The sign in the stands at the First Union Center in Philadelphia
last Saturday didn't get it quite right. It read: ANN IVERSON
GAVE BIRTH TO GOD. This clearly is not true. Would God go seven
minutes in the fourth quarter of a nip-and-tuck NBA playoff game
without scoring a bucket? Not very likely.
Anyway, it's not God who has been AWOL in Philadelphia for most
of this decade. It's a tribute to the Big Guy that the six
candidates running for mayor this year work the city's churches
every Sunday morning. What Philadelphia is looking for, what
it's been looking for since Charles Barkley was traded away in
1992, is a player who could carry the 76ers. As it is written,
Wilt begat Julius, and Julius begat Charles, and Charles
begat... hey, whom did Charles beget? Nobody, nobody. That's
been the whole problem.
So on Saturday, 20,550 souls filed into the First Union Center
with two purposes in mind. They wanted to watch the sixth-seeded
Sixers take on the third-seeded Orlando Magic in Game 4 of their
Eastern Conference first-round series, which Philadelphia led
two games to one. They also wanted to bear witness, to see if
Ann's boy, Allen, truly is, as his nickname goes, the Answer.
The congregants had suspected for a while that he might be the
one who would lead them. They were looking for confirmation.
So much fuss over a first-round game? For years the playoffs
were a rite of spring in Philadelphia. But the 76ers hadn't
reached the postseason since 1991.
Their return had begun promisingly enough, with a 104-90 victory
in Orlando. Iverson led all scorers with 30 points. In
anticipation of the second game the Magic trotted out the word
every team uses when it loses to an underdog: adjustments. You
know the routine. The beaten coach--in this case, Chuck
Daly--comes into a press conference after the upset, points his
forehead toward a microphone and says, We'll look at some tape,
work on some things in practice, make some adjustments. The term
implies subtle maneuvers copied out of a double-top-secret
playbook used only in times of emergency.
Hah! In Game 2 the Magic came out and mauled the kid. Some
adjustment. Orlando bumped, banged and double-teamed Iverson for
the 44 minutes he played. Every time he looked up on offense, he
was staring at the G on Penny Hardaway's jersey. Iverson is
listed at 6 feet and 165 pounds. (Take the under on 5'11" and
150.) Hardaway is 6'7", 215 pounds. The Magic's maneuver worked.
Iverson scored 13 points. The rest of his teammates had 55. The
final score was 79-68, Orlando. The series was even.
Game 3, last Thursday, was the first postseason basketball game
played in the three-year-old First Union Center. The tip-off was
at 6:30 p.m.--right after work, in the midst of Happy Hour--but
fans had claimed practically every seat by the opening jump,
their vocal cords well lubricated. On the floor, in the $200
seats, there were suits galore, of course. Well, movie
star-rapper Will Smith, a native son, wasn't wearing a suit. (He
wasn't in black, either.) But if you wandered through the aisles
higher up, everywhere you looked you saw grown men, loud grown
men, wearing Iverson T-shirts and making up for seven lost
years. The place was howling. The noise and the look and the
emotion of the crowd served as an excellent reminder that even
though NBA basketball has become the official sport of corporate
America, in Philadelphia it still belongs to the workingman.
Of course, it hasn't hurt the Sixers to have deep corporate
pockets. Among the sellout crowd on hand for Game 3 was Brian
Roberts, the president of Comcast, the giant cable company based
in Philadelphia that bought the team in 1996. Comcast committed
$70.9 million to retain Iverson as the team's star through 2005,
and it ponied up $25 million over five years to hire Larry Brown
as coach. Before the change in ownership, the Sixers were mired
Three years ago Roberts told people he wasn't buying the team so
he could sit courtside with his kids and be a man-about-town. He
was buying the team because his cable company needed
programming, and the Sixers would provide it. Well, there was
Roberts on Thursday, sitting in the first row with his wife and
three kids, lodging an ice-cream cone in his mouth so he could
stand and clap--slow and awed, the way they do at the opera--at
the feats of Allen Iverson. Roberts says Iverson has no idea who
he is. (The public corporate face for the Sixers belongs to the
team president, Pat Croce, and with his goatee and shaved head
and ever-bubbling emotions, his is not a very corporate face at
that.) To Iverson, Roberts was just another pair of hands
applauding him, and firing him up.
According to Bill Lyon, a sports columnist for The Philadelphia
Inquirer for the past quarter century, Iverson feeds off a crowd
as voraciously as any athlete who has ever played in the city.
In Game 3 the noise seemed to act as a stimulant for him. The
Magic tried its Game 2 tactics again, but this time Iverson was
ready for them and made better use of his quickness. Iverson had
10 steals, an NBA playoff record. During the five minutes in
which he didn't play he never sat, waving a white towel in a
circle over his head to keep the crowd on its feet.
Iverson finished with 33 points, leading the 76ers to a 97-85
win. Hardaway scored 18 but took only two shots in the first
half. "I'm just doing what the coaching staff wants me to do,"
Hardaway said later. "Anytime I have to guard Allen, I'm going
to be too fatigued to play offense."
After the game, Iverson and his coach sounded exactly the same:
hoarse. For the players and Brown to hear one another during
huddles, they had to scream. In his postgame comments, Brown
said that he hates steals--they represent too much risk--but
that he loves Iverson, the only current Sixer on the roster when
Brown took over two years ago. It was not love at first sight,
for either of them. Brown came in determined to make Iverson a
more complete player and this year moved him from the point to
shooting guard. But month after month the coach struggled to
find a way to connect with the kid. A game on April 2 marked a
fresh start. Iverson was sitting on the bench. Brown called him
back in. Iverson reportedly muttered, "That's bull----." To
which Brown responded, "Sit back down."
Since then things have improved dramatically. Instead of
retreating to the end of the bench when he's taken out of games,
Iverson will sit next to Brown. "Coach and myself, we've come a
long way," Iverson says. "We started off rocky. Now we're
Game 4 started at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday--a little early, but
the crowd was revved up. Keith Ennis, a 30-year-old
Philadelphian wearing an IVERSON T-shirt, was watching Iverson
intently from the stands. "He plays so big, but he comes in such
a little package, it's like an oxymoron," Ennis said. "The high
school kids look at him and say, 'Hey, I'm bigger than that.'
That's why they relate to him so well. Allen transcends any
race, creed or color."
That may well be true, but for seven minutes in the fourth
quarter of Game 4, the little guy wasn't doing squat, and the
Magic, once down by 18, rallied. With 5:23 left, the game was
tied at 86. The Sixers were facing a Game 5 showdown in Orlando.
Except that in the final five minutes Iverson buried a
15-footer, sank a free throw, tossed in a running 12-footer,
sank two more free throws--and created pandemonium in the
stands, on his bench, on the floor. With the help of his
replacement at point guard, Eric Snow (20 points), and 6'5"
rookie swingman Larry Hughes (14), Iverson closed the deal.
Philadelphia won 101-91 and will meet Brown's previous team, the
Indiana Pacers. The Sixers suddenly look like they're for real
again. Iverson's mother was swarmed by autograph seekers. "Stay
in school, stay in school," she told each of them.
Julius Erving was in the house. He's the executive vice
president of the Magic, but everyone knows he's a 76er at heart.
"There was a lot of pent-up emotion being released here today,
and a lot of it was directed at Allen," Dr. J said. "He's a good
fit for Philadelphia, just as I was, just as Charles was.
Philadelphia has an edge, and Allen's got an edge. He may not
know yet what kind of basketball town this is, but if he
doesn't, he's going to find out fast."
Ninety minutes after the game Iverson went into a lounge for
players' families. Dozens of people were waiting for him,
including his young daughter and son. He collected a few of his
relatives and headed out to the players' parking lot, which is
fenced in and closely guarded. "Respect and love from people who
don't know him, that's something Allen's never gotten before,"
said his uncle, Gregory Iverson, as Allen prepared to depart.
"I'm telling you, man, Philadelphia's home for him now. He ain't
going nowhere." Iverson got into his convertible Bentley, and a
loud chant from several hundred people filled his ears: "MVP,
MVP, MVP." The Answer started the ignition and put the top down.
His fans roared. He honked. His fans roared again.
At one of the games in Philadelphia during the series, a fan had
held up a sign that read IVERSON FOR MAYOR. Actually, he already
has a bigger job.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO Basket hangin' Iverson took his lumps in Game 2, but he averaged 28.3 points in the series.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Rook on the rise The 6'5" Hughes made the most of his first playoffs, scoring 12 points in Game 2.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Penny pinching In Game 4 the frisky Sixers harassed Hardaway into 3-for-17 shooting.
Everywhere you looked you saw grown men, loud grown men, wearing
Iverson T-shirts and making up for seven lost years.
"The high school kids look at Iverson and say, 'Hey, I'm bigger
than that,'" a fan says. "That's why they relate to him so well."