At its core, Philadelphia is a blue-collar town with an attitude that can only be described as defiant. Despite being the original capital of the United States and a cultural landmark in more ways than one, the residents live with a permanent chip on their shoulders. Insults from national media and out-of-towners are hurled at the City of Brotherly Love on a regular basis–most stemming from decades old tales of fan disobedience–and the inhabitants respond with measured rage, asserting that those who don’t live here simply don’t get it.
This is important in considering the return of one of the city’s favorite sons, Allen Iverson, who came back to his old stomping grounds to watch his No. 3 jersey get placed in the rafters among other Sixers greats on Saturday night.
Despite his accolades–11 All-Star appearances, four scoring titles, seven All-NBA appearances, and a league MVP–Iverson is not remembered as fondly as he should be outside of Philadelphia. Rather than calling him one of the game’s all-time greats, which he certainly is, his greatness usually comes labeled with qualifiers. “The best little man ever” or “the best pound-for-pound” as if his diminutive size should be considered a demerit on his permanent record.
Part of that stems from Iverson’s turbulent relationship with the media during his playing days; he was an icon not just for his wicked crossovers, but for his signature braids and his heavily-tattooed torso. In that way, he was the poster child for the first hip-hop generation, and caught a lot of flak for refusing to change who he was to fit a certain image.
Remember, this is the guy that was referred to as the “NBA’s Thug-in-Chief” and took a beating from former commissioner David Stern for his planned hip-hip record: “By even recording his lyrics, [Iverson] has done a disservice to himself, the Philadelphia 76ers, his teammates and perhaps all NBA players.”
Speaking with Allen in the moments following his halftime honor, he was acutely aware of how his battles with the league had paved the way for some of today’s biggest stars.
“What I’m proud of most is changing the whole culture,” he said. “I took a beating for it, how I dressed… I took that beating, so this generation [is] able to do that now.”
He called it “bittersweet” and you could sense in his voice that although he was glad to have opened doors for ink-laden players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, part of him was worse for wear having carried the burden.
Thankfully, his contributions have not been forgotten by those he aided. It was fitting that Iverson’s first thank you went to Michael Jordan, who he claimed inspired him to be the player he became, because the Sixers used stoppages to play messages from players around the league on the JumboTron, thanking the man they refer to as “Bubba Chuck” for how he impacted their lives.
“For me as a kid, growing up I wanted braids and I wore No. 3. I wanted to be just like you,” claimed Chris Paul.
Carmelo Anthony explained how “he brought style to the game of basketball, he brought tattoos, he brought braids… even to this day, kids want to be like A.I.” Anthony punctuated his salute to Iverson by referring to him as his “big brother,” a sentiment that was shared by former running mate Andre Iguodala. For a man who was vilified by outside forces early and often, the reverence from his peers spoke much louder than the insults ever did.
To complete the cycle, commissioner Adam Silver‘s words at a pregame press conference stood in stark contrast to the harsh claims of his predecessor. He called Iverson, “one of my favorites of all time,” and admitted that with time, the misdoings that kept him in the headlines seem silly in retrospect.
“The great things he did for the league far outweighed his mistakes,” Silver said. “People came to understand not to judge him by his tattoos, his style… they judged him on his passion.”
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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