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by John Schuhmann

Allen Iverson is probably the hardest player in the league to get to sit down for an interview.

But when he speaks, he speaks with passion. His words have significance. And it's not just because the occasion is so rare. It's because that's who he is. He's reflective. He takes all questions seriously and his answers are well thought-out.

After arriving in Cologne, Germany for the second stage of Europe Live, one of the first questions he was asked at his press conference was about the Eagles-Giants game he had watched the night before. He proceeded to speak for a few minutes (probably to the dismay of the European press who knew this might be their only chance to hear from the man) about the Eagles and, having a pretty significant football background (All-State in high school in Virginia), he knew what he was talking about. Enough that it was the lead of the story that Sixers writer Joe Juliano wrote that day.

When AI talks during media availability, his teammates and coaches get ignored. No reporter wants to be the one that missed the quote of the week. The throng appears out of nowhere. He's the man on the bench with the loaf of bread and we are the pigeons.

But he feeds us so well.

Allen Iverson is mature.

Iverson is more comfortable here ...

than he is here.
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He's a family man who spends the majority of his free time with his wife and two kids. When the Sixers entertained the notion of trading him this past summer, he wasn't concerned about dealing with a new city, new teammates, new coaches or even how his wife would handle it.

"I explained to my wife," he recalled from Barcelona, "and she pretty much knows by now, that this is a business and if you have to, you have to get up and leave. So, it was cool with her. She was prepared for it. I was prepared for it. It was just rough having to deal with it with my kids. And then it just felt good to be able to tell them that I was gonna be in Philadelphia and they weren't going to have to leave."

You probably would not have heard that from the same man several years ago, but he has changed ... for the better. Life is one big lesson.

"Obviously," Iverson reflected, "early in my career, there are some things that I wish I could take back and I wish I could do over again, but I can't. All I can do is learn from those experiences."

He has regrets, but he is happy with where his journey has taken him. And though he's still thought of as anti-establishment, he (along with his personal style) has become a part of what this league is.

The braids and the tattoos stood out 10 years ago. Now ... not so much. But through it all, AI has stayed true to himself and he has become accepted for what he is.

"I'm kinda like an elder statesman now in the league," he said, "and it feels a lot better than being one of the young guys. You get treated a lot better and people respect you a lot more because of the struggles and ups and downs that you've been through in your career. So, I'm happy I'm at the point that I'm at right now."

He has even become a pretty good spokesman for the league, praising the Europe Live tour every time he was asked about it.

"Honestly," he said, "I'm honored to be one of the team's brought over here. We have so many great international players and then to be able to do this over here, it can only be good for basketball. It's definitely good for the NBA and more important than that, it's definitely important for the fans. Just for the fans be a part of something like this. The crowds have been great. And it can only get better ... I'm just looking forward to hopefully being a part of it again, because it was definitely something that I cherish."

Allen Iverson is popular.

For this tour, the NBA obviously put teams in specific cities for a reason. The Spurs were in Lyon and Paris because of Tony Parker. The Suns were in Treviso and Rome because of Mike D'Antoni. The Clippers went to Moscow because of Yaroslav Korolev.

Allen Iverson is the reason the Sixers went to Barcelona. But he's not Spanish. He's never been to Spain before. He's just Allen Iverson.

When he was introduced before the game on Oct. 5, a sold-out crowd that was clearly for the home team during the course of the game gave him twice the ovation of any other player, including national-team star Juan Carlos Navarro. AI had a relatively quiet game, but every time he crossed someone over or connected on a jumper, the fans forgot their local loyalties. His appeal is undeniable ... and it means a lot to him.

"Sometimes," he told NBA TV, "I gotta pinch myself to see if I'm dreaming, to see the way these people react to me everywhere in the world."

Allen Iverson is intense.

Nobody in the league plays harder than he does. Every game, every quarter, every possession. Heck, I saw him knock over a rack of basketballs when his team gave up a basket in practice.

Nothing will get in his way when he wants to get to the basket and he doesn't stop until he hits the floor. Even if you don't like the man, you can't help but respect how hard he plays and how much he wants to win.

Allen Iverson is a good teammate.

"He's very encouraging," rookie Rodney Carney told me. "If you miss a shot, he'll come back and say, 'Hey rook, make the shot next time. I got confidence in you.' So, he's a real good guy to count on."

As can be witnessed by the video from the Sixers' team photo shoot in Barcelona, he keeps him teammates loose. He's the superstar, the leader and the prankster.

"He's one of the funniest, the coolest and most skilled guys I've ever played with," Carney said. "He's real fun to be around. He makes you laugh and he gets you the ball when you need it."

Note that that's a rookie speaking and the biggest criticism of Iverson's on-court game is his need to dominate the ball. He's not a point guard. As I write this, I'm still not sure a championship team can be built around a player like him, but other than Theo Ratliff in 2001 and Dikembe Mutombo in 2002 (two centers in a conference that did not have many good ones at the time), he's never had an All-Star teammate.

The latest incarnation of the Sixers has him teamed up with Chris Webber, a five-time All-Star who is not the same player he was before undergoing knee surgery in 2003. People doubted the the combination would work and, even though Iverson had one of his best seasons and Webber averaged 20 and 10 in 2005-06, the team won just 38 games and failed to make the postseason.

"He probably had one of the best years of his career," Webber told me. "So, I was happy with that and I was happy that we were the highest scoring duo, but we didn't win. So, my biggest expectation for me and him is to win and to get into the playoffs, where we can really take over. You get us into the fourth quarter of playoff games and we can really shine."

History (as recent as Shaq and Wade of '06) tells us that it can take two years for a new pair or group of stars to find their stride. It's perhaps the reason why Sixers General Manager Billy King ultimately decided to keep his team intact this summer ... to give them one more chance at success. Webber doesn't believe there's any problem with the on-court chemistry between Iverson and himself.

"The winning hasn't come the way we wanted it to," he said, "but the way we gel on the court is great and we can only get better."

And Iverson doesn't think about whether or not his time to win a championship is running out, because ...

Allen Iverson is a man of faith.

"It's not up to me," he said. "That's up to God and the plans that he has for me. Maybe a championship might not be in my future. Maybe it is. The one thing I can do is keep trying, work hard to accomplish that goal, keep believing in myself, believing in my teammates and believing in the coaching staff in Philadelphia. That's all I can do.

"I don't look at it as my time is winding down. I look at it as every year that God has blessed me to lace up my sneakers is just another opportunity to try to get it done. There are a lot of players in this league that thought that they were going to win a championship by now, just like me. And there are a lot of players in this league that haven't even gotten as close as I have to win a championship. I'm still confident in myself, my teammates and the organization that it can be accomplished."

Love him or hate him. Allen Iverson is who he is: a truly unique player and individual who loves the game of basketball and plays every game like it's his last.