WHEN THE SIXERS traded Allen Iverson to the Denver Nuggets 3 years ago, it could be argued that the franchise not only lost its heart and soul on the court, it also lost its heart and soul in the stands.
Diehard fans would flock to the Wachovia Center to watch Iverson pour his blood, sweat and tears into every game he played during his 10 1/2-year career here.
But once he was traded, the buzz surrounding the franchise faded and, on most nights, the Wachovia Center felt more like a mortuary than an NBA arena. In fact, this season, the Sixers are 29th in attendance, ahead of only the lowly Memphis Grizzlies - Iverson's last team, a stint that lasted only three games this season. The Sixers went into last night's game with Denver averaging an appalling 11,965 fans per game.
However, that changed last night, when "The Answer" made his "Rocky"-like return to the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 1996. All of a sudden, it felt like 2001 again. The Sixers were playing in front of a sellout crowd - 20,664 strong - and it was No. 3's comeback that had attracted the masses. Even a trio of Eagles - Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy - were in attendance to get a glimpse of the 10-time All-Star.
Iverson wasn't exactly his retro self against the Nuggets, registering 11 points in the 93-83 loss. But the 34-year-old's presence alone was enough to call his second debut in red, white and blue a success. The crowd was deafening at times, erupting for Iverson's pregame introduction and his first field goal, a 4-foot jumper with 7 minutes, 1 second remaining in the first quarter. And the enigmatic 14-year veteran appeared truly touched by their support.
"I had chill bumps running through my body the entire game," said Iverson, who logged 37 1/2 minutes in his first game since Nov. 6, his last with Memphis. "I feel like the fans here appreciate me, they appreciate my effort, and how I come to play every night. And that's all you want as a basketball player. You want the coaches, your teammates and the fans to appreciate you and what you bring to the table. And that was the best part of the night, hearing these people's voices all over again."
Iverson signed with the Sixers on Dec. 2, and, as a result, tickets were a hot commodity for fans eager to see his return.
"I'm here tonight for Allen Iverson," said Dave Gambone, 21, from Norristown, who got his $54 tickets from the box office at 9:45 yesterday morning. "I'm a Sixers fan when they're doing well. They're [now 5-16], so I'm here for A.I."
It was Gambone's first game of the season, and it's one he'll never forget. He ended up getting Iverson to autograph his authentic retro jersey as A.I. was heading down the tunnel to the locker room after his pregame shootaround.
"It meant the world to me," Gambone said.
Mike Berry, 22, of Franklinville, N.J., was also attending his first game and sporting a black Iverson jersey himself.
"I'm a bigger A.I. fan than a Sixers fan," Berry said. "When he signed, I was ecstatic to see him back. They've lost  in a row. They could use a spark."
Season ticketholder Kylee Pickens, 36, of Philadelphia, has been trying to give the team a boost, attending every home game for the past six seasons.
"I think that it's a win-win situation for everybody," Pickens replied when asked about the increased number of bandwagon fans in attendance. "Even though they're 'bandwagon' fans, I think that adds to the energy of the game. It's hard to play in front of nobody."
Anthony Dimeglio, 52 of Hammonton, N.J., offered similar sentiments.
"I think it's not only great for the organization, but also for us fans," said Dimeglio, who has shared a season-ticket package for the past decade. "We need other people to cheer. When we had 4,000 people cheering in a place that seats 20,000, it was hard.