The Sixers staged a very moving tribute to Allen Iverson tonight. 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 vibrating with conference-finals intensity for a 5-15 team in an early December game.

As spectacle, the signing of Iverson was a clear winner. The Center was the place to be in Philadelphia tonight. 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 will take much longer to judge the Iverson signing in basketball terms. Ultimately, that will be what matters. If the Sixers don't win some games, the curiosity-seekers and nostalgia worshipers who showed up tonight won't be back in February and March. They might not be back on Wednesday night.

Denver coach George Karl, who had Iverson for a season-and-a-half after that 2006 trade, was trying to be gracious when asked if he was surprised the Sixers were the team that signed the enigmatic guard.

"Yes, yes," Karl said. "I thought it would be a team trying to win a championship."

Karl didn't intend to point out that the Sixers are not such a team, but then, that's pretty obvious. And the plain truth is that the Nuggets are a team trying to win a championship and they decided they'd have a better chance with Chauncey Billups than Iverson.

Billups, Karl said, "has a little more conformity in his game."

To be fair, Karl also credited Iverson with helping Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the Nuggets develop into a team capable of making a deep playoff run. He just wasn't the right guy to go all the way.

The Sixers, of course, were the team that learned that first. In his first go-around here, Iverson won an MVP award by carrying an otherwise forgettable group all the way to the NBA Finals. That was nine seasons ago. 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 had hit the pause button. Green, Dalembert and Andre Iguodala are still here. Elton Brand has slid comfortably into the Chris Webber role. The Sixers took a nine-game losing streak into tonight's game.

Iverson actually looked a little nervous as he warmed up before the game, and he was a bit wobbly in the early going of his first game in over a month. He didn't have that quick first step that defines his game. We'll know soon whether that's just from not playing for a bit or from being 34 years old with a lot of tread worn off the tires.

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 is 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 bring 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," Karl said. While he clearly respects Iverson as a player, Karl also understands how the NBA works. It isn't like baseball, where players show up at the ballpark hours before game time, or football, with its hours of meetings and film study.

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.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.