Ultimate Sports Memory: AI's Return

    Photo by JoongDal on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    I remember March 19, 2008 like it was yesterday. My brother picked me up from my high school as soon as the closing bell tolled and high-tailed it east down the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76, fittingly) for a 7 p.m. tip-off. I had brought my jersey to school in my backpack that day and changed in the car — my brother wore his usual khakis, Birkenstocks and long-sleeve button-down shirt with a Sixers jersey thrown on to mark the occasion. He let me drive most of the way, I remember that. I can’t remember for sure, but I think it might have been my first time driving to Philadelphia; I hadn’t had my license for too long beforehand. First of many long road trips to the City of Brotherly Love.

    Allen Iverson was back in town. Special engagement, one night only.

    If that name doesn’t mean anything to you, I feel bad for you, son. The Philadelphia 76ers basketball team drafted AI (nicknamed “The Answer.” How badass is that?) with the first overall pick out of Georgetown in the 1996 NBA draft, and the rest was history. AI won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1997, was named to 11 straight All-Star Games, was the MVP of two of them, was a four-time scoring champion and was named MVP of the 2001 season, when he led the Sixers to the best record in the Eastern Conference and a berth in the NBA Finals, where his team lost to the Los Angeles Lakers (note: this is why I now hate the Lakers). Over the course of his career he averaged 26.7 points per game (sixth all-time) and 29.7 points per game in the playoffs (second only to a man named Michael Jordan).

    We all just sort of recognized we didn’t deserve him anymore, that we had never really deserved him.

    And yet, in spite of Iverson’s pure talent, his Sixers career flamed out spectacularly — in true Philadelphia fashion. There’s an old urban legend about the curse of Billy Penn, which doomed all Philadelphia sports teams to mediocrity for 25 years, between 1983 (when the Sixers last won the title) to 2008 (when the Phillies won the World Series) — I believe it was the longest championship drought for a city with teams in all four major sports. Iverson was the city’s best shot in 2001, but glory wasn’t in the cards and he was injured the majority of the next season. The Sixers were eliminated in the playoffs by the Celtics in the first round, by the Pistons in the second round the season after and failed to make the playoffs in 2004. They took on a lot of bad contracts for underperforming players, Iverson was getting older and it looked like the glory days were done.

    Iverson handed in a trade request in 2006 and something magical happened — the city rallied around him in full support. Nine times out of ten, when a franchise’s star player hands in a transfer request, the fickle fans turn on the star, attacking his character and greed and burn him in effigy. But with Iverson, it was like we all just sort of recognized we didn’t deserve him anymore, that we had never really had deserved him. We had been given something far greater than we had ever expected. He had given us the ten best years of his life, and we had utterly wasted them, given him no title to show for it. He had been the face of a mediocre franchise for far longer than I ever expected him to stick around, and when he finally decided he had had enough, it was impossible for us to hold it against him. I still consider myself a Sixers fan, in terms of what they represent to the city I love so much, but I haven’t seriously followed them since probably the ‘04-‘05 season — they’ve just been so bad, you lose hope. Iverson stuck around longer than I did, in all honesty.

    Iverson was traded to the Denver Nuggets in December 2006, and that was that. Months passed, the season ended and over the summer, the schedule for the ‘07-‘08 NBA season was released. I remember getting a text from my brother one day, who had graduated from college and was living in Philadelphia working on a writing portfolio — something to the effect of “Nuggets/Sixers in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, March 19, 2008,” in all of its understated glory. We bought the tickets (as did 20,000 other fans, a sell-out crowd) and kept our fingers crossed he was still a Nugget come March.

    I began playing the longest waiting game of my life. I’m not one to usually look forward to things — I try to make the best of whatever current situation I’m in — but I remember flipping forward six months in my wall calendar in my bedroom to sneak peaks at the circled box in March that read simply “DEN @ PHI.” Before I knew it, the snow that had fallen the month before had melted and Mrs. Rutt’s ninth period English class was over. I left the high school and my brother was waiting for me in the parking lot with MapQuest directions to the Wachovia Center (now the Wells Fargo Center) in South Philly.

    I’ve never been in a room so loud, felt a stadium shake as much as I did in that one moment.

    I still watch Youtube clips from that game from time to time. It’s one of my all-time greatest sports memories, one whose highlights can pick me up even in the darkest days, like the final pitch of the 2008 World Series or the Flyers’ historic comeback against the Bruins in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Iverson, decked out in the Denver Nuggets’ trademark baby blue warmups, baby blue signature compression sleeve, dropping to his knees and kissing the Sixers logo on the hardwood court as 20,000 people chant his name and give him a standing ovation that felt like it would have gone on forever had the announcer not cut it short with the rest of the Nuggets’ lineup. The clips show The Answer struggling not to cry outright as he pounds his chest and waves to and salutes the fans he knows so well and gives his former coach Maurice Cheeks, arguably the reason AI left in the first place, a classy hug. I’ve never been in a room so loud, felt a stadium shake as much as I did in that one moment.

    The game was an instant classic. The Nuggets started the game on a run but the Sixers (again, to reiterate, a basketball team that isn’t very good at basketball) answered back. The crowd roared for every single one of AI’s baskets, ignoring the fact that he was, on this night, the enemy. Iverson dropped 32 points but the Sixers rode a fourth quarter surge to a 115-113 victory, and before we knew it, Iverson had left the court, the lights had been shut off and the fans had left the stadium in the dark. It was over. My brother drove us back home and I got ready for school the next morning.

    Iverson’s sneakers that night, I would find out later, were tailor-made with a custom “THX PHILA” love note embossed on the side. My brother would go on to find a picture of the sneaker and make it his computer background for the next two years, long after he left the city again for work. That’s what Philadelphia is, to me. You can leave, move yourself away from the city, but the city won’t ever let you really leave, let you move on from it once and for all. Iverson returned to the Sixers for the tail end of the ‘09-‘10 season for a reunion tour, older, wiser, homesick — as I plan to, late in life, when I decide it’s finally time to come on home.

    My brother has a running joke with me that he’s going to ask Allen Iverson to be the best man at his wedding, and that I shouldn’t take the snub personally. He says he knows The Answer’s not actually going to show up, but he likes to dream. To that, Will, I say — don’t count him out so soon. He hasn’t ever let us down yet.


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