From exile to exaltation, Allen Iverson began his circuitous homecoming with a kiss on the Philadelphia 76ers’ center-court insignia and a standing ovation.
The tour moved to a video montage depicting Iverson, all corn rows and high energy, making shots against the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals, propelling himself into stands for loose balls and commanding the basketball to follow him like a trained pet.
Then the announcer introduced Iverson to the capacity crowd of 20,664 at Wachovia Center and a deafening applause. Iverson’s journey still has chapters to be written, and the perfect ending is in place, if only Iverson is willing to author the piece.
On Monday night, Iverson registered more cheers than points, more applause than assists, and the outcome was a loss. He scored 11 points in the 76ers’ 10th consecutive defeat, 93-83 to the Denver Nuggets.
“I’m proud of myself because I did the best that I could,” said the 34-year-old Iverson, who had only one practice with his new (old) team. “My heart said, ‘Yeah,’ but my body said, ‘No.’ My legs were weak. My arms were weak.”
Philadelphia brought Iverson back under duress and a non-guaranteed contract, taking the timid first step that no other team would only after an injury to guard Louis Williams. In a tempestuous decade during his first stint here, Iverson shot his way to four scoring titles and into and out of the city’s heart, a turbulent stretch highlighted by a Most Valuable Player award and 911 calls.
In their time apart, both settled on hard times. The Wachovia Center turned into a cavernous, empty arena. Iverson developed into a pariah, unwanted throughout the league he once presided over.
There are few players who can polarize a team, an organization and a city as much as Iverson, who has traditionally settled for his way or no one else’s. By that standard, there are probably even fewer who can unite them all into one the way Iverson can.
“All the receptions were a million percent the best,” Iverson said. “I had chill bumps running throughout my body the whole game. It felt good to be back.”
It took him less than 20 seconds to hoist his first shot (a missed layup), less than two minutes to fall into a row of camera people, less than three minutes for his first assist and less than five minutes to score his first basket.
Iverson started and played to his heart’s desire, totaling 38 minutes. He shot 4 of 11 and had six assists and five rebounds.
The Nuggets put the game away with a 17-0 run that spanned the third and fourth quarters. Chauncey Billups, whom the Nuggets received when they started Iverson’s latest odyssey with a trade last season, scored 31 points.
For Iverson, it was a roundabout return and one that should be humbling. He was an NBA bridge between its Michael Jordan and LeBron James eras and the connection between hip-hop and hoops, a dichotomy that made him revered by some and loathed by others.
“There’s no question the face of the league in 10 years has had two or three, four or five different personality changes that coaches have had to adapt to,” said Nuggets Coach George Karl, who coached Iverson in Denver after his trade from Philadelphia.
The divorce between Iverson and Philadelphia unraveled slowly and painfully, like the removal of a bandage. It culminated in Iverson’s requesting a trade and refusing to play in what had been his last game as a 76er against the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 6, 2006.
The Nuggets were Iverson’s first destination, which included a pit stop in Detroit and a cup of coffee in Memphis.
Iverson complained of his sixth-man role after his first appearance with the Grizzlies this season. He left on Nov. 7 under terms described as personal, and Memphis terminated his contract nine days later.
When no teams signed him — only the Knicks feigned a faint interest — he awkwardly announced his retirement.
“To the city of Philadelphia: I have wonderful memories of my days in a Sixers uniform,” Iverson said in a statement then. “To Philly fans, thank you. Your voice will always be music to my ears.”
A few days later, Iverson cried at a news conference that announced his return. In what might have been a surprise to Iverson a few weeks ago, the soundtrack played again on Monday.
“That was the best part of the night,” he said. “Just hearing these people’s voices all over again.”
In other NBA action, it was:
• Knicks 93, Trail Blazers 84
• Thunder 104, Warriors 88
• Jazz 104, Spurs 101
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