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IT WAS 10 years ago this fall that Allen Iverson arrived in Philadelphia. Brash and talented, he was unlike any player who'd come through the city, a short, skinny kid with freakish speed who seemed to fear no man, be he a power forward, a center or his own coach. In his third game as a 76er he scored 32 points. In his 15th he committed 10 turnovers. And somewhere between those two extremes is where he remained for the ensuing decade: a player who could (and usually did) single-handedly win or lose the game for his team every night.
Philly is a city that falls in love with its sports heroes easily yet tires of them quickly, but it was different with Iverson. From the beginning, Philadelphians saw themselves in him (or at least they hoped they did), and they embraced him for it. Like Philly, he is rough around the edges, uncouth and unpredictable, but his heart is in the right place. He is undersized and plays out of position, but he never took a play off. In a city where effort is prized above talent, he was a workingman's icon.
I was living in Philadelphia in 1996 and still remember the impact of his arrival. At the local YMCA every half-pint in sneakers wore an Iverson jersey, and thirtysomething firemen flipped the ball like a pancake when they dribbled, the way Iverson did. Who cared that he kept getting whistled for palming? Who cared that he averaged almost 4.5 turnovers that year? He was electric.
For the next 10 years the Sixers held open auditions for a sidekick, the role of He to Whom AI Reluctantly Passes. They never found anyone to fit in as a second scorer, but how could they? To succeed as a character actor in Iverson's star vehicle, scoring could not be your forte. Eric Snow thrived as Iverson's valet, Dikembe Mutombo as a shot blocker, Aaron McKie as a do-it-all defender. Iverson made each feel welcome, so long as they understood their place. Former teammate Todd MacCulloch recalls how Iverson would keep guys loose by jumping on their backs during warmups, like a mischievous, if heavily tattooed, 11-year-old. "He really knows how to make you feel special," says MacCulloch. "He used to say that I had no bones in my hands, they were so soft."
Not that Iverson sent many passes into those soft hands. In that decade he hoisted more than 16,000 shots. He shot when he was open, he shot when he was double-teamed. Some players are considered "situational scorers"; Iverson's situation is whenever he's breathing. It's the only way he knows to play. In 2003--04 he attempted 300 more shots than any other Sixer. Not so surprising, until you consider that he played in only 48 games. He made 38.7% of those shots, by the way.
But to Philadelphians, that was O.K. It was part of the bargain: The team would be exciting with Iverson, but it would never win a championship. That he (and Larry Brown) took them to the 2001 Finals was enough. That Game 1 performance, when the Sixers beat Kobe and Shaq in OT, was Philadelphia's championship right there. The underdogs won the day. All the rest of it—the arguments with coaches, the domestic problems, the rap album, the rants against practice ("How the hell can I make my team better by practice?")—none of it mattered. Iverson was loyal (unlike T.O.) and fiery (unlike Eric Lindros and Andy Reid), and he played through a litany of injuries (unlike half the Phillies).
Now that Iverson's tenure with the 76ers is over, Philly can't bring itself to blame him for the team's demise. "No matter how much you like Iverson and appreciate his achievements and respect his game ... the Sixers are horrible right now," the Inquirer wrote last weekend of the 5--14 team. "That part most assuredly is not Iverson's fault." Regardless, Iverson is the one who asked out, frustrated with coach Mo Cheeks and unable to stand the prospect of averaging 25 wins to go with his 30 points. The fans understand that a trade is a good thing—70% of more than 4,000 respondents said so in a Philly.com poll—but will not disown him. "I love AI, he's the best player since MJ," writes one fan on a Sixers message board. "But it's time, for the sake of the team."
The irony is that the reason Iverson must leave Philly is the same reason it loves him: He refuses to change or adapt. At 31 he looks and plays much like the reckless 21-year-old he was as a rookie. He will not settle for midrange jumpers, will not ease up in deference to creaky joints or the prospect of developing young players—even if that's what the Sixers need. He will not concede that sometimes the point of practice is to set an example for others, not necessarily to better oneself. He is who he is, and just as corporations could not buff and shine him into something they could sell to middle America, coaches cannot persuade him to change.
Undoubtedly, Iverson will look peculiar wearing a different uniform, like a disheveled groomsman stuffed into a rented tux. And to Philadelphians, that's what the uniform will remain—a rental—for in their minds he will remain one of them forever.
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