15 minutes into the 2016 Naismith Hall of Fame Enshrinement press conference, the chair reserved for one "Mr. Iverson" remained unoccupied.
The vast majority of those who made the trek to Springfield, MA on Thursday - fans and media members alike - were there to see Allen Ezail Iverson. This is an undeniable truth, despite the fact that the Class of 2016 included legendary figures such as Michigan St. head coach Tom Izzo, four-time WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes, and two of the greatest big men to ever step foot in the NBA: Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming.
The event's official press release listed the names of the inductees in alphabetical order, but make no mistake about it: Allen Iverson was the name in big, bold letters at the top of the marquee. And, in typical A.I. fashion, the former Philadelphia 76ers' shooting guard was nowhere to be found.
The most plausible rumor that made its rounds through the Naismith rotunda was that Iverson had missed his initial flight Thursday morning, but was able to secure another that was scheduled to land at about 12:00 P.M. That would give him about two hours to make it from the airport to the Hall of Fame press conference - plenty of time if he flew into Hartford, but he'd be cutting it close if he landed in Boston.
Either way, one could have merely paid attention to the not-so-subtle clues to see that the jig was up from the start. Given that there were nine chairs on stage for a Hall of Fame class that consisted of 10 members, everyone in attendance should have realized right then and there that something was amiss.
Of course, given what we know about Iverson's well-documented issues with punctuality, should we have expected anything less?
To their credit, the organizers of Thursday's press conference stalled and delayed for as long as they could, but halfway through the proceedings, it was announced that Iverson would not be showing up. Dozens of fans decked out in Sixers-themed regalia were visibly disappointed, and the energy in the room took a noticeable hit, despite O'Neal's best efforts to engage the crowd.
As the press conference ended, Iverson's custom-made Hall of Fame jacket sat alone on the rack as the other members of this year's class were hustled upstairs to a separate room for individual sessions with the media. With the star attraction missing, most of the cameras, microphones and voice recorders were trained on Yao and O'Neal. And just as O'Neal settled his massive frame into his assigned seat, he was hit with a question that had absolutely nothing to do with his own Hall of Fame resume.
In true Shaquille O'Neal fashion, the 7-1 big man wasn't going to pass up on the chance to riff on Iverson's infamous practice rant. "Hall of Fame?" asked O'Neal. "I'm the franchise player, and you're talking about the Hall of Fame?"
"I don't know how you miss this," said O'Neal in a more serious tone. "They've been telling us about this for three months, and I actually had this schedule memorized... and I don't know how you miss it. I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Over the next half-hour, O'Neal was peppered with more questions than he should have been about Iverson: The reporters on-site still had stories to file, after all. And, to his credit, O'Neal answered all of them graciously.
"He had a lot of heart," said O'Neal when asked what he admired most about the former Philadelphia 76ers' guard. "And we're similar in the aspect that we did it our way."
Midway through O'Neal's interview, a phalanx of reporters began to crowd around a previously untouched table near the front of the room. In the middle of the impromptu huddle, a lone figure wearing acid-washed jeans, a black T-shirt, diamond-studded gold chains, and a New York Yankees fitted hat held court to the most captive audience in the building.
Allen Iverson had arrived.
"[The Philadelphia fans] kept supporting me through my trials and tribulations, all my downfalls, my ups and downs in my life," said Iverson when asked about his relationship with the city that he represented for more than a decade. "They watched me grow as a man, as a father, and I just have the utmost respect for those people for not giving up on me... they knew that I gave them everything that I had, night in and night out... We have that mutual love and respect for each other."
Along that same vein, Iverson, who was admittedly "uncomfortable" in his expertly tailored (yet somehow still baggy) Hall of Fame jacket, made a point to express the love and respect he had for his fellow inductees, including O'Neal.
"I don't want you to take it the wrong way," said Iverson. "But... I think that he was the best, dominant big man in the world, and you can argue it all you want to, but it'll go down as me being the best, dominant little man in the world... That's why I love him, that's why he'll always be in my top 5 in the best players to ever play the game."
For more than 30 minutes, Iverson took questions on a variety of subjects in his trademark, unrestrained manner. He expressed hurt about getting snubbed for the 2008 Olympic team ("I felt like that was a team that I truly should have been a part of"), he openly wondered why people criticized his approach to life ("I always felt like: Why isn't it cool being you?"), and showed no signs of modesty when asked about his other athletic endeavors ("I thought that I was the greatest football player that God ever created").
"I'm still finding my way," said Iverson. "I'm still cherishing every day and living every day like it's my last and honoring the fact that God got me here 41 years later."
At the end of the interview, Iverson was asked about the importance of teamwork, and he paused for a few seconds, several beats past the trying-to-formulate-a-good-answer stage and well into trying-to-control-one's-emotions-before-answering territory.
"That's the only thing that got me here is... my teammates and my coaches," said Iverson, as he unsuccessfully fought back tears. "That's the only reason I'm here. All those guys sacrificed their games and sacrificed different things for me to be honored like this, and without them it wouldn't have happened."
And just like that, Iverson was gone... whisked away by PR types to pose for pictures and such. And in his absence came the realization that his lateness - the cause of which was officially attributed to a "personal situation" - didn't matter anymore. The only thing of import was the lasting effect that Iverson - standing at a mere six-foot nothing, weighing 160-nothing pounds - had (and continues to have) on those around him.
It was evidenced in the reaction of the teenage kid who came close to hyperventilating as Iverson walked by on his way to an interview with ESPN. It was clear in the faces of the beat writers and columnists who thought they'd have to scramble for copy only to be gifted with a half-hour of Iverson soundbites that ranged from candid and funny to raw and unapologetic.
Thursday was just the latest reminder of the man we've come to know on and off of the court over the past twenty-plus years. Allen Iverson may not come when you want him to, but he's always on time.
Should we have expected anything less?