PHILADELPHIA – The motto for the Philadelphia 76ers this season has been “Together We Build,” a not-so-subtle nod to the aggressive rebuilding campaign the Sixers embarked upon starting on Draft night. Unable to live in the present, at least for this season, the Philadelphia 76ers have largely lived with their eyes on the future. But at least for one night, they pivoted toward the past and spent an evening celebrating the legacy of Allen Iverson.
Before a sold-out crowd of 20,856, with new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on hand along with Sixers legends from Dr. J to Moses Malone to former team president Pat Croce, the 76ers retired Allen Iverson’s No. 3 jersey in an emotional halftime ceremony. (“I’m proud of myself for not losing it, the way I felt like I was,” Iverson said later.)
When the buzzer sounded signaling the end of the first half, no fans headed toward the exits. After a video tribute, Iverson strolled onto the court to thunderous cheers as well as chants of “MVP! MVP!” Dressed all in black, his braids peeking out the back of a black hat, AI made his way down a row of friends and family, stopping to give each person a hug.
After a taped video message from former coach Larry Brown and a presentation of a personalized boat from the current Sixers ownership, Iverson stepped to the microphone. While swaying back and forth, Iverson ran down a list of people he wanted to thank, from various members of his family, to former teammates, to even Michael Jordan, “for inspiring me and giving me a vision. I was one of those kids who wanted to be like Mike.”
He ended by thanking the Philly fans that had given him such love throughout his career. “Y’all gonna have to show me the fool who says dreams don’t come true. Because they do.”
“I love y’all,” Iverson said. “And now it’s time to party.”
Iverson, who ended his career playing 25 games for the Sixers at the end of the 2009-10 season, officially retired in October, and received a standing ovation from fans between quarters back then at the Sixers’ home opener. But Saturday night was the first chance Sixers fans have had to fully revel in the AI experience. Throughout the night, an endless Iverson highlight reel rolled on the scoreboard, as well as tributes from the NBA’s current stars, from Chris Paul to LeBron James. In true Philly fashion, James drew the most vociferous boos of the night. But the brotherly love for Iverson felt endless. The hashtag in use throughout the night, “#AI3Forever,” seemed as much a wish as a statement.
A few moments later, Iverson held a press conference in the Sixers’ press room. As he took one large step from the floor up onto the elevated stage, the 38-year-old Iverson muttered, “I’m too old for this.” Sitting alongside three of his children, Iverson seemed circumspect. He termed his feelings from the evening as “bittersweet,” noting the finality of the ceremony: “Some part of my heart hurts because I realize that it’s over.”
While Iverson said he loves spending time with his kids and watching NBA basketball, he admitted that he couldn’t watch Sixers games with the way they’re struggling now. “It’s hard to watch because I want to help,” he said. “But it will turn around. it will happen.”
Iverson said he would pass on becoming a commentator only because he does not want to be “that guy on camera criticizing other guys.” Would he go into coaching? “Maybe rec league, high school.”
Although Iverson never won a championship, his impact on the league was undeniable. No player of his generation left as large of a mark on the culture of basketball. Braids, tattoos, arm sleeves, the comically large shorts — the recent proliferation of all of those things can be traced directly to AI. While Iverson was frequently decried for being “just” a volume shooter/scorer, it speaks to the singularity of his talent that no player of similar stature has been able to replicate his production since.
More than anything, Iverson always felt genuine — to his fans, certainly, but more importantly, he seemed to be true to himself. That authenticity endeared him to fans around the world with a ferocity seldom seen. People weren’t just casual fans of AI, they LOVED Allen Iverson. Maybe it was his size, the way he was a literal giant-slayer on the floor. Perhaps it was his heart, the way no obstacle could slow him down. Or maybe it was his fearlessness, like when a rookie Iverson put Michael Jordan on skates with a crossover dribble. That was a moment of coronation, not so much a passing of the torch but an instance of the torch being yanked away from one generation by the group on deck. Whatever it was, it all came together into a package that was larger than life.
These days the only AI in Philadelphia is After Iverson. The Sixers’ 122-103 loss to the Wizards on Saturday hardly registered. Until the Sixers are able to build a foundation that allows them to contend, they will still be building, together. And on this evening, it was special to have Allen Iverson be part of that process. During his portion of the presentation, earlier in the evening, Commissioner Silver had said that Iverson “defined the city of Philadelphia, more than any other athlete.”
Iverson made clear that he understood this. And that the feeling was mutual. “I was their own,” he said of Philadelphia and the Philly fans. “I am Philly. It’s going to always be like that.”