THIS WAS the calendar date: Dec. 19, 2006.
The day the 76ers traded Allen Iverson.
The day they both started over.
Tomorrow, then, is the 1-year anniversary of one of the biggest and most controversial trades in Sixers history. Whether it is a time to celebrate, vent or merely reminisce is in the eyes of the beholder.
The partnership between the franchise and the barely 6-foot, four-time NBA scoring champion wasn't just frayed. It was broken. Billy King, then the Sixers president/general manager, finalized a deal to send Iverson and forward Ivan McFarlin to the Denver Nuggets for point guard Andre Miller, forward Joe Smith and his expiring contract, and two first-round draft choices.
And then King exhaled.
The relationship had escalated from tumultuous to contentious to unworkable. It was time to change.
The deal completed, King dialed Leon Rose, Iverson's agent.
"I talked to Leon," King recalled. "Leon told him. At that point, Leon had known where we were in this. This was the quickest way. I didn't want [Iverson] to find out from elsewhere."
Later, King dialed Iverson.
"We never spoke," said King, relieved of his duties Dec. 3 and replaced by former New Jersey Nets general manager Eddie Stefanski. "I tried numerous times to reach him, but we couldn't connect. He had moved on."
To reporters in Philadelphia and Denver, Iverson professed happiness at an opportunity to play for a championship, to join a fellow superstar in Carmelo Anthony, to play for veteran coach George Karl. This season, he has led the Nuggets in minutes, scoring average, assists, steals and turnovers. He exploded for 51 points against the Los Angeles Lakers Dec. 5, and came back the next day with 35 against the Dallas Mavericks; he had 30 against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs Dec. 15. He had 38 in Sunday's loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Directly after the trade, on his Crossover Promotions Web site (www.crossover-promotions.com), he profusely thanked his fans for their support and said, "I am humble enough to admit that if I am the change that is needed, I am willing to accept that." He also said " . . . please know that every second of the 29,082 minutes I played in a Sixer uniform were an honor and a privilege I will never forget."
He has since had many of the contents of his Villanova area home sold by an auction house and placed his house on the market.
"It was time, for him and the organization," King said.
The ending was the equivalent of a crash-and-burn scenario. Earlier in the month, Iverson had met with King and asked (demanded?) to be traded. He had been fined $20,000 for blowing off a mandatory team appearance for sponsors, premium seatholders and some season ticketholders. He had sat out the fourth quarter of a Dec. 6 blowout loss in Chicago after remaining on the team bus until less than an hour before tipoff, then declined to practice Dec. 7.
When Iverson arrived at the Dec. 8 shootaround, coach Maurice Cheeks told him he wouldn't play that night against Washington and would not travel for the Dec. 9 game in Orlando. He was placed on the inactive list, with the team eventually saying he would remain there until further notice.
He was still being paid. But he never again wore a Sixers uniform.
This wasn't the first, or even the second, third or fourth, blowup between Iverson and the Sixers. Among other instances, he openly feuded with Larry Brown, the coach of the team that went to the Finals in 2000-01, later with Brown's successor, Randy Ayers, and then Ayers' interim successor, Chris Ford. He has since referred to Brown as "the best coach in the world."
The flip side, though, was that he had spent more than a decade in Philadelphia, winning four scoring titles and the league's Most Valuable Player award in '00-01. Other than the late, legendary Wilt Chamberlain, he was the only player in franchise history to score as many as 60 points in a game. The 7-1 Chamberlain, 6-6 Michael Jordan and 6-8 George Gervin are the only other players in league history to win as many as four scoring titles.
King said he would remember the Iverson era as "electrifying."
"In everything," King said. "What he brought to the city, the on-court excitement, the off-court excitement, he'll be remembered as one of the most electrifying athletes ever in the city."
But King also remembered Iverson in another way.
"Every day, you didn't know what was coming next," he said. "The great thing was, he was always direct and honest when you asked him about things . . . He has matured and grown up, but in trying to win [with him], you had to do a lot to make it work."
The Finals quickly became a memory. Since then, the Sixers have been past the first round of the playoffs just once, in 2003. King acknowledged he was wrong to try to surround Iverson with scorers such as Glenn Robinson, Keith Van Horn, Derrick Coleman and, most recently, Chris Webber.
"I got caught up in [that]," he said. "We needed basketball players."
Whatever they have been missing, they have been in the lottery three of the last four seasons.
Andre Iguodala and Kyle Korver remember that they happened to be in the same store Christmas shopping when Korver received a text message that the deal had been made.
"I showed it to Andre, and he was like, 'Really?' " Korver recalled. "I guess we all knew something was about to happen; we didn't know what. Obviously, that was the beginning of a new era here."
The Sixers went 0-6 with Iverson on the inactive list. Cheeks, though, masterfully held things together, refusing to say anything negative about Iverson. When many observers hoped they would lose games down the stretch of the season in the hope of getting better positioning in the draft lottery, management decided that the players should play hard and win as often as possible, believing that was the best way to determine what they had. They won 17 of their last 26.
Iguodala, in only his third season, emerged as the focal point.
Since then, Iguodala said, "It's been up and down."
"You see the good and bad of [the trade]," he said. "I also think the bad part about it is, I think I could have been able to do it with him, and I didn't get that chance. I really kind of knew I had the skills, but I really wasn't sure. I wish I would definitely have had that chance to play at a high level with him. Maybe we could have done some better things."
King tried to trade Iverson earlier. The most publicized deal came in the summer before the '00-01 season, when he concocted a mammoth, four-team deal with Detroit, the Los Angeles Lakers and the then-Charlotte Hornets in which Iverson and center Matt Geiger were to go to the Pistons. It collapsed when Geiger refused to waive his trade kicker and the Pistons were unable to absorb the two contracts into their salary cap. Some people always have believed Geiger should have at least shared Iverson's upcoming MVP award. Without Iverson, the Sixers almost certainly would not have made their first Finals appearance since 1982-83, when they won their last championship.
When Cheeks became the coach, supplanting Jim O'Brien, Iverson professed love and admiration for the man who played point guard on the '82-83 team and had been a Sixers assistant coach for much of Iverson's career. Later, Iverson acknowledged that because of that prior relationship, he and other players took advantage of Cheeks in '05-06.
Ever the diplomat and following a policy of never publicly criticizing his players, Cheeks said: "He's a player I consider one of the best little men ever to play this game. Hopefully, [the trade] turned out good for him. I hope the best for him. I think it was hard for everyone to reach that decision. He's been a major, major player in this organization for a long time. He's given a lot of heart, a lot of good moments to this organization."
The remaining players, as they always must, adapted as best they could.
"It's hard to say anything is ultimately for the better, because it hasn't been long enough," Korver said. "Change is inevitable. All things come to an end. It was the right time; I think both sides know that. It doesn't make it an easier transition, by any means, but I think he was ready to go and start a new chapter. The team was, too." *