LEON ROSE KNEW late Tuesday night that this would be happening. Maybe it wasn't official. The contract hadn't been signed. But you could hear it in the tone of the comments from Allen Iverson's agent.

"Get ready," Rose said.

Get ready for . . . ?

"Just get ready."

Citing confidentiality, he would not divulge any more than that.

Early yesterday morning, it was a done deal. Iverson was coming back to the 76ers, to what most pro basketball observers view as his Court of Last Resort.

If he can't do it here, he can't do it anywhere.

For the first time in a spectacular, controversial, lightning rod of a career, careening through his 14th season, the barely 6-foot guard doesn't hold all the cards. There's no multiyear agreement. There's no $20 million salary. By all accounts, there's not even his signature entourage.

There's just a 34-year-old guard, not brought in to be a centerpiece or a savior, but simply to help in desperate times. There's just a free agent trying to extend his career, accepting a non-guaranteed contract for the remainder of the season at a prorated $1.3 million, the NBA veterans' minimum for a player with at least 10 seasons of experience.

For those who thought the lack of a guarantee would be a roadblock to finalizing the deal, a cruel blow to Iverson's immense pride, Rose insisted, "I don't really think there were any issues regarding the contract. It was really all about an opportunity for Allen to get back and play basketball.

"It wasn't about the money," said Rose, declining to confirm any specifics of the arrangement. "It was about coming back to Philadelphia. The opportunity to do that means so much to him."

Iverson was at his home in Atlanta when yesterday's announcement came. He was scheduled to meet with reporters early this evening and scheduled to make his debut with his new/old team Monday night against the Denver Nuggets in the Wachovia Center.

That's ironic, because the Sixers traded a grim, vitriolic Iverson to the Nuggets on Dec. 19, 2006.

"I would rather it be the next team," Nuggets coach George Karl told the Denver Post. "[Overall] I think the big thing with A.I. is, can he be happy? If he's going to play angry and frustrated and disappointed like he played last year [with the Nuggets and Detroit Pistons], I don't think it's healthy for anybody."

Both the Sixers and Iverson knew all the issues long before they met for 2 hours Monday in Dallas.

"What that did for Allen was provide a strong comfort level," Rose said.

This is the Sixers' deal: In the absence of the injured Lou Williams, they desperately - there's that descriptive term again - need a guard who can control the ball, draw a double-team, get to the rim, score, draw fouls and, heaven help us, find open teammates. There was no other free agent who could come close to doing that. Whatever went on during the first 10 seasons-plus of Iverson's storied career with the Sixers, they found themselves holding a seven-game losing streak, a 5-13 record and no light at the end of the tunnel. All of a sudden, Iverson, even in the twilight of his NBA life, represented a life preserver.

This is Iverson's deal: He has between now and Jan. 10 to show he is what the Sixers fervently hope he is. If, during that span, he doesn't follow the rules and regulations that were set down in Monday's meeting, the Sixers simply can cut him and be responsible only for the numbers of days he is part of the team. If he is on the roster Jan. 8 (allowing for the league's 48-hour waiver period), his full contract will become guaranteed; since a portion of the total for 10 seasons-plus players comes out of a league pool, the estimated worth is about $650,000. If he inexplicably balks at the rules and regulations, he could well be at the end of his long, winding road.

The subplots, of course, are everywhere. The cynics insist that ownership (chairman Ed Snider and Comcast-Spectacor COO Peter Luukko) pressured president/general manager Ed Stefanski into making this move. The same Negadelphians believe the move was made more to sell tickets; the Sixers are 29th - next-to-last - in attendance.

As to how the pursuit of Iverson came about, Luukko said, "It was really the other way around. Ed Stefanski came to us after Williams went down and said Iverson was the best available player. He said he wasn't [part of the organization] during Iverson's first run, but that he had heard all the stories and asked whether we would even consider bringing him back. Ed Snider and I said we were leaving it up to the basketball operations department to make the decision.

"History magnifies the situation. The way I look at it is, Williams went down, we had to fill the void. This was the best player available. It starts with that."

Even as enraged as Snider was before Iverson was traded, the chairman was willing.

"Times change," Luukko said. "What happened here was 3 1/2 years ago. This time, we're not asking Allen to lead the team; we're not making a long-term commitment. We know the first run didn't end well, but we also looked at the whole body of work, at the building rocking. It's a different day."

Snider said, "When he left our organization, I did say, 'We're gonna trade him,' but that was only after he requested to be traded. This is an opportunity for him to shine here in Philadelphia, where it all started, with the most positive outcome. He is an incredibly talented player and I can't wait to see him in his Sixers uniform again. When Ed Stefanski approached me with the idea, I told him if he truly felt this was the best option for our team then he had my full approval to move ahead."

There is nothing in Iverson's contract that says he will be a starter, but that's what he will be, if not Monday night, then soon. And if there is a significant spike in ticket sales, Luukko insisted that was secondary.

"One of the options we're looking at is, obviously I would like him to start," coach Eddie Jordan said. "I haven't talked to the team about it, but it's a thought process . . . I'm really looking to see if he can fit in to our starting lineup, but it's not etched in stone."

Later, Jordan said, "I would like to, without really seeing him on the floor, I would like to compare him to Brett Favre. A guy who people think is too old to play and he's almost having an MVP year. I woke up and thought maybe he could do that. It's not a big maybe. I think he could be that."

Stefanski said, "We're not bringing Allen Iverson in as a guy to add to the depth or as a practice player; we're bringing him in to play basketball."

Amazingly, basketball people still refer to Iverson as "this kid."

"This kid has a legacy here in Philadelphia," Stefanski said. "He's arguably one of the top players to ever play in this city. If he doesn't get back in the NBA and play the way we want him to, and the way he needs to, it's not going to help him. He wants it; he wants it badly, to show that he is [still] an NBA player and who he is, especially coming back to Philly. This is a low risk for the organization and a [potentially] high reward."

If he can't make it here, he can't make it anywhere.

Daily News sports writer Bob Cooney contributed to this story.

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