In the early 90s, the spotlight was on the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most storied organizations in North American sports. That is, until a handful of players became a distraction during a Lakers team that had two rings and a guaranteed shot at a third. What few people know is that behind the scenes, a rookie point guard was quietly preparing the Lakers for a player only he could imagine.
In the 1993-94 season, the Los Angeles Lakers were in for a big surprise when they signed an undrafted rookie from Washington State named Michael Cooper. The Lakers expected to be another year or two from contending, but Cooper quickly became a key player, averaging 11.9 ppg and a career-high 8.9 apg, along with a 97.9% free throw rate. And in a classic ‘one for all, all for one’ moment, the rest of the team rallied around Cooper in a big way, going 36-2 when he put in a positive contribution in a game.
In 1996, the Los Angeles Lakers were in the midst of an epic season that would finalize their status as one of the greatest basketball teams in the history of the NBA. It all began in December of that year when the Lakers were nipping at the heels of the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Playoffs. One loss in the playoffs and the franchise was done for the year, and they were on their way to a fourth consecutive Finals appearance. They were down in Houston in the second to last game in the season and in need of a win to make it to The Finals, and they would need to win in Houston in order to keep their season alive. Lakers head coach Phil Jackson had one of his players in the game, but he was an
There were two major stories when the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers played in the NBA Finals in 2001. First and foremost, how would Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant do in their second consecutive Finals appearance? Second, who would be able to stop Allen Iverson?
Phil Jackson, the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, was especially worried about the second narrative. Iverson earned the league MVP in 2000-01, leading the Sixers to the Finals almost single-handedly. Even with two All-Stars of their own, the Los Angeles Lakers knew they’d have their hands full guarding Iverson.
So, ahead of the Finals, the Zen Master sought assistance from an unexpected source in the hopes of finding a solution for… The Solution.
Allen Iverson enjoyed a remarkable season as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
In 2000-01, Iverson was even better than Shaq and Kobe. For the second season in his career, the six-foot guard from Georgetown topped the league in scoring, averaging 31.1 points per game. It was the first of four seasons in which A.I. averaged 30 points or more, a feat only Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Oscar Robertson had accomplished.
Iverson’s regular-season achievements were noteworthy, particularly considering his diminutive size in a league dominated by large guys. But it was his postseason performance that demonstrated just how outstanding The Answer was that season.
Iverson scored 54 points against the Toronto Raptors in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, after a home defeat in Game 1 of the series. He scored 52 points in Game 5 and 16 assists in Game 7 to help his team survive and advance. With a 34-point effort in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, A.I. set the tone. But it was in Game 6 and 7, when Iverson scored 46 and 44 points, respectively, to send the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1983.
“He was one of a kind,” 76ers coach Larry Brown said. “On a team, he was the most exceptional player I’ve ever had.”
Phil Jackson enlisted the assistance of an undrafted rookie to prepare for Iverson.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ Mike Penberthy #12 pretended to be Allen Iverson during practice leading up to and during the NBA Finals. | Mandatory Credit: Robert Laberge /Allsport
Mike Penberthy, a 6-foot-3 point guard from The Master’s College (now The Master’s University), was a member of the NAIA’s private Christian school. His NBA career lasted two seasons, and he appeared in 53 of his 56 games as a reserve for the 2000-01 Lakers. Penberthy averaged 4.9 points per game in two NBA seasons before spending the bulk of his career abroad.
He was also Allen Iverson at one time.
Although Penberthy was sidelined for the playoffs, he continued to play an essential role for the Lakers. Jackson had the youngster imitate the point guards LA will face in the playoffs during workouts. Penberthy has been imitating the routines and mannerisms of Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damon Stoudamire, Sacramento Kings’ Jason Williams, and San Antonio Spurs’ Avery Johnson for the past several weeks.
With one series remaining, Jackson had Penberthy imitate Iverson to help his teammates prepare for the league MVP (h/t Jeff Pearlman is a writer who lives in New York City’s Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty).
“‘Mike, I’m giving you the green light,’ Jackson remarked on the first day of Iverson 101. ‘Get out there and shoot.’ Penberthy whirled with energy and passion like a spinning dervish. All of the triangle’s discipline could — and should — be thrown aside. He stomped on [starting point guard Derek] Fisher, stomped on [Tyronn] Lue, and then pulled up on Kobe and fired.”
Penberthy was lapping up the accolades he was receiving, and the Lakers were getting a crash lesson in defending the MVP.
“Guys would tell me, ‘Mike, you’re a great player!’” Penberthy subsequently reflected on the incident. “It was a lot of fun breaking out.”
Penberthy was instrumental in the Lakers’ victory against Iverson and the 76ers.
Iverson was not fully neutralized by “Iverson 101.” Philadelphia took an early series lead thanks to A.I.’s 48 points in Game 1. However, over the following several days — highlighted by additional workouts with Penberthy — the Lakers limited Iverson to sub 40% shooting from the field, winning four straight games to capture their second consecutive championship.
Penberthy made his way back to Los Angeles in the end. While working as an assistant under head coach Frank Vogel in 2020, the former Laker earned a title. He worked as an assistant with the New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves, as well as a private trainer, before returning to LA.
The former All-American from The Master’s College is still on Vogel’s bench, and he has a chance to add to his trophy cabinet. But few memories will ever compare to the day he dressed up like Allen Iverson for a few sessions in 2001.
Basketball Reference provided all statistics.
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