ANDRE IGUODALA glanced at the ink just under the skin on his right shoulder, and he chuckled.
In cursive script, under a silhouette of a sculpted basketball player, the tattoo reads: "This City is Mine."
A plea for love from a town that considers him an $80 million bust? Since Allen Iverson disappeared in 2006 much of the dialogue about Iguodala, especially in Philadelphia, has been about the kind of player he isn't.
"This City is Mine"?
"It is a little funny," agreed Iguodala, who was born in Springfield, Ill. "Actually, it's about my hometown."
This city should belong to Iguodala. Especially now.
He is playing hurt. Really hurt.
The chondromalacia in Iguodala's right knee, a chronic condition that dates back more than 5 years, flared in mid-March. That's right about the time Phillies second baseman Chase Utley was shelved with the same condition, possibly for as long as 3 months.
Had it happened earlier this season, Iguodala would have been shelved, too. Had the Sixers been out of the playoff picture, Iguodala would have been shut down.
Instead, he played for the next month. The knee cost Iguodala only the last two games of the regular season, when Sixers management insisted he sit, general manager Ed Stafanski said.
Then, on that knee, four times in 9 days in the NBA playoffs' marquee matchup, as the Sixers faced the Miami Heat, Iguodala played. He drew the masochistic duty of defending LeBron James, the world's most punishing small forward, and Dwyane Wade, currently the world's best shooting guard. He also was asked to be the hub of the offense.
"It hurts, because you can't really lift," Iguodala said. "You go into a jump shot and you feel like it's going to give at times. You feel a pinch. You don't know if the pain is going to come back. You're thinking about it every shot. Every plant. That's probably the toughest."
What he is doing should burnish his shameless legacy; should, in this grit-and-spit town, raise him to heroic heights.
The limitations explain why he didn't score much until Game 4. He simply could not stop, he could not leap, he could not finish.
And he would not complain.
Even yesterday, when asked directly, Iguodala explained his situation with a stringent qualification:
"The most important thing is, you can't have any excuses. If you've got to play, you've got to play. No matter what the circumstances," Iguodala said. "This is the time when you have to show your teammates, 'Hey, you've got to sacrifice.' "
Iguodala should have been benched as soon as the tendinitis became debilitating. He agreed.
"If I could do anything differently, I would have rested it earlier, then come back and played the last three or four games of the season," he said. "I lost my legs. You're going into a series, you don't have your legs . . . you lose your rhythm a little bit."
His legs came back in Game 4. He scored 16 points. He drove to the rim as if he owned it.
"I've felt a little bit better. Last game, I had a few dunks. They were kind of quick dunks," Iguodala said. "Before, I wouldn't have been able to do that."
Sixers coach Doug Collins has seen this sort of leadership before, in 2003, when His Airness was a ground-bound, 40-year-old relic.
"I had it with Michael Jordan. He had horrible back spasms. Michael felt it was his responsibility to play 82 games a season," Collins said. "I saw Michael Jordan play a game where he could hardly move. At age 41, he was the only player on my team in Washington that played every game. That's an example you set for other people."
Iguodala has set that example all season. He played through an injured wrist early in the season. He battled Achilles' tendinitis virtually all year long. That injury stole from him the effective midrange jump shot he developed during his brilliant gold-medal run with Team USA at the World Championships.
"The Achilles' is tough to play through. It's hard to spring. It's hard to stop," Iguodala said. "I could get to a sprint and run fast, but it's hard stopping."
His scoring average dropped to 14.1, his lowest in five seasons. Iguodala heard about it. Even as the team around him improved; even as it turned a 3-13 start into the seventh seed in the East; even as Iguodala played hurt virtually every night.
He heard the boos in the arena, the chatter on the talk shows about how a guy earning more than $12 million has to score 20 points and make big shots late in games. He heard it, and he will always remember it . . . wherever he goes.
Clearly, he realizes leaving Philadelphia might be in his future, and, given his current pariah status, he might not fight it.
"We're all human," Iguodala said. "Things happen to me here for a reason. Depending on how I handle them, it can help me in the long run."
Here? The long run?
"No matter what happens in the future, with me, wherever I'm at, I've always been a standup guy," he said.
Wherever he's at? Oh, that would be a sore loss.
Remember that runner James missed with 3 seconds left in Game 4? The one that would have tied it? The one so well-defended that even Elton Brand was able to block it? For that, thank Iguodala.
Remember how Wade scored 10 points below his season average in Games 1 and 2? Again, Iguodala.
What he is doing is heroic. But he is a stoic.
Iguodala surrenders 2 inches and at least 50 pounds to King James. Iguodala switched from Wade to James for Games 3 and 4. Iguodala is so strong, James was unable to post him up in Games 3 and 4.
Yes, James scored 55 points in the past two games. Yes, Igoudala has scored 35 points in all four games.
But understand this: The Sixers are a 30-win team without Igoudala.
This, too: If he chose to not play in these playoffs - a choice fully within his rights, Collins noted - the series not only is over, but every game is over at halftime.
After a season of rehab and recriminations, Iguodala already is handicapping his career. He's 27. He said he hopes to play only seven more seasons. The Sixers' faithful should pray they get good seats to witness those seven seasons.
It is too bad this series probably ends tonight.
What's worse is missing the playoffs. What's worst is ignoring the class and character of the man who brought you there.
As for that tattoo, Iguodala is willing to endure a little more pain to erase the irony:
"I'm about to get rid of it." *