PHILADELPHIA – As Allen Iverson(notes) described his unpreparedness to old Denver Nuggets buddies in past days, they privately started to wonder: Maybe A.I. wants a way out of burdening the pressure of this feeding frenzy on Monday night. Out of the game a month, Iverson was out of shape. They loved Iverson with the Nuggets, admired his fearlessness and ferocity, but no one had ever heard him so filled with apprehension.
As the hours counted down to Iverson's return to the Philadelphia 76ers, one source said the Nuggets half-expected the sudden flaring of a groin or a hamstring to push back his debut to Wednesday night. However tempting, Iverson's DNA would never allow it. The Sixers sold out the Wachovia Center, and all those old No. 3 jerseys emerged from drawers and closets demanding a command performance. Iverson wanted so badly to summon the greatness of those years, wanted to rise to the moment and deliver to the delirium that surrounded him.
Eventually, the truth washed over him: When the baseline cleared and his instincts told him to make his move to the rim, Iverson almost apologetically had to tell his 76ers' teammates, "My heart said yes, but my legs said no."
During the Sixers' 10th straight loss, 93-83 to the Nuggets, Iverson played an ambitious 38 minutes on his way to 11 points, and several long, sweet ovations. Now, Iverson slumped in his locker-room chair, and looked so much of his 34 years of hard living and harder playing.
"It is just going to take some time," Iverson said.
As much as the Sixers needed him to sell tickets and reboot their foundering franchise, David Stern needed Iverson for his own agenda Monday night. The irony couldn't have been lost on the NBA's commissioner, who assuredly suspended any frustrations he has with the disproportionate coverage that Iverson still commands within his sport. After all, the national intrigue with Iverson's return to the Sixers had been a welcomed distraction from the truest Philly bad boy in the eyes of the NBA, Tim Donaghy.
The felonious referee started to make the book tour rounds for "Personal Foul," telling the dirty little secrets of NBA officiating. The problem for the NBA is that Donaghy's stories about how some officials' disdain for Iverson influenced the way they called games – and how he successfully bet – are believable from the most casual of fans to the most hardened of insiders. These stories aren't being met as revelations within the NBA community, as much as they are confirmations of what team executives, coaches and players long believed had been business as usual.
Iverson's traveling sideshow became a welcome diversion for the NBA. For a time, too, the NBA believed it had moved past its post-Jordan generation of lost thirtysomething souls, giving way to the redemptive and transcendent basketball and marketing powers of Kobe and LeBron and D-Wade. For all the cult and anti-establishment popularity that existed for Iverson in his prime, the NBA believes that he played a part in costing the league popularity with a broader base of fans and corporate partners nurtured through the golden years of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
If in his reckless 20s, Iverson had been considered menacing to segments of society with those cornrows and tattoos, his issues were probably different in his 30s. The more Iverson bemoaned his loss of stature, the more he railed against authority in Detroit and Memphis, the more the coverage of him falsely clouded the general public's perception of the entire sport. The NBA belonged to a far more orderly and appealing generation of player, yet Iverson's legend had a staying power that has far exceeded his greatness as a player.
Through it all, Iverson has remained a force of nature. The trials of Iverson's misgivings have owned the season's coverage, the way the loony rants of Stephen Marbury owned the summer's. The NBA had worked so hard to uncover a fresh generation of twentysomething stars – NBA champions and Olympic gold medalists – and there have been stretches of time these past two months when you'd still believe he was the sport's biggest star.
If nothing else, it felt that way on Monday night. These were old times for an older Iverson, who steered his Rolls Royce into the player's parking lot with little over an hour to spare until the opening tip. For all the turmoil, all the hard feelings surrounding his trade to Denver three years ago, these fans will forever love Iverson here. He was the rare sporting icon who literally put people into seats. He did it again on Monday, inspiring a sellout and a live wire of electricity in the building. When introduced, Iverson hustled to midcourt, knelt down and laid a long, loving kiss on the Sixers logo.
"I had chill-bumps running through my body the whole game," he said.
With the ball, this looked like a far more deferential Iverson than the scoring champion they remembered here. Perhaps that's his plan to fit back in, or perhaps that'll change once he gets his wind and legs back. Yes, Iverson can be better than Monday night, but he can no longer come close to what he was. And that brings the toughest question of all for him: Does this city's desire to see it all again make him reach for something that's no longer there, and sabotage what could be a beneficial partnership with the Sixers this season?
Yes, Iverson returned and found so much had changed, and yet so much was still the same. Andre Iguodala(notes) is the Sixers' scorer, coach Eddie Jordan's Princeton is the offense and, once his broken jaw heals, Lou Williams is the starting point guard.
Nevertheless, the Sixers had been irrelevant in this town, buried under the Eagles' playoff run and a losing streak that hit 10 on Monday. Now, there was a packed gym for A.I., a sellout gasping every time the ball was in his hands. Once more, the possibilities lingered over a cold Philly basketball night.
In so many ways, Iverson had long been both a blessing and curse for the Sixers, for the NBA. And yet, this turned out to be a night when they all so badly needed one of the game's forever characters to cover for the stench of a franchise losing games and relevance, for the stain of a scandalized league unable to extract itself from the grip of its truest Philly bad boy, Tim Donaghy.
Allen Iverson was unsure he could make it through the opening night of his second Philadelphia act without embarrassing himself, but he did, and the Sixers and Stern owe him one. For old time's sake, A.I. played the part of savior.