This had the feel, the sense of anticipation, of the old days. LeBron James was in town with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Allen Iverson was waiting for him with the 76ers. There was a chance that either, or both, could go for 40 points.
On this night, James was the established superstar, the marquee name in the Wachovia Center. Iverson, back for a second run with the Sixers, was in just his fifth game after stops in Denver and Detroit and a three-game dalliance in Memphis. He's 34, in his 14th season; he has already had 50 CCs of fluid drained from his left knee, and he has been told he has a stress reaction in his right fibula. He's still a starter, but he's not quite "AI" yet
Just before the pregame locker rooms closed, Iverson stopped by to say hello to James.
"Early in the season, I didn't know what was going on with Allen, what the situation was," James said. "Signing with Memphis, I thought that was great. As the season went on, you see it wasn't working out. I wasn't a big fan of hearing about his retirement because I love his game so much, and have been a friend of his. To see him back in Philly, I think it fits perfectly."
James came up with 36 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter. Iverson had 16, 10 in the third, but chastised himself for a critical turnover with 4:44 left and the Sixers ahead 96-93. That opened the door to the Cavs' 108-101 victory.
James came in to last night's game averaging 28.6 points and 6.9 rebounds, shooting 50.9 percent from the floor, offering his familiar array of fast-break moves, dunks and amazingly improbable shots. Iverson, who spent the first 10 seasons-plus of his career with the Sixers, winning four scoring titles, becoming an MVP, was still climbing the ladder, hurrying to get back to his own stardom.
"What they have in common is, both do things on a nightly basis that are 'Wow,' things that only a handful of athletes can do," said Anthony Parker, the Cavs' swing man who began his career with the Sixers. "It was hard for me to think [Memphis] was the end for Allen. He's too talented not to be on a roster. I don't see that he's doing a whole lot different. He's still a fearless player."
Some of the veteran Sixers sensed that last night might bring some special moments.
"In this business," Willie Green said, "you never know. I know we're all glad to have Allen back. The beauty of it is, you don't know what might happen. Allen still has it in him. He's trying to get it back."
Sixers assistant coach Aaron McKie smiled and said, "There's still a mystique" about the James-Iverson matchup.
"When Allen was here the first time, you'd just say 'AI,' and there would be shockwaves," McKie said. "You'd say 'LeBron,' and there would be excitement. People pay to see the stars, and these two guys are stars. With Allen now, it's still fresh for him. You start to think what the possibilities might be, for us, for the fans. And with LeBron, well, it's captivating."