It started out loud, and then got louder.

When his picture appeared on the scoreboard. When he was introduced. When he touched the ball.

And when Allen Iverson scored his first two points, with seven minutes left in the first quarter, the Wachovia Center erupted.

"A dream come true," said Renee Bronner, a fan who had come from Sicklerville, N.J., to witness Iverson's return to the 76ers.

Tonight's game against the Denver Nuggets was part reunion, part theater, part sport. Fans held up signs that said, "Welcome home, A.I.," and, "A.I., we missed you."

Iverson's return brought people out – in the cold, in the night, to South Philadelphia, to what is usually a half-empty arena. They came for the player, for what he meant and might mean again. They came to be part of an event, the unexpected, storybook return of a lost son. They came to join in and help generate the excitement that rolled not just through the Wachovia Center but across this sports-crazed city.

"I'm pushing for him," said Jim Hallinan, a business consultant from Downingtown and a 27-year season-ticket holder, who exulted at Iverson's first basket. "He looked like his legs are a little weak."

The evening's love affair started at 6:05 p.m., when Iverson sauntered onto the court to warm up, almost an hour before game time. He drew shouts from the fans who'd rushed to surround the courtside players' entrance as soon as the doors opened at 6. When Iverson appeared, his white headband instantly familiar, the temperature in the building seemed to go up 10 degrees.

"It's bittersweet," said Marc Falco, a teacher at McCall Elementary School, who stood watching Iverson from across the court. "I hated to see him leave . . . I'm happy he can end his career here."

Falco stood beside one of his fourth-grade students, Xavier Oliver, who nervously bounced a basketball that he hoped to get a player to sign.

Then fans close to the court began to shout, an impromptu cheer rising from a half-filled section: "Thank you! Thank you Allen!" The commotion prompted Iverson to pause from his shooting and flash a broad smile toward the stands.

"He knows!" Falco said. "He knows!"

And the fans knew too. Knew they had to be there.

Three hours before game time, Ray Chen stood perched on a concrete walkway outside the Wachovia Center, overlooking the players' parking lot. She had arrived in Philadelphia only hours before, having taken an overnight flight from Los Angeles for the chance to see Iverson's return, to see in person the player she'd worshipped on TV.

She bought a single ticket for the game, broke out her winter wardrobe, and headed to the Los Angeles airport to catch the red eye.

"It's one of my dreams to see him play," Chen said, a wool hat pulled low against the cold, a plastic bag shielding her paper "I Love Iverson" sign. "He's short, but he can play so good."

Others felt the same way.

"My childhood hero," said college student Lance Lundy, who drove from Lancaster to see the game. "It's nice to come to see the Sixers instead of just coming to see the visiting team."

His friend Corey Thorius said that with the addition of Iverson, the Sixers could actually contend. The players around Iverson are better than when he last played in Philadelphia. And, he said, the excitement surrounding his return is good for the team and for the city.

Which gets to the heart of fans' debate: Whether the team signed Iverson to win games or just to sell tickets.

"A financial move and a distraction," is how Brian Ward, who writes Depressed Fan, a blog about the 76ers, characterized the signing during an interview earlier this week. "I think we'll be a worse team with him on the court."

That's nothing against Iverson, said Ward, who started Depressed Fan three years ago, when rumors swirled that 76ers were going to trade their star.

"I loved the guy when he was here. I never wanted to see him leave." But the team's problem is not offense, it's defense and rebounding, he said, and playing a 34-year-old Iverson won't solve those problems.

"This is a last-ditch effort to bring some of the fans back, without a thought to the long-term good of the franchise," he said.

"The relationship that I have with these fans is like no other in sports," Iverson said on Thursday.

To play his first home game against Denver, the team to which he was traded, completed a Hollywood-like saga that even a scriptwriter wouldn't think believable. The news lit up Internet message boards.

"Ever since AI left, the Sixers haven't been my team," wrote frannie117 on www.philly.com "Love u AI!!!!"

But mark1161 lamented, "Typical Sixers. A team going nowhere decides to go backwards just to sell a few tickets."

Tonight, those fans rose the roof at the Wachovia Center.

Staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.