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Sixers legend Allen Iverson left Philadelphia under not-so-great circumstances twice — first, when he was traded to the Denver Nuggets in December 2006, and then again in 2010 after a short, controversy-filled return to the franchise. Despite those exits, Iverson is still much-loved in Philly. He led the franchise emotionally and on the court for more than a decade, and his toughness (mixed with a lot of frustration, naturally) helped the city identify with him. Simply put, he's the most important Philadelphia athlete of the past 25 years, no matter how often Eagles fans still complain about former quarterback Donovan McNabb.
On Wednesday night, the currently unemployed Iverson returned to the Wells Fargo Center to present the game ball before tip-off of the Sixers' Game 6 win against the Boston Celtics. His initial appearance was brief: He walked out in head-to-toe Sixers apparel (including a jersey with the No. 23 of Louis Williams, the most Iversonian member of the team), presented the ball, shook some hands, gave some hugs, and left the court to watch the game. Through it all, the home crowd gave him a huge ovation.
You can watch video of that above. After the jump, check out the more complicated part of Iverson's evening: an interview with ESPN's Lisa Salters that touched on his desire to play basketball and his difficulty in finding a team that wants him.
There are a number of telling moments in the interview, including AI's heartfelt gratitude to the city of Philadelphia and how much he loves being recognized for the effort he gave on the court. The meat, though, is when he says that he won't use the word "retirement" and the line "I want to play basketball so bad" despite the fact that NBA teams have shown little or no interest in him. The 76ers and their fans treated Iverson like a retired hero on Wednesday, but the fact is that he's not ready to accept that role.
It's very easy to view this turn of events as sad for Iverson, particularly if you believe the overblown and reductive reports that he's broke. Yet, from another perspective, Iverson's situation is just another event in the life of someone who never went quietly and stayed himself even when standards deemed him reckless and immodest. For years, AI thrived on tenacity and perseverance on the court, playing through injury even when medical logic suggested he was falling apart. As a cultural figure, he embraced street style and became the poster boy for all moralists' claims that the NBA was a league of thugs. At all times, he's done what he wants to do with little care for what the general population thought of him.
Many aging superstars play past their sell-by date, but almost all of them realize when they're no longer wanted by their top professional leagues and retire with relatively little shame. Iverson hasn't gone gently, instead hanging on to any semblance of athletic relevance he can. Outsiders might think it pathetic for perfectly valid reasons. But anyone familiar with Iverson's career and personality can't be too surprised. As always, he'll fight until he no longer has the energy.
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