PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Allen Iverson hears the difference in Maurice Cheeks now that he’s Philadelphia’s head coach instead of the unnoticed assistant.

When Cheeks was breaking in, Philadelphia’s assistants were asked at the end of each practice if they had anything to contribute. All the coaches would offer tips until it was Cheeks’ turn. That brought muffled laughter from the players because they knew he would never say a word.

Now that he’s the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers – their fifth in four years – the unassuming Cheeks is speaking up, and he’s not bashful about giving his players an earful.

“He’s a player’s coach, but at times a coach has to get on people,” Iverson said. “When he gets on me, I know he really means it because it’s not in his character.”

Strong character and championship experience are part of the reasons the Sixers hired Cheeks to replace Jim O’Brien. O’Brien was fired after one season in which he led the Sixers to a 43-39 finish and a first-round playoff loss to Detroit.

Philadelphia expects the steady leadership and calming influence Cheeks brought as the point guard on Philadelphia’s 1983 title team to be duplicated as a coach.

“It’s going to be a stretch, but somebody can do it,” said Cheeks, a four-time All-Star and one of the most popular players in franchise history. “I don’t see why we can’t do it.”

Injuries may be a factor, at least to start.

When Philadelphia opens the season Tuesday night at home against Milwaukee, the Sixers will be without starting center Samuel Dalembert (out up to two weeks with a right quadriceps strain). Small forward Kyle Korver is expected to play with a hyperextended left knee.

The Sixers did not have their starting lineup together for a preseason game, with Iverson and Chris Webber also missing time with injuries.

Andre Iguodala shined as a rookie last year at shooting guard with flashy dunks and tough perimeter defense. Free-agent pickup Steven Hunter will start in Dalembert’s absence.

With Hunter in the starting lineup and guard Willie Green most likely out for the year, the Sixers must stay healthy because they don’t have the depth to withstand a prolonged absence from any starter.

There’s no bigger question for Cheeks than figuring out how to use Iverson and Webber. If they both play at least 70-75 games, share the ball and form a potent 1-2 punch, then maybe the Sixers can do better than finish in the middle of the Eastern Conference.

Webber, slowed last season by sore knees, never found his niche after a trade-deadline deal with Sacramento and said the final 21 games of last season caused him more personal anguish than his infamous timeout with Michigan in the NCAA national championship game.

Webber’s been bothered by a strained right quadriceps for most of training camp and didn’t play any preseason games with Iverson.

“I could sit here and say we’re going to be great together, but if Chris has some bad games, people are going to say it’s because of me,” Iverson said. “If I have some bad games, people are going to say it’s because I can’t mesh with Chris. I think it’s a no-win situation.”

Asking Iverson to share the ball is only part of Cheeks’ plan to ease the former MVP’s burden. Iverson last year won his fourth scoring title (30.7 ppg), won an All-Star game MVP award and had a 60-point game. But he also played the second-highest amount of minutes and had the second-highest shot total of his career.

Cheeks wants to cut Iverson’s minutes, shots and the pounding he takes.

“I want to play the whole game,” Iverson said. “Me doing that is probably impossible. That’s up to him. It’s one of those, whatever it takes,’ things.”

Iverson, Webber and the rest of the Sixers have been revitalized under Cheeks. While O’Brien was fired largely because he didn’t communicate with his players and used a system that didn’t fit most of them, Cheeks has explained everyone’s role and made practice fun.

“That’s all you want to do, is be put in a position to do your best,” Webber said. “I think he’s going to do that for all of us this year.”

To celebrate Cheeks’ homecoming, Philadelphia is bringing back former teammates Julius Erving and Moses Malone to support the team in the opener.

“I don’t get caught up in all this hype,” said Cheeks, whose retired No. 10 hangs in the rafters. “I try to stay even keel no matter what the situation is. I’m ready to get it started. I’m ready to get the season going.”

AP-ES-10-31-05 1723EST

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