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David Aldridge

Allen Iverson signs autographs before the game against the Nuggets on Monday night.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The importance of being Allen Iverson

Posted Dec 8 2009 7:05AM

PHILADELPHIA -- Ann Iverson, his mother, wasn't there and Tawanna Iverson, his wife, had a doctor's appointment, and the 11-year-old son preferred waiting for him at home, ready to tell him how lousy he'd played. His longtime personal manager/football coach/father figure/friend of friends, Gary Moore, was sitting courtside, next to Ed Snider, the man who'd sent him into exile three years ago -- mutually assured destruction achieved, as the player drifted in and out of towns like a carny working by the docks, and the team floundered into utter, utter irrelevance. But otherwise, Allen Iverson was pretty much alone when he came onto the Wachovia Center court Monday, knelt and kissed the hardwood, just as he had when he'd worn the uniform of the Denver Nuggets in 2008 and come back to town.


Real closure.

He was back in the home white of the Philadelphia 76ers, 34 years old and not sure if this is going to be his last year or not in the NBA. If it is, he can live with it, because the ending, now, makes sense.

Allen Iverson in Memphis Grizzlies Blue didn't make sense.

"Words can't describe it," Iverson said after the 76ers ran out of gas in the fourth quarter Monday and dropped a 93-83 game to the Nuggets, Philadelphia's 10th straight loss. "I've been to other cities, played in Denver, and the people embraced me. I had fans there. I had a good life there. But it will never be, for me and my career, like this place."

This is not about basketball -- well, not just about basketball. Iverson will no more will the 76ers to the playoffs than elephants will tap dance, because he isn't a kid anymore and he can't summon those kinds of nights anymore, when he shot and shot and shot the ball until his team won, and there were four other guys on the court that were perfectly willing to watch him while they played defense and rebounded. These Sixers have an All-Star worthy player in Andre Iguodala, and an $80 million investment in Elton Brand, and whatever Philadelphia does this season will be determined by those two more than anyone. (Iguodala is also dressing in Iverson's old locker, the biggest one, nearest the hallway by the coach's office. "He hasn't offered anything yet," Iguodala said before tipoff, "but everything is up for negotation. Shoot, it's Christmas.")

David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

But Iverson has never been just about basketball.

This is the part I want to get right. I hope I do.

Allen Iverson is just as important to the history of this league as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain.

He was the symbol of this league for almost a decade, the engine that drove it after Jordan retired for good (we thought) in Chicago. That wasn't always positive, and it wasn't always aesthetically pleasing to the hoops purist, because there were a lot of 9 for 31s in the deal. But it was real, and that deserves your respect. A whole generation of new jacks, from Brandon Jennings to Ty Lawson -- the Nuggets rookie that blew by Iverson at will in the second half ("me, stay in front of him?," Iverson said afterward. "That kid is the fastest guy in the league") -- idolized number 3 growing up. The guy with the tats and the braids and the crossover, who got this league from the Jordan Era to the LeBron Era, all 160 pounds of him.

That's the guy whose jersey was consistently the biggest seller of them all, whose trips abroad were scenes of chaos, the person for whom everyone would wait when he was, again, late for something (as he was Monday night, not arriving for the 7 p.m. tipoff until just before 6). No one of this generation -- not LeBron, not Kobe, not D Wade -- put butts in seats like Allen Iverson. Twenty thousand came out to see him Monday, the first sellout of the season -- not the 5-15 team whose uniform he wore, not Iguodala, not Brand, not Eddie Jordan, not Carmelo Anthony or Chauncey Billups. Him.

They wore their T-shirts and held up their homemade signs (and they were mostly white, the not-so-secret secret of Iverson's appeal; you don't move as many shoes and jerseys as he has over the last 15 years by just selling in the 'hood), and Snider was sick as a dog, but damned if he wasn't going to be on hand for this, a night in the dead of winter when his team mattered in town again. The Flyers stink this year and the Phillies are beloved (but looking for still more starting pitching), and the Eagles are rounding into playoff shape, but there's no way that Donovan McNabb --one of a half-dozen or so Eagles in attendance Monday -- has the impact in this town that Iverson does, even now.

There's a reason Patti LaBelle offered to sing the anthem in exchange for two tickets -- although she ultimately passed, unable to get out of a prior engagement. There's a reason Cuttino Mobley materialized on the front row. There's a reason you couldn't hear the PA guy after he said, "a six-foot guard, from Georgetown, number 3," as the crowd roared and loosed itself, Iverson introduced next to last, leaving poor Iguodala to pick up the crumbs of dying applause.

David Letterman has this great saying about his own late father: when he came into a room, the lamps would rattle. That's Iverson.

"He represents the city of Philadelphia to a T -- hard working, chip on his shoulder," said Iverson's once and current teammate, Willie Green.

Green was here when Iverson was at the top of his game, when the hotels would swell as the team's bus pulled up, as the restaurants would make way and clear tables out of the air for the team to eat. Rock star treatment, Green said, and not enviously, because he knew, and knows, what Iverson has meant and done, both locally and nationally, for the game.

"I always say, there are superstars, and there are megastars," Green said. "He's a megastar."

Of course Iverson made mistakes by the carload. He was an individual performer in a team sport -- not selfish, but very hard to play with. Only a few NBA players could swallow their own ambitions that long. He didn't make many of his teammates that much better with his presence. His practice habits...well, you know. He stayed out too late too many nights, and he could be loud and profane -- to management, to coaches -- who didn't give him his way. I'm not saying he was the best player. I'm saying he was the show, the reason you tuned in, the reason you stayed and watched.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

But in recent years, he's gone out of his way to acknowledge that he had rough patches. The best I've ever seen him was that first time back, when he was with Denver, when he spoke the media before the game and said he was to blame for him not being in Philly any more. He wasn't mad that night; he was wistful, like an adult looking back on his life, aware of the mistakes he made, and saddened by them. If he hadn't given the Sixers reasons galore to get rid of him, he said then, he could have finished his career here.

Now, he just might.

"These people here, they watched me become who I am," Iverson said Monday. "They watched me go through my ups and downs. They watched me go through my trendsetting stage. People don't forget that. Just like I wouldn't forget the impact that Michael Jordan had on me. I would never forget that. It would never go nowhere. I know who made me want to play basketball. Just like the song, 'I want to be like Mike'? I was one of those guys that wanted to be like Mike. It never goes away. When Mike came back, I was ecstatic about it."

I was overjoyed last year, at All-Star, when Iverson showed up without braids, his hair cut like it was when he was a teenager playing for John Thompson at Georgetown. This isn't a hair argument; I know the symbolism of braids and why people wore their hair in braids, I know, I know. But my daddy used to always tell me you don't see any old junkies for a reason, and I think you don't see men closer to their 40s than their 20s wearing braids for a reason. Time requires all of us to make accomodations with life.

But that's my worldview. Not his.

He was back in braids Monday night, and wearing the home white, and the Wachovia Center was packed to bursting, and the crowd was roaring, and if it wasn't because the fans believed the Sixers were going to win, or going anywhere, for that matter, or that Allen Iverson has a lot left in the tank, and even if they knew this was the beginning of the end, the end of his era, it would still do.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here.

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