THE GAME was lopsided, dreary, dull. The crowd in Atlanta started chanting "We want Vick" even though he plays for the Eagles now. Because he plays for the Eagles now.

They wanted Michael Vick? The same Michael Vick who disgraced himself, his family, the franchise, the city, by murdering dogs and then lying about it?

The same Michael Vick, who had that huge contract with the Falcons, yet was last to arrive at practice and first to leave? The same Michael Vick who looked the generous, supportive team owner in the eye and lied when the dog-killing story first surfaced?

The game was lopsided, the Falcons toothless, so Andy Reid gave 'em Michael Vick. Let him throw a touchdown pass that turned a 27-0 embarrassment into a 34-0 stomping. Who knew that inside that grumpy, feisty exterior we see on Mondays lurked someone marshmallow-soft, marshmallow-sweet?

Jeff Lurie did, one of the reasons he handed Reid a 3-year extension yesterday. That, and the fact that the Eagles are in the playoff race despite playing with a crippled version of what Joe Banner called the best roster in the league. The man can coach.

Monday night, in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, 20,664 filled the Wachovia Center to celebrate the return of Allen Iverson to the woeful Sixers. Screeched joyously when he was introduced. Kissed his scrawny backside when he knelt to kiss the logo. Cheered lustily when he drove baseline and lofted a layup that didn't quite get there.

Uh huh, the same Allen Iverson who broke most of the rules while he was here and bent the others. The same Allen Iverson who spent too many hours hunched over a three-card poker table in Atlantic City, who saw too many dawns break. The same Allen Iverson who humiliated coaches, who said he'd run through a wall for Mo Cheeks and then wound up leaning against one, too weary, too bored, too rebellious to practice.

Had they also forgiven his vanishing act on "Fan Appreciation Night?" Did they forget that he had grumbled his way out of town, demanding a trade that Ed Snider couldn't wait to approve?

I have been covering sports in this city for more than 50 years and I cannot recall back-to-back baffling events, the puzzling crowd behavior in Atlanta on Sunday, and the fawning hysteria that surrounded Iverson's return on Monday.

We'll let Lurie explain that last touchdown pass to Falcons' owner Arthur Blank. We'll let the Atlanta talk-show folks analyze the "We Want Vick" chants. Me, I'm still trying to figure out why all those savvy basketball fans stampeded into the Wachovia Center to watch a 34-year-old who had been bounced out of Denver, Detroit and Memphis get a fifth chance here.

Size matters? People love Iverson because he's small, yet willing to dart among the fierce giants. Gets knocked down, picks himself up, pinballs back into the fray. Everybody under 6-2 adores him, which accounts for a big portion of the population.

Tracks of his tears? He bawled at his comeback press conference. Fans liked Mike Schmidt a lot more after he sobbed at his retirement announcement, even though he is the greatest third baseman to ever play the game. There are still billboards featuring Dick Vermeil, who cried us a river.

Cornrows and what's under them? Iverson wears what he pleases, says what he pleases, surrounds himself with a loyal entourage that enables him to do what he pleases, even if may not be welcome at Fridays for bad behavior and lousy tipping. He's our quintessential nonconformist and anyone in a dreary job with a harsh boss loves him, which accounts for a big portion of the population.

Yo, he promised some "mistakes" between the tears and managed to deliver on the first night, strolling in at 5:55 for a 7:05 game.

Effort? Iverson plays so hard on the offensive end people overlook how soft he plays on the defensive end.

Nostalgia? Larry Brown used all his wizardry, all his patience, to surround Iverson with dedicated role players that somehow, someway got to the NBA Finals against the Lakers.

Won that first game in Los Angeles. Hoo ha. Didn't win another one. Game 2 Iverson launched 10 three-pointers, missed seven of 'em. Got into a trash-talking squabble with Kobe Bryant. The suburban kid zapped the inner-city kid, then threatened to cut our hearts out. It ain't bragging if you do it. Kobe did it.

Iverson played 37 minutes on Monday, the last 17 on fumes. Said the crowd kept him energized. Coach Eddie Jordan heard them, too. Which brings us to the point of this sermon.

Joe Kuharich, who ranks right there with Rich Kotite for coaching brilliance, was asked about the hostile fans. In a rare burst of eloquence, he muttered, "If you listen to 'em, you wind up sitting with 'em."

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