PHILADELPHIA — Dressed in black, Allen Iverson looked like he was trying to slip into the arena without being noticed. Not in this city on this night. Not in this building on any night.
With his children leading the way, Iverson strolled onto the court Saturday night. The 76ers had rolled out the red carpet — actually, it was a blue carpet — for Iverson, who was having his No. 3 jersey retired.
The chants of “M-V-P, M-V-P” were deafening. The number of replica jerseys scattered about the arena was incalculable. The emotions he felt were overwhelming.
“I promised Aaron McKie I wouldn't cry,” Iverson said, gritting his teeth to hold back tears.
Iverson became the eighth player to have his number retired by the Sixers. The 24-minute ceremony for Iverson took place at halftime of the Sixers' 122-103 loss to Washington.
No one in the sold-out building will remember the score. No one will recall that it was the 13th straight loss for Brett Brown's club, or that the Sixers haven't won a game since January. It was another night in an otherwise-dreary season.
Everyone, though, will remember Iverson.
“It's basically bittersweet,” the 38-year-old Iverson said. “Some part of my heart hurts because I realize and understand it's over. When I come into the arena, I'm stepping out onto the basketball court with street clothes on, and I know it'll never be in a uniform again.
“That part of it brings back so many memories, just hearing the roar of the crowd and doing my signature put-my-hand-up-to-my-ear thing. It brings it back. But it kind of hurts still. I'm a basketball fan. I can watch basketball, but it's hard for me to watch the Sixers play. I can watch another team, another organization. It's just different when I walk in here. It feels like just yesterday that I was trying to entertain these fans.”
Iverson had to wait out speeches from NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Sixers owner Josh Harris, and even a video clip from his former coach Larry Brown, the Southern Methodist coach who couldn't make the trip due to his coaching commitment.
“I just want to tell you, and I say this fondly: God put me there to coach you,” said Brown, Iverson's coach for six seasons.
By the time Iverson took the microphone at center court, he rested it in its cradle, walked to nearby courtside seats and placed his hand over his ear one more time. The arena turned into a cacophony of cheers and screams. The sentiment was not lost on Iverson.
“Ya'll have to show me the fool who says dreams don't come true,” Iverson said, “but they do.”
Thousands turned out to see Iverson. Some even doled out thousands for a ticket, which says plenty considering the current state of the team.
Among those in attendance were: former teammates Dikembe Mutombo, Doug Overton, Theo Ratliff, Clarence Weatherspoon, Larry Hughes and McKie. Former Sixers Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Earl Cureton also were on hand. NBA great Gary Payton made the trip. So did former Sixers owner Pat Croce.
Iverson said he had notes to help him through a 12-minute speech that was frequently interrupted by crowd applause. Once he got through an obligatory thank-you list for all of those close to him, including his ex-wife Tawanna, with whom he credits for helping him grow as a man, Iverson said “it was easy to come from the heart.”
Iverson played 12 of his 14 NBA seasons with the Sixers. He was an 11-time All-Star, a four-time scoring champ, a two-time All-Star Game MVP and a one-time league MVP.
Guiding the Sixers to the 2000-01 NBA Finals, where they were ousted three games shy of a championship, stands out as a fond memory. It does not trump being drafted first overall by the Sixers in 1996, which Iverson said was his greatest moment.
“The rest is just extra,” he said. “It's just a blessing.”
There were forgettable moments along the way. They pale in comparison, Silver said, to Iverson's impact on the game and on the team to which he was drafted.
“He shouldn't necessarily be judged by his tattoos or his hairstyle or anything else,” said Silver, the newly minted commish. “Fans had enormous respect for him. They knew he left everything on the court, and ultimately, he was judged by his passion for the game.”
With so many legendary players on hand for Iverson's big moment, it was worth wondering whether anyone compares to Iverson.
“No,” said Thaddeus Young, a teammate of Iverson's for 25 games in the 2009-10 season.
Not now? Not ever?
“Nobody reminds of Allen Iverson,” Young said. “It was a point of time when it didn't get any bigger than Allen Iverson. ... I don't see anybody who could be compared to him.”
The crowd had thinned by the time the game's second half rolled along. Most had seen what they came for. Iverson said the Sixers and the city of Philadelphia turned him into a household name.
Iverson said his plans for the future remain unclear. He ruled out coaching, unless it was at the rec league or high school levels. He said he values coaches too greatly to want to take on such a position. Maybe he sees a future in commentating, but he said he despised his media critics too much to do that to another player.
One thing, to Iverson, was clear.
“I am Philly,” he said. “It's always going to be that way.”