About an hour before tip-off of the Sixers’ Game 5 against the Celtics on Wednesday, the video board at the Wells Fargo Center played an extended recap of Iverson’s career.
To the Sixers’ credit, the apparently team-produced video covered the bad times as well as the good times of Iverson’s career. His feuds with coaches, his epic “practice” rant and his abrupt exit from Philadelphia in 2006 were not omitted.
The mini-documentary reached a crescendo in 2001, when the Sixers made a memorable run to the NBA Finals with MVP-to-be Iverson and midseason acquisition Dikembe Mutombo at the helm. The moment that captured Iverson’s essence, in the eyes of some fans and in the eyes of these filmmakers, was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Iverson led the Sixers to victory while his star counterpart on the Toronto Raptors, Vince Carter, attended his graduation from the University of North Carolina on the morning of the game.
Carter arrived in Philadelphia well in time for the game, and he had a chance at the game-winning shot, but the contrast with Iverson was all that mattered. The storyline was, Iverson cared more. He was willing to lay it all on the line, while Carter had put an individual accomplishment above a team goal.
That moment remained fresh in my mind a short time later Wednesday, when Iverson strolled onto the court to present the game ball just before tip-off. It occurred to me that Iverson is still that same person, full of desire but with few positive outlets beyond basketball. He is still beloved by Philadelphians, who see themselves in his bravery and his flaws, but he seems empty now.
On the court Wednesday, as he handed referee Joey Crawford a Spalding basketball in front of thousands of cheering fans, he seemed at home. As soon as he stepped into the crowd to watch the game, wearing a Lou Williams jersey and an oversized Mitchell & Ness jacket, he seemed like an anachronism, as if Penny Hardaway had shown up to an Orlando Magic game in 2006 wearing parachute pants.
Carter’s career has gone into a slow slide since that fateful Game 7, but there is little doubt which man is in a better place now than he was 11 years ago. Carter is still playing, accepting a more limited role as a veteran and performing surprisingly well at age 35. His off-court life seems much less dramatic than Iverson’s, and he seems much less likely to be broke before he is 40, as Iverson reportedly is.
Truth be told, I will always be a fan of Iverson. I was in the building for what turned out to be his final game as a Sixer on Feb. 20, 2010 — although nobody knew he would leave the team two days later to care to his daughter’s health issues. Whenever Iverson stepped on the court, the place always buzzed. When he made a big play and went hopping down the court, palm held up to his ear as if begging the fans to get louder, the place would explode.
Iverson had heart and hustle and talent, which made him a joy to watch as a player. That was the person his fans will always see when they look at the corn-rowed, 6-foot-1 ball of energy, even if that man is long gone.