The 76ers staged a very moving tribute to Allen Iverson last night. It was a perfect way to induct a retired superstar into the team's Hall of Fame: sold-out arena, stirring highlight video, the works.
Except that, instead of accepting a lovely parting gift and unveiling a plaque, Iverson actually played against the Denver Nuggets. After a drive down memory lane, he drove the lane again.
Whatever comes of this surreal back-to-the-future experiment, it must be said that Game 1 of the Second Iverson Epoch was a smashing success. The Wachovia Center was the place to be, and it vibrated with conference-finals intensity, even in a 93-83 loss.
Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Leonard Weaver, LeSean McCoy, and Todd Herremans were courtside. So was boxer Bernard Hopkins. Reporters from Italy, Japan, China, and Yahoo overflowed the press tables.
A day after watching Atlanta make its peace with fallen hero Michael Vick, it was just plain cool to witness Iverson running out to midcourt and kissing the Sixers logo after being introduced. Say this about him: Iverson knows how to create an unforgettable moment.
"It was a million percent the best," Iverson said. "I had chill bumps running all through my body the whole game. It just felt good to be back. . . . I feel like the fans here appreciate me. They appreciate my effort and how I come to play every night. That's all you want as a basketball player. That was the best part of the night, hearing these people's voices all over again. It's kind of bittersweet, because I wanted to win so bad regardless of whether I played well or not."
Iverson actually looked a little nervous as he warmed up before his first game in more than a month. He didn't have that quick first step that defines his game. We'll know soon whether that's just a result of rust or from being 34 years old with a lot of tread worn off the tires.
"I did the best I could," Iverson said. "My heart said yeah, but my body said no. My legs were weak, my arms were weak. I was telling my teammates, one play where I wanted to drive the baseline - I saw the opening and my heart said yeah, but my legs said no. I couldn't do it."
If he is able to get that explosiveness back - and Iverson said he didn't expect it to take long - the next step will be integrating his game with the rest of the team.
"I see a lot of great things," Iverson said. "I think as I get in better shape, in a basketball rhythm, getting up and down the court, I can help so much more."
It has been nine seasons since Iverson won the MVP award for carrying an otherwise forgettable group all the way to the NBA Finals. By the time he was traded, the Sixers were mired in a losing streak and Iverson was exhausted from trying to win with teammates like Willie Green and Samuel Dalembert.
Three years later, it's as if someone hit the pause button. Green, Dalembert and Andre Iguodala are still here. Elton Brand has slid comfortably into the Chris Webber role. Iverson rejoined the team just in time for its 10th loss in a row.
There are going to have to be some wins, and soon, or the buzz is going to wear off. Nobody wanted to see that 2006 team stumble around, which is one of the reasons Iverson was traded in the first place. It's hard to envision this team being all that much better with an older Iverson.
That will be one of the fascinating things to watch as this plays out. Another will be the push-and-pull with his new/old teammates. Iguodala now has the franchise-player trappings that once were Iverson's - the salary, the double locker at the end of the row, the featured final spot in the pregame intros.
What Iguodala does not have are the hearts and minds of Sixers fans. With the crowd roaring at everything Iverson did, Iguodala responded by scoring 18 points in the first half. It isn't likely to last over a long season, but Iguodala was clearly motivated by the presence of the original A.I.
Having a Hall of Fame-bound player around might just coax a bit more out of Brand, too. It is probably wishful thinking that Iverson will mentor young guards Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams.
"I don't know if that's been his forte," Denver coach George Karl, who had Iverson for a year and a half, said.
Iverson got to the arena at 5:55 p.m., just in time to throw on his uniform and shoot a few warm-up baskets. The NBA is a superstar's league and Iverson is a superstar.
For better or worse, he is Philadelphia's superstar. Again. Still.