CHARLES BARKLEY came back for the first time March 28, 1993. Torched the poor, helpless 76ers for 35 points, merrily leading the Phoenix Suns to a 110-100 victory in the sold-out Spectrum.
Barkley, in his eight seasons with the Sixers, was spectacular and controversial. He was revered by most, disliked by some, but eventually enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He was brazenly outspoken, always saying what he believed, sometimes not stopping to think before he said it.
If anyone knows what it will be like for Allen Iverson tonight in the Wachovia Center, it's Barkley, now a TNT analyst. Iverson, a four-time scoring champion who spent the first 10 seasons-plus of his career with the Sixers, will be back for the first time since December 2006 when he was traded to the Denver Nuggets.
"It'll be very hard for him to focus," Barkley said. "Everybody will be cheering for him, and it'll be nice. The thing is, when that happens, nobody cares but you. It's got to be annoying for the Nuggets. Everybody's there to show Allen love. Not Kenyon Martin or Carmelo Anthony or anyone else. Everybody there will be cheering for A.I. or for the Sixers.
"I remember there was a press conference for me. They didn't say, 'Bring your teammates.' Just me. Then you've got to go play the game. That was really hard. You want to win, but it's not a hostile environment, the way it usually is on the road. People are so friendly, you've got to remind yourself to play."
Iverson waited until after last night's game to talk about his return to Philly.
"I've been trying to focus on what we're doing right now, but I'm not going to lie to you, I knew I had to go back, and I knew what the date was on the calendar," Iverson said last night after his team's 136-120 loss to Detroit.
Iverson wasn't guessing how the crowd will react.
"I just know it will be fun," he said. "It's going to be something I always remember and cherish for my whole life."
Iverson, as Barkley, was spectacular and controversial as a Sixer. He drove them to the 2000-01 NBA Finals, their first appearance there since the 1982-83 team won the championship. But also as Barkley, it ended badly.
Barkley all but talked his way out of town.
Iverson tangled himself in a series of incidents early in the '06-07 season, and was traded to the Nuggets with Ivan McFarlin for Andre Miller, the expiring contract of Joe Smith and two first-round draft choices.
The Sixers of '92-93 were dreadful, finishing 26-56. This season's Sixers, at 33-34 with seven victories in their last eight games, have begun to capture the imagination of the fans. They played to 19,942, not quite a sellout, in Saturday's victory over the defending champion Spurs, and are likely to see what would be their second capacity crowd tonight.
In '92-93, the fans - many wearing Barkley shirts and Suns gear - gave Barkley a 42-second introductory standing ovation, then jeered and ridiculed the Sixers. Tonight's crowd is likely to be filled with Iverson jerseys, but is also likely to offer growing love to the home team.
"They're gonna boo [Iverson], just 'cause it's Philly and some people are still bitter," said the Detroit Pistons' Rasheed Wallace, who and counts himself as a Philly sports fan. "But a majority of the people still love him for all that he did.
"You know how they get in Philly. That's just how they are. You know we're some of the hardest fans on our athletes. It can be back and forth. I think it'll be cool for [Iverson]. He'll play regular. He won't be all teary-eyed and emotional."
Barkley wanted out because he felt he didn't have enough help, because he didn't see a solid chance to win. Iverson, although he never said it publicly, had to feel similarly.
"He can't be happy," Barkley said. "He said he had no help. Now he has a lot of help, but the results are the same."
That was Barkley's way of saying that the Nuggets, at 40-27, are scrambling to try to qualify for the postseason in the remarkably stacked Western Conference.
The Sixers, for now, are the No. 7 seed in the weaker East and threatening to move up, driven by Miller, Andre Iguodala and the patient, steadying style of coach Maurice Cheeks. Iverson and Cheeks had a fine relationship when Cheeks was a Sixers assistant, but it deteriorated in the early portion of '06-07. They haven't spoken since the trade.
"We'll have a brief discussion about how to keep it as calm and non-invasive as possible," Nuggets coach George Karl said of the potential subplots. "It's an important game for Philly, and for us. How it's handled in Philly, that's your choice. Our choice is to be disciplined and try and get a win. As I've said, I feel as if we're in a single-elimination tournament, like the NCAAs."
Through his time with the Nuggets, Iverson "has sustained his specialness," Karl said.
"He has fewer of the 35- and 40-point nights, but we don't need that as often," Karl said. "He's comfortable being our leading scorer, rather than a big-time scorer. He picks his moments to be strong and assertive.
"His leadership, I don't know if the right word is 'shocking,' but what I heard from some people and what I got is night and day. I've enjoyed our relationship at a high level. What he says after games are the words of a winner and a leader."
By all accounts, Iverson in his 12th season remains a fascinating entity.
"He's like [San Antonio's] Tony Parker," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He takes the hits Tony takes, only he's taken more of them, and for more years. And he's a skinny little guy. He's bone and ligament and gristle and stuff like that, and at his age he's still taking those hits. He still wants the ball; he still wants to win games.
"He's really an incredible competitor when the whistle blows. As everybody says, pound for pound [roughly 165], there's never been anybody that competes as aggressively as he does . . . . From what I've seen, he looks for Carmelo when he's posted up, he looks for J.R. Smith when he's open, he throws lobs to the big guys, but when it's money time, he still puts it on his shoulders. That's just who he is. That's how he's built."
Popovich suggested that it would be in Iverson's best interests to take the high ground tonight. "It doesn't do any good to try and win a battle," Popovich said. "Concentrate on the good. Don't even talk about the bad. He's been around enough; he knows there's nothing to be gained by being negative."
Expect an ovation for Iverson, said Kevin Ollie, a teammate with the Sixers.
"I don't think there will be any boos in the place at all," Ollie said, pointing out some fans who don't like Iverson "are going to be coming anyway, just for the excitement." *
The Associated Press contributed to this report.