The sign in the stands at the First Union Center in Philadelphia last Saturday didn't get it quite right. It read: ANN IVERSON GAVE BIRTH TO GOD. This clearly is not true. Would God go seven minutes in the fourth quarter of a nip-and-tuck NBA playoff game without scoring a bucket? Not very likely.
Anyway, it's not God who has been AWOL in Philadelphia for most of this decade. It's a tribute to the Big Guy that the six candidates running for mayor this year work the city's churches every Sunday morning. What Philadelphia is looking for, what it's been looking for since Charles Barkley was traded away in 1992, is a player who could carry the 76ers. As it is written, Wilt begat Julius, and Julius begat Charles, and Charles begat...hey, whom did Charles beget? Nobody, nobody. That's been the whole problem.
So on Saturday, 20,550 souls filed into the First Union Center with two purposes in mind. They wanted to watch the sixth-seeded Sixers take on the third-seeded Orlando Magic in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference first-round series, which Philadelphia led two games to one. They also wanted to bear witness, to see if Ann's boy, Allen, truly is, as his nickname goes, the Answer. The congregants had suspected for a while that he might be the one who would lead them. They were looking for confirmation.
So much fuss over a first-round game? For years the playoffs were a rite of spring in Philadelphia. But the 76ers hadn't reached the postseason since 1991.
Their return had begun promisingly enough, with a 104-90 victory in Orlando. Iverson led all scorers with 30 points. In anticipation of the second game the Magic trotted out the word every team uses when it loses to an underdog: adjustments. You know the routine. The beaten coach—in this case, Chuck Daly—comes into a press conference after the upset, points his forehead toward a microphone and says, We'll look at some tape, work on some things in practice, make some adjustments. The term implies subtle maneuvers copied out of a double-top-secret playbook used only in times of emergency.
Hah! In Game 2 the Magic came out and mauled the kid. Some adjustment. Orlando bumped, banged and double-teamed Iverson for the 44 minutes he played. Every time he looked up on offense, he was staring at the G on Penny Hardaway's jersey. Iverson is listed at 6 feet and 165 pounds. (Take the under on 5'11" and 150.) Hardaway is 6'7", 215 pounds. The Magic's maneuver worked. Iverson scored 13 points. The rest of his teammates had 55. The final score was 79-68, Orlando. The series was even.
Game 3, last Thursday, was the first postseason basketball game played in the three-year-old First Union Center. The tip-off was at 6:30 p.m.—right after work, in the midst of Happy Hour—but fans had claimed practically every seat by the opening jump, their vocal cords well lubricated. On the floor, in the $200 seats, there were suits galore, of course. Well, movie star-rapper Will Smith, a native son, wasn't wearing a suit. (He wasn't in black, either.) But if you wandered through the aisles higher up, everywhere you looked you saw grown men, loud grown men, wearing Iverson T-shirts and making up for seven lost years. The place was howling. The noise and the look and the emotion of the crowd served as an excellent reminder that even though NBA basketball has become the official sport of corporate America, in Philadelphia it still belongs to the workingman.
Of course, it hasn't hurt the Sixers to have deep corporate pockets. Among the sellout crowd on hand for Game 3 was Brian Roberts, the president of Comcast, the giant cable company based in Philadelphia that bought the team in 1996. Comcast committed $70.9 million to retain Iverson as the team's star through 2005, and it ponied up $25 million over five years to hire Larry Brown as coach. Before the change in ownership, the Sixers were mired in mediocrity.
Three years ago Roberts told people he wasn't buying the team so he could sit courtside with his kids and be a man-about-town. He was buying the team because his cable company needed programming, and the Sixers would provide it. Well, there was Roberts on Thursday, sitting in the first row with his wife and three kids, lodging an icecream cone in his mouth so he could stand and clap—slow and awed, the way they do at the opera—at the feats of Allen Iverson. Roberts says Iverson has no idea who he is. (The public corporate face for the Sixers belongs to the team president, Pat Croce, and with his goatee and shaved head and ever-bubbling emotions, his is not a very corporate face at that.) To Iverson, Roberts was just another pair of hands applauding him, and firing him up.
According to Bill Lyon, a sports columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for the past quarter century, Iverson feeds off a crowd as voraciously as any athlete who has ever played in the city. In Game 3 the noise seemed to act as a stimulant for him. The Magic tried its Game 2 tactics again, but this time Iverson was ready for them and made better use of his quickness. Iverson had 10 steals, an NBA playoff record. During the five minutes in which he didn't play he never sat, waving a white towel in a circle over his head to keep the crowd on its feet.