Mike Missanelli: Iverson knows what 76ers fans want

Allen Iverson hugged 76ers co-owner Joshua Harris after delivering the game ball Wednesday.
Allen Iverson hugged 76ers co-owner Joshua Harris after delivering the game ball Wednesday. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 27, 2012

The pursuit of Allen Iverson as the opening ceremony in an Eastern Conference semifinal game last Wednesday between the 76ers and Celtics was not unlike a search for the Jewel of the Nile. Or, if you prefer Iverson by his hip-hop identity, the Jewelz of the Nile.

We know now that it all worked out fine. Iverson made his flight, caught his limo ride from the airport, and did indeed make it on time to the Wells Fargo Center, where he slapped on his sideways ball cap, draped a baggy Sixers warm-up over a Lou Williams jersey ("Das my lil' man, right dare," Allen said afterward, in that classic raspy monotone, about his tribute to Williams), and strode to center court and handed the game ball to referee Joey Crawford. When A.I. pulled up his hand to cup his ear - the symbol he made famous during emotional periods of the games he played with the Sixers - the crowd roared a Richter scale special.

The fact that the whole production went off without a hitch may have been a bigger upset than the one Iverson forged in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, when the Sixers beat the Lakers at the Staples Center.

Through his career and even more so now that he lives life as a semi-recluse, stung by the ramifications of a bitter divorce and a shaky financial outlook, Iverson was never exactly a portrait of reliability off the court. Recently, Comcast SportsNet made arrangements to interview Iverson in his adopted town of Atlanta for a special it was doing on that 2001 team. He agreed. The network and its correspondent for the piece, Dei Lynam, flew down, rented a hotel ballroom, and set up all their equipment for the taping. Only Iverson never showed. And nobody could find him. So even with weeks of preparation for last week's event, phone calls and in-person meetings, getting Allen Iverson (who was in Charlotte, N.C., at the time), to step onto an airplane bound for Philadelphia was a major organizational coup indeed.

When the new ownership group took over the 76ers, one of the priorities was to rebuild the franchise's bridge to its brilliant past. Say what you will about the dearth of recent success, the Sixers are, along with the Lakers and Celtics, one of the three storied franchises in NBA history. And so they have made efforts to connect with their former great players.

Iverson, as the team's most recent all-time great - the man whose connection to the fan base was universally ageless - was the white whale.

"When the playoffs started, it made sense to have Julius [Erving] bring out the first ball, since we had just announced that he was joining the organization as an employee," Sixers CEO Adam Aron said. "But the next logical choice was Allen. We had been wanting to bring him back all year. But we had to have a moment big enough for Allen Iverson; we couldn't just bring him back for a regular-season game in January.

"When we won Game 2 in Boston, we started to get ahead of ourselves, and the thought went through our heads that the perfect time to bring Allen in was the first home game of the Eastern Conference finals. But then it just worked out perfectly for us for Game 6. And what a moment he provided."

As he walked to center court Wednesday with the crowd roaring, I thought for sure Iverson would grab a microphone and say something like, "The music I hear in my head is y'all's cheers; now let's get this pah-dee jumpin'!" But he was rather demure. Aron told me that Iverson cut his pregame presentation short because he didn't want to get emotional and tear up in front of the sellout crowd. Maybe it was that. Maybe it was more than that. Maybe it was pride. Maybe Allen Iverson still sees himself as a baller, not as someone's guest at the Old-Timers Game.

The ovation he got blew away what Erving had received before Game 3 of the first series, even though the Doc might be one of the five most impactive players in pro basketball history.

That's because Allen Iverson still resonates.

For whatever his flaws as a human being, we see him as us - a man who would fight to the death for the cause. He is one of the most compelling athletes to ever grace a Philadelphia sports stage, a man of layers, both good and bad. Shine a light on Andre Iguodala, nothing comes through; he's an opaque wall. With all due respect. Shine a light on Iverson, and it's like a prism - you get a dazzling array of colors.

Watching the Sixers and Celtics often struggle to score in that last series made me long for Iverson; we forget how good we had it in those days. In the 2001 playoffs, as the Sixers beat the Pacers and the Raptors and the Bucks before falling to the Lakers in the Finals, Iverson grinded it out nightly. He played all 48 minutes of regulation in four of the 23 games, and 47 minutes in eight other games. He had 50-plus points twice in the Toronto series, 45 one game against the Pacers, 46 one game against the Bucks, and 48 in that Game 1 overtime win over the Lakers.

Larry Brown had a love-hate relationship with Iverson. You know why he loved him? Because Iverson could get Brown's team a basket any possession down the floor. In this year's playoffs, Doug Collins never had that luxury.

Speculation last week was that the Sixers paid Iverson some kind of exorbitant appearance fee. Aron told me A.I. took nothing but the expenses for a first-class flight and a couple of nights in a Center City luxury hotel, for him and a few members of his entourage. The Sixers CEO estimated the cost of A.I. for Wednesday's production to be no more than about $15,000. Maybe. (Four Seasons in-room mini bars are no joke. And as of Friday evening, Iverson still was registered there.) Wednesday night, Iverson watched the entire game from an arena suite with his crew. There were about 25 people in the box, and at the door, a security guy with a list.

Ah, the crew. Still there.

I wonder how things work out for Allen Iverson. Will he ever learn to live life on his own, as just a regular guy with a regular job? What happens when the endorsement part of A.I. withers? Is he going to be 40 years old, 50 years old, surrounded by a group of sycophants pushing him to the next after-hours club? In a way, it's kind of sad.

But that was not the case last Wednesday. Allen Iverson was back, and that made people feel really good.

Mike Missanelli hosts a show from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 97.5-FM The Fanatic.

Contact him at mikemiss@975thefanatic.com.


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