HE SIGNED autographs. He knelt at center court and kissed the 76ers logo. Sixers general manager Ed Stefanski had filled a legal pad of requirements for Philly's prodigal son, but it's hard to believe that pregame meet-and-greets and worshipping the ground that Allen Iverson once again walked and ran on were part of it.

No, this was his own contribution to this do-over, a chance for him to restart and redesign himself in a place that has always forgiven his transgressions because of an unyielding willingness to hurl himself into pain and danger nightly.

There was none of that last night, much to the chagrin of the sellout crowd of 20,664 at the Wachovia Center, many of whom arrived earlier than he did and left earlier than he did, too.

Iverson reached the arena an hour before the game was to begin, and by then the perimeter of the court was surrounded by fans wearing his jerseys and carrying signs of devotion. Later he would liken their mutual passion to "a marriage," saying, "Fans have always appreciated my effort and how I come to play every night.

"That's all you want as a basketball player."

Which isn't true, of course. You want to play well and you want to win, and when one or both do not occur, you want to play elsewhere. Iverson has learned over the last 3 years that divorce is a bitch, too, that it takes its toll on you, too. It explains why he kissed center court, explains why, despite his late arrival, he signed about a dozen autographs as he walked back to the locker room after warming up. And it explains why he played nervously as the game began, leaving a few early bunnies well short.

Still, when the first quarter ended, Iverson's line read as follows: four points, three rebounds, two assists and two fouls. Eleven minutes, 59 seconds played. It was an impressive pace for a 34-year-old man 1 month removed from his last game. And it was a pace he simply could not sustain.

"My heart said yes, my body said no," he said repeatedly afterwards, his tiny frame draped over a tiny stool in the Sixers' locker room. Despite a month of inactivity and after only one practice with the team, Iverson logged more than 37 minutes in the Sixers' 93-83 loss to Denver. Somehow, he managed some moments, too, drilling a baseline jumper and feeding an alley-oop slam to Samuel Dalembert that pushed the Sixers' third-quarter lead to nine points.

That's right. They led, for three quarters, before the 16-5 Nuggets leaned on their gears, went on a 22-3 run and quieted a crowd that was sensing something special.

"We just sort of lost some steam," Sixers coach Eddie Jordan said, but really, they lost their engine.

"My legs were weak, my arms were weak," Iverson said. "I'd see the openings, my heart would see the openings, but my legs couldn't get me there. It's going to take some time."

Jordan estimated 3 to 5 weeks. Iverson thought it would come sooner. In the meantime there is this version of him, not unlike the version Larry Brown always pleaded for, albeit slower. A.I. was still A.I. mind you: He laughed off his late arrival, blaming traffic, and he forced media from around the country - Japan and China were represented, too - to crowd around his locker afterwards, pushing teammates out to dress elsewhere.

But he played like a point guard at times, or tried to. He ran what little of the offense he knew, or what little of the offense they actually ran. He attacked and then retreated, gave the ball up on those drives that earlier this decade would have ended in a human pileup or him skidding across the floor.

He filled up the scorebook: 11 points, six assists, five rebounds, a steal and just one turnover. Most significantly perhaps, he played Robin to Andre Iguodala's Batman.

Iguodala's pregame introduction was drowned out by the lingering ovation for Iverson. As the two men warmed up before the game, it seemed as if he was the A.I. who had just rejoined the team. Iguodala downplayed the significance of a packed house before the game, but from his first touch of the ball - a defensive steal that finished with a thunderous slam for the game's first points - he seemed to feed off it as much as Iverson did, if not more. He scored 18 first-half points on 7-for-10 shooting, and punctuated the effort by heaving a length-of-the-court basket after the second-quarter buzzer sounded.

He finished with 31 points, but only six came after the midway point of the third quarter. That was when Iverson seemed to wilt, too, and coincided with the Nuggets playing like a team with 16 wins, not 16 losses.

The Sixers are that team. For three quarters last night, there was at least a hint they can be more. "I see a lot of good things ahead," Iverson said. "We had an opportunity to win the basketball game. We just couldn't hold on. As I get in better shape and a basketball rhythm, I can help this team so much more. I can take attention away from some of the other guys."

He meant by those on the court. The building rumbled again, the sound of 20,664 reminding us what it was like every night a decade ago. By the end though, by the time he was replaced in the game's final minute, it looked the same as it has all season. The fans may come again tomorrow when Detroit plays here, but if the legs and arms don't follow that heart in the weeks ahead, this will be less about a rebirth, and more about a final bow.

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