Passion was an appropriate word for the occasion. The same Wells Fargo Center that has laid dormant for most of this season was buzzing hours before tipoff, more people in attendance during shootaround than there have been for games all year. It’s not often you see a sporting event overshadowed by the halftime festivities, particularly in a rabid town like Philly, but Iverson’s return was monumentally important in comparison to the Sixers-Wizards game, as evidenced by how many people filed out of the arena after the ceremony ended.
And rather than go the locker room at halftime, a lot of the players sat courtside and watched the ceremony. They were very conscious of how much he meant to the city, and in the midst of a tough season it was good for them to see this Philly cares an awful lot about basketball. Real recognize real, as they say.
“If anybody is a basketball player and they saw what happened here tonight, they should get their butt to a gym and work on their game because the way these people did it for me — they did it all,” Iverson said.
And it wasn’t just Iverson who was showered in applause by the Philly faithful. Cameramen panned to former teammates of his at every given opportunity–from Theo Ratliff to Dikembe Mutombo to former executive Pat Croce–who by virtue of being linked to AI’s Paul Bunyan-sized legend became a part of history themselves.
Having come of age during Iverson’s rise to superstardom, talking with players about his exploits and seeing the reverence they held for him was a reminder that even people immersed in the sport are in awe of greatness. Thaddeus Young relayed the story of how at the first practice when AI came back for his final hurrah with the Sixers, there was so much respect for him from the organization that they ran the first four or five plays for him. Young said “he played like he was 6-8, 7-0,” and that, “I don’t see anybody that could be compared to him.”
Sixers broadcaster Marc Zumoff summed it up perfectly as he set the stage for Iverson’s commencement, telling him that the night was, “about our love and connection to you, and your love and connection to us.” Iverson’s toughness was endearing, his willingness to go amongst the trees and pick himself off the court time and time again, borderline superhuman. Practice rants aside, there was perhaps no athlete in the history of Philadelphia who threw himself in harm’s way as frequently as AI.
Iverson hasn’t played a significant role for the Sixers in over half of a decade, but that didn’t stop fans from serenading him with the same chants that came down from the rafters during the magical run to the NBA Finals in 2001. Roars of “M-V-P, M-V-P” flooded the arena, preventing him from going through his long list of thank yous, forcing him to bask in the glow and stare into a sea of No. 3 jerseys.
On this night, it felt like those three letters meant something different–as if the fans were crowning him not as a player, but as the Most Valuable Philadelphian, a title he has more than earned. There’s no greater paragon for this city than The Answer, a warrior who wore his heart on his sleeve. To borrow the words of Adam Silver, “You defined the city of Philadelphia more than any other athlete… On the behalf of every NBA fan, thank you.”
Hand cupped to his ear seeking one final cheer, Bubba Chuck brought the crowd to its feet before disappearing into the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center, vanishing into the night as quickly as he used to dart into the lane. It was a magical night for a magical player, one that won’t be soon forgotten.
What will you remember about the Answer?
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