Iverson earned 11 consecutive All-Star Game appearances and was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2001, when he carried the Sixers to the NBA Finals. But that’s not why the team will screen a documentary film about him Thursday.
Iverson is a four-time NBA scoring champion, led the league in steals three times and ranks fourth all-time in average minutes per game. But that’s not why his No. 3 will hang in the arena rafters next to some of the most storied names in basketball history.
Why then? Why, mere months after Iverson tearfully announced his official retirement — he hasn’t played since 2010 — are the Sixers honoring him prior to Saturday night’s game against the Washington Wizards?
Iverson explained it best during his retirement news conference, the quote courtesy of USA Today.
“It's home,” Iverson said of Philly. “I've been a part of this community for so many years. These fans are me. I am Philadelphia. When you think of Philadelphia basketball, you think of Allen Iverson. ... I'm going to always be a Sixer till I die.”
It’s true. Iverson was born and raised on the Virginia Peninsula and still counts many friends here. But Philadelphia captured his heart, and vice-versa, soon after the Sixers selected him with the first pick of the 1996 draft following his sophomore season at Georgetown.
The choice was not easy for Pat Croce and Brad Greenberg, then the team’s owner and general manager, respectively. Iverson, suffice to say, had a past, and No. 1 picks were not supposed to be spent on featherweight guards, no matter how gifted.
But Croce and Greenberg suspected that Philadelphia would embrace Iverson’s rare skills — his quickness and ballhandling were unsurpassed — and immeasurable drive. Indeed, Croce saw some of himself in Iverson.
“I was born in North Philly,” Croce once told me. “I grew up in the suburbs, Landsdowne, not a pretty place. I've been hanging on the corner my whole life.”
So has Iverson, and Philly loves him for it.
“This is a tough town,” former Sixers guard World B. Free told me during the team’s 2001 playoff run. “People bring their hard hat and lunch pail to work. Every night, Allen comes to play, even when he's wounded. He's 155 pounds … and he always bounces back. People respond to that.”
Daily Press photographer Adrin Snider and I witnessed that response when we toured the city for several days during the 2001 Eastern Conference finals. From the Capitolo Playground to Iverson’s preferred tattoo parlor to the arena parking lot two hours before tipoff, his appeal cut across race, gender and age.
No one thought him angelic or excused his transgressions. Most understood his life had been difficult, for reasons beyond his control and his own doing.
But oh, how they admired his moxie, his crossing over Michael Jordan, his hair-on-fire approach and, most endearing, his willingness to absorb a nightly pounding from bigger, stronger opponents.
Iverson never brought a championship to Philadelphia. He shot too much, stayed out too late and had a famous aversion to practice.
In short, Iverson was raw, all about improv, and his jazz instincts inevitably clashed with then-Sixers coach Larry Brown’s classical roots. A product of the University of North Carolina, Brown is a purist who worships Dean Smith, and to this day his close relationship with Iverson is among basketball’s most compelling.
Brown is 73, Iverson 38, and this preseason Iverson flew to Dallas to address Brown’s Southern Methodist University team.
“Allen was phenomenal,” Brown told USA Today’s Eric Prisbell. “He told them a lot of things kids needed to hear. He was really humble. He spoke for about 45 minutes. He could have spoken for three hours, and nobody would have moved.”
Brown on Iverson the player: “He is the best … his size to ever play the game. And maybe the toughest, maybe as good of an athlete that has ever played our game, and as good of an competitor. I hope everyone understands that.”
Brown was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002, and one day Iverson will join him. There will be speeches, tributes and formal attire, and Iverson’s bust will be on display in Springfield, Mass.
But as much as Iverson will appreciate that moment, Saturday will mean more to him. Saturday he will be with his Philly peeps, nary a tuxedo in sight.
Consider the list of retired Sixers jerseys: Charles Barkley’s 34, Mo Cheeks’ 10, Wilt Chamberlain’s 13, Bobby Jones’ 24, Billy Cunningham’s 32, Hal Greer’s 15 and Dr. J’s No. 6.
And now, No. 3.
It’s an amazing group, one in which Iverson absolutely belongs, yet ranks as completely unique.
“It was a blessing for (God) to even get me here, get me to this point so I can retire,” he said at his October news conference. “It was a blessing just to play one NBA basketball game. ... But I've won scoring titles, MVPs, I've done a lot in this league. Being 160 pounds soaking wet, coming from Newport News, Virginia. I mean, what more can you ask for? … Regrets? I don't have none.”