Retirement ceremony was Iverson through and through

Allen Iverson, shown in an illustration, will be the eighth 76erplayer in team history to have his jersey retired.    
Allen Iverson, shown in an illustration, will be the eighth 76erplayer in team history to have his jersey retired.     (KERRY LASTER)
Posted: March 03, 2014

He wore black from top to toe. Black fedora. Black jacket. Black jeans. Black shoes. He even wore black-rimmed glasses, the sort of concession to age that he was never willing to make as a player. You had to look at him. It was stark. It was arresting. It was Allen Iverson. It was perfect.

He came back to the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night for a ceremony to retire his Sixers uniform No. 3, for a night thick with nostalgia, much of it genuine, much of it carefully crafted and cherry-picked. Time has a way of distilling our memories, of purifying them so that nothing but the positive remains and all wrongs are forgiven. So the darker aspects of Iverson's life and career, of the talent he had wasted through his hard living and oft-selfish behavior, would be kept off to the side. What remained, what was recalled and celebrated, was Iverson at his best: a remarkable threshold for physical pain; an intangible and indestructible bond with those who loved to watch him play; a talent for basketball that, given his spindly, 6-foot, 165-pound body, surpassed any in the sport's history.

"I love you, Philadelphia," Iverson said during the ceremony, held at halftime of the Sixers' 122-103 loss to the Washington Wizards. "I love y'all for accepting me and letting me be me, letting me make my mistakes, letting me learn from them, and letting me make this my home forever."

Beyond the four scoring titles, the 2000-01 most valuable player award, and the two All-Star Game MVPs, Iverson captured the soul of an entire sports culture. There is no quality that Philadelphia values more in its athletes than the exhibiting of all-out effort, the willingness both to give everything and make certain everyone watching knows that you're giving everything, and Iverson understood this truth as well as anyone.

"You defined the city of Philadelphia more than any other athlete," NBA commissioner Adam Silver told him, and Silver was right in a way more profound than he might appreciate.

At a pregame news conference, just before he spoke about Iverson, Silver batted away questions about Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie's strategy of putting a team on the court that struggles to be competitive now for the sake of building a championship-caliber team later. "I think what this organization's doing is absolutely the right thing," Silver said, and from a long-term, realistic perspective, Hinkie's plan is the Sixers' best chance to rejoin the NBA's elite franchises. Remember: The Sixers have had one winning season over the last 11 years, and Iverson was a big part of that decade-plus of irrelevance, too, and there is no end to it without a clean, fresh start.

But Iverson embodied the antithesis of that approach. He lived for the moment, played for it, flung himself across the floor and crashed into the scorer's table to keep it inbounds, and people here adored him for it. Because of all the losing, "it's hard for me to watch Sixers basketball games," he said at a news conference, "and I don't." And hearing those words, thousands of the franchise's fans nodded their heads.

The connection between Iverson and this city was never about logic or even a realistic chance of winning an NBA title. It was visceral. It was that crossover against Michael Jordan in 1996, that emphatic foot on the Staples Center floor over Tyronn Lue and the Lakers in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, those countless times Iverson was knocked down by a taller, more heavily muscled opponent and got up again - a little man beating bigger men night after night and relishing it. It was the sort of thing that happens only here.

So for one night, it was appropriate to let the worst of Allen Iverson drift away - the arrests, the battles with coaches and management, the missed practices, the unforgettable rants to the media now just flotsam from the past.

He walked out to midcourt with the Wells Fargo Center roaring like it hasn't in years, and he cupped his hand to his ear to coax more sound from the Sixers' first sellout crowd of the season, all 20,856 in the building locking their eyes on him as they always did, and one more time, Allen Iverson was home.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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