A BIG CROWD arrived 3 hours before game time on a ramp overlooking the players' parking lot, trying to catch a glimpse of Allen Iverson.
The No. 3 Iverson jerseys - including ones from his days at Georgetown and Denver - littered the stands, and when Iverson took the court about an hour before the game (about 5 minutes after he arrived) those who already had entered the Wachovia Center gathered close to the court, cameras aimed and shouts of endearment at the ready.
With every mention of Iverson's name, with every wave of his hand, just about every time he touched the basketball, the season-high, sellout crowd of 20,664 roared its approval. It was a setting that hasn't been present in the Wachovia Center since, well, since Iverson was here before.
"I had chill bumps running all through my body the whole game," Iverson said.
As did the sellout crowd, especially at the beginning of the game. When a video clip of Iverson was shown before the announcement of the starting lineup, the sound reached deafening heights. Though a couple of minutes later, when Iverson was introduced, it surpassed that. Iverson proceeded to go to center court and place a kiss on the Sixers' logo.
The adoration was of the sort usually saved for a rock star in the building, but on this night, it was all about a player who played more than 10 seasons here, but not as a Sixer since he was traded to Denver 3 years ago; whose desire to win was not matched by many; who practically single-handedly carried the team to the 2001 NBA Finals.
And who may or may not be closer to the end of his career than many thought.
Iverson, who played his last of three games with Memphis on Nov. 6, seemed a step slow, his shot a bit short, his legs somewhat rubbery, his handle not on a string, but uncertain. He logged 37 minutes, 34 seconds; he scored 11 points, dished six assists and missed seven of 11 shots.
He was a terrific event, and might turn out to be the player who could make the Sixers a lot better. But should that happen, that will be in the future. It wasn't last night as the Sixers dropped their 10th straight with a 93-83 loss to the Nuggets.
For almost three quarters, the event lived up to the hype as the Sixers took a 62-55 lead with 2 minutes, 55 seconds left in the third quarter on a free throw by Iverson.
And then it turned ugly quicker than Iverson's stay in Memphis as the Nuggets (16-5) went on a 22-3 run for a 77-65 lead with 8 1/2 minutes to play.
Rookie Ty Lawson scored eight of his 12 points during the stretch and the Nuggets outscored the Sixers in the final period, 30-18.
"It seemed like we just ran out of steam the start of the fourth," said Sixers coach Eddie Jordan. "We lost some energy, we lost some continuity. They went on a serious run. We did not protect the basket, we did not get back on defense. Our offense did not have any sort of spacing or flow. We were just out of sorts and lacked energy and that was the turning point in the game, I thought."
Running out of steam was not a problem for Iverson, as he acknowledged he really didn't have any to begin with.
"As far as myself, from the circumstance of not being out there on the basketball court for a month and having 1 day of practice and trying to learn everything on the fly and playing a game with that many minutes after not playing at all, I am proud of myself. I did the best that I could,'' he said. "My heart said yes, but my body said no. My legs were weak, my arms were weak. I was telling the team that I wanted to drive baseline one time. I saw the opening and my heart said yes, but my legs said no. It's just going to take some time."
But the return of Iverson seemed to spark them, at least for the first 33 minutes. No one seemed to benefit more from Iverson's presence than the other A.I. – Andre Iguodala. Though he was nursing a sore right ankle, he scored 14 of his team-high 31 in the first quarter. He seemed to have more open lanes than normal, and drained his outside shot regularly.
"It opens up things for me some more," Iguodala said. "There's not as much focus so I see a lot of things, see a lot of openings. It makes it a little bit easier. He brings that whole aura to the game."
Thaddeus Young added 21 points for the Sixers, while Elton Brand had 10 and 13 rebounds, and Samuel Dalembert collected eight points, 15 rebounds and six blocks.
Chauncey Billups had 31 to lead the Nuggets, while Carmelo Anthony, the NBA's leading scorer at 30.4 a game coming in, was limited to 14. It was the first time this season he was held below 20 points.
Again, the Sixers were burned by an opponents' three-point shooting as Denver drained 11 of 18 (61.1 percent). The Sixers have allowed 10 or more treys in four of the past five games and are giving up an average of 8.4 over the past 11 games. Another disturbing stat was Denver's making 24 of 26 from the line, while the Sixers got there just nine times, making eight. Not good ingredients for stopping a long losing streak.
But now they've added Iverson to the mix, and the optimism wasn't snuffed out after one game.
"I see a lot of great things," Iverson said. "We had our opportunities to win this basketball game, we just couldn't hold on. I think as I get in better shape and basketball rhythm, I can help so much more. I can do so many things on the basketball court as far as taking the attention away from other guys. Just me being out there tonight helped Andre and Thaddeus in their spots. I felt like being out there, it freed them up a lot and they freed me up, too."
Iverson garnered all the attention, a nice diversion from a long losing streak.