, Charles hung out with Julius,'' Croce said, referring to Julius Erving.)
``It's just something else for me to worry about,'' Iverson said. ``It's stupid that this has gone on as long as it has. I don't care about other people's friends, why should anyone care about mine?
``The wild thing is, people ask if I'm being singled out. If I am, I don't care. But I'm tired of it. People still talk about me having to go to jail, too. I'm used to that, too.''
Iverson served four months at the Newport News City Farm after a brawl at a Hampton, Va., bowling alley in 1993. Convicted on three counts of maiming by mob, an obscure Virginia law, he was eventually granted clemency by then-Virginia governor Douglas Wilder, his conviction was overturned on appeal and he vaulted to stardom in two seasons at Georgetown. He tried to leave the past behind, signing with the Sixers for three years and $9.386 million, committing to a $40 million contract with Reebok. But he hasn't been able to elude the microscope that comes with public life.
``I don't care if the city doesn't like me, I don't care if guys in the league don't like me,'' he said. ``I'd be running around in circles, frustrated, confused, if I worried about all of that. I don't know why people dislike me. I play basketball, I take care of things off the court. Why criticize me when I'm trying my hardest?''
He is a strong Rookie of the Year candidate, leading the Sixers in scoring, assists, steals, minutes and turnovers, an exciting, sometimes out-of-control point guard learning on the job. He has heard Dennis Rodman, Chicago's notorious forward, say that he doesn't like rookies but likes Iverson less than most.
``What's crazy is, as I've played against all these different guys, been interviewed before and after games, I never criticize anyone,'' Iverson said. ``I don't feel I should. Who am I to tell someone what they can't do? I've never done that, but it seems as if people come at me that way. They say I shoot too much, they criticize me for other things, I take it on the chin.
``When Mike [Jordan] came in, the Bulls struggled. It took him time before they won. Barkley hasn't won a championship. How could he criticize me for not winning?
``Barkley needs to mind his business. I don't have an entourage, he's never seen me with an entourage. All he knows about me is what he reads, what he hears. I don't go around spitting on people, or getting thrown out of games. I haven't done anything near what he has. Yet he's so perfect? All the negative things he's done?
``Even if I had an entourage, it wouldn't be near as bad as spitting on a little girl [a reference to an incident in March 1991 in New Jersey]. My advice for him is, he needs to spit on the ground, or in a garbage can, instead of on little kids. I've never commented [before] on anything he's done.''
When Croce was the strength and conditioning coach for the Sixers and the Flyers, the operative term was ``cliques,'' not posses or entourages.
``Sometimes we called them `cling-ons,' '' he said, laughing. ``It's mostly the same as it is now, just the term has changed. I mean, Allen's Uncle Greg? That's Allen's mother's brother. Is he part of a posse?
``What bothered me was the time and energy it took looking into this whole thing. I have better things to do. I don't even like the word `posse.' ''
Neither does Sixers coach Johnny Davis.
``For me, `posse' is a new phenomenon,'' Davis said. ``I'm from a time when teammates provided support. But it's a new day, players have other people in their lives. It used to be your high school or college coach you went to, now it's your agent. That's new, too.''
Or maybe it's not really all that new. Former Sixer World B. Free, who now works in the team's community relations department, recalls having what he termed a ``posse'' growing up in Brownsville, a tough section of Brooklyn.
``But there shouldn't be a negative connotation to it,'' Free said. ``Everybody's people are different.''
Long before Free arrived in the league in 1975, Sixers adviser Sonny Hill says the concept existed in Philadelphia basketball circles on a much more limited basis.
``When Wilt Chamberlain, Guy Rodgers, Hal Lear, John Chaney played, we all had `friends,' '' Hill said.
``I carried Guy's bag. I was honored to do it. He'd have one or two of us with him going to games. He created a spotlight, we were just a part of it. Later, when I became a pretty good player, somebody carried my bag.
``But the last 10 years or so, the `friends' have grown in number. Maybe that's what created the terminology, `posse.' I don't like it, but it's only negative if you let it become that way. I don't see it as negative with Allen.''
What about Iverson's incident with Jordan, telling Jordan he didn't have to respect anyone?
``Blown out of proportion,'' Iverson said. ``The part that's missed is, I don't have to respect anybody while I'm playing. If I respect them there, I've already lost the battle. But I never told him to get out of my way, not the way it was written.
``He's a great player, a good person. Off the court, I admire him, what he's done. But I don't want to be like him. Mike is 33, I'm 21. He goes places in suits. I'm 21, why would people want me in suits all day? I'm not going anywhere where I'd need one. I wear what I want to wear.
``When I leave Earth, I want to be able to say I was real to my family and friends, that I stayed the same person, that I took care of my family. If I can say those things, I'll be satisfied.
``But if you read about me - about us - and make assumptions about who we are, then think what you want. If you don't know me, don't down-talk me. How can Charles say what he says? How can Mike?''
Iverson said he felt somewhat helpless in light of the Post story.
``What can I do about that?'' he said. ``It never happened, but what can I do?''
He tries to block out as much as he can, reminding himself how happy he is.
``I've never been this happy in my life,'' he said. ``The only happier time was when my daughter was born [two years ago]. People I love and care about are around me. And I'm taking care of my family.
``Where I grew up, people said I was too short, too skinny, that I couldn't go to college, that I couldn't go pro. They would tell me that to go pro would be one in a million.
``I heard it all. But now I'm on that level. They can't break me. The only way to break me is to kill me.''