Allen Iverson's jersey retirement coming during a 19-win slopfest was both necessary (big ups to Sixers ticket reps) and fitting, given that the team's last moments of brilliance came with him at the helm. His no-holds-barred style on and off the court won him adulation among a new generation of Sixers fans, including many of the writers that populate this site.
Getting to cover AI's retirement as a member of the press brought me back to the early 2000's, when a wide-eyed elementary school student remained confused by how polarizing this hurricane of crossovers and tattoos was. All I saw was FUN. A short man toppling giants is especially appealing when you've yet to hit your growth spurt, each new iteration of his sneakers giving me the confidence I needed (the All-Star Answer V's remain a personal favorite).
Amid a losing streak that was rough for fans and players alike, Iverson returned to give Philadelphia one last round of childish exuberance. The team may be under new management, but they understood the significance of the event -- players wore special warm-up shirts, the Wells Fargo Center filled to the brim, and even Adam Silver saw fit to join the party. And that's exactly what it was: A celebration of Bubba Chuck.
As a contrast to the long-term goals and future plans that were discussed all season, it was refreshing to salute the human embodiment of YOLO, 25 missed shots never deterring him from taking a 26th. He was never perfect, but he was one of us, a tough-as-nails competitor who drew beauty from his flaws and hung out at T.G.I. Friday's.
He made sure to clarify right off the bat that he wasn't surrounded by mere fans, that we had been a part of his story the whole time. "I'm at home just talking to my family... My fans in Philadelphia, they wanted me to talk about how much y'all love me. But trust me and know that the feeling is mutual."
I was expected to be professional on press row, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't melt into a puddle of goop when he cupped his hand to his ear and drew roars from the crowd, as he was wont to do in his playing days.
The ruckus wasn't contained within South Philadelphia. Well wishers around the league made appearances on the Jumbotron throughout the night, and labels such as "big brother" from former teammates like Carmelo Anthony and Andre Iguodala made it clear that reverence for AI extended well beyond fans.
Pound for pound!! Congrats homie. What a pleasure to complete against u and also become a friend in the process. U the reason why I got tattoos, wore a headband and arm sleeve. Thanks for everything!! #AITheGoat #BubbaChuck #HOFNext
Hearing praise heaped on my hero wasn't just about him, it was about all the people he touched during his time in Philadelphia. That included
The Cookie Monster Dikembe Mutombo, Theo Ratliff and especially Aaron McKie, who earned one of the largest ovations of the night following a shout-out from AI. That should come as no surprise after watching Iverson's tear-soaked tribute to his ex-teammate in November.
Watching Iverson command the room one last time was fascinating, because he is simultaneously modern and outdated. His fashion choices and tattooed torso were a culture shock in the wake of Mr. McDonald's himself, Michael Jordan, but that insistence on being himself is in many ways his lasting legacy. Oddly enough, it's on the court where he feels lifted out of a sepia-toned time. It's hard to imagine the ball-dominating little man's place in today's NBA, when his infatuation with the mid-range would be scrutinized by everyone this side of Doug Collins.
But his identity has never wavered, and he insisted that Philadelphia's acceptance of his style helped him reach his peak. "I love you Philadelphia," he yelled to the crowd. "I love y'all for accepting me, and letting me be me and letting me make my mistakes, letting me be human and letting me learn from them. Just embracing me and making this my home forever... I love y'all for believing in me, and caring about me as a man." He went on to say at his press conference that the support he got from Sixers fans, "made me not want to change... it made me faster, it made me stronger... all I needed was Larry Brown to polish my talent up."
After a year of being told how shitty my favorite team was and how they were a disgrace to the NBA, I needed that. I needed a last hurrah with one of Philadelphia's favorite sons, some time to relax and let my hair down, a little ego boost for my fractured psyche. It didn't make it any easier to watch Byron Mullens play basketball, but you can't win 'em all.
People flocked to the Wells Fargo Center because Iverson's mere presence made us feel alive again, even though the Sixers perimeter defense -- how do you let Trevor Ariza drop 40?! -- played dead for most of the evening. It reminded me that once upon a time, people really cared about this franchise, that the "Passionate. Intense. Proud." marketing tactic did have a basis in reality, and that maybe there are more than 15 of us who care about the future of the team.
Cognizant of the young players who had watched his speech rather than retreating to the locker room at halftime, Iverson reflected on his shining moment and the crowd that had been waiting for him since the moment he left. "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."
I'll remember that moment in 2044, when five-time champion Andrew Wiggins returns with his fluid gait and graying hair for a celebration of his own.