It was a long time coming – the retirement, the goodbye, the acknowledgement that his career has concluded. It took a while for Allen Iverson to admit it to everyone, but more than that you got the sense that it took a while to admit it to himself.
It’s over. Two words. Short words. Words he couldn’t get his mouth to form until Tuesday.
“Everybody knows why we’re here,” Iverson said, sitting at a podium on the Wells Fargo Center court. “I’m formally announcing my retirement from basketball. I thought that, once this day came, it would be, basically, a tragic day. I never imagined the day coming, but I knew it would come. I feel proud and happy to say that I’m happy with my decision and I feel great. I’m at a great mindset, making the decision.”
It would be easy enough to question or mock the delayed timing. He’s 38. He hasn’t played in the NBA in three years. He signed with a team in Turkey a few seasons back. It didn’t last. He made an appearance in an exhibition game in China. That’s the closest he came to playing basketball since that final reunion tour with the Sixers.
His playing days ended long ago, but the drama never did. There were reports that Iverson, who made around $154 million in his career, was broke. He denied it. There were reports that he was coping with gambling and alcohol problems. He denied it. There were even reports that he abducted his five children. He denied that, too.
What Iverson didn’t deny, not then or now, was the truth: He’s a flawed man. As he sat there during Tuesday’s retirement ceremony – flanked, it should be noted, by three of his five children – he said he had no regrets. He said that several times. But he also said, several times, that he messed up.
“In this profession, you have no idea how hard it is, trying to live up to all the expectations, trying to be the perfect man when you know you’re not,” Iverson said. “Being in a fishbowl, everybody looking at everything you do. It’s just a hard life to live. It’s a great one, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I have no regrets. People ask me all the time, do I have any regrets? And I don’t have any. If I could go back and do it all over again, would I change anything? No. Because, obviously, if I could go back and change everything, then I would be a perfect man. And I know, there’s no perfect man. And there’s no perfect basketball player.”
His voice cracked a few times, as you might expect, and he talked about how he has “a heart just like everyone else.” It was the Iverson you always knew – all those oversized emotions bubbling up from inside the tiny packaging.
He was not perfect. Not then or now. He never has been. But isn’t that why Philadelphia connected so quickly and completely to him? He was small and scrappy and played bigger than his frame should have allowed, and this town has always loved that – our collective self-image reflected in his flesh. But it was more than that. He fit here because of his imperfections, not despite them.
Iverson, who will have his No. 3 jersey retired by the Sixers on March 1 this season, made the All-Star game 11 times. He won four scoring titles. He was named to the NBA first-team three times. He was the All-Star MVP twice and the NBA MVP once. He crossed over Michael Jordan and stepped over Tyronn Lue. He put his hand to his ear until the crowd screamed itself silent. He amused people when he talked about practice or put in office hours at the TGI Friday’s on City Line.
But he also, as he said, made mistakes. We witnessed so many of them – from the frequent but mostly-benign fights with Larry Brown to the sad domestic dispute with then-wife Tawanna Iverson that got him charged with criminal trespassing and carrying an unlicensed gun.
All of that was Iverson. All of that is his legacy. The good and the bad. The stuff that warmed your heart and made it break.
“I made a lot of mistakes,” Iverson said. “A lot of things I’m not proud of. But it’s only for other people to learn from. I took an ass-kicking for me being me in my career. For me looking the way I look and dressing the way I dress. My whole thing was, being me. Now, when you look around at all of the guys in the NBA, now all of them have tattoos. All of them guys wearing cornrows. You used to think that the suspect was the guy with the cornrows. Now you see police officers with cornrows. You know what I’m saying? I took a beating for those type of things, but I’m proud to say that I changed a lot in this culture and in this game. It’s not about how you look on the outside, it’s who you are on the inside.”
It is Iverson's default position, to not just wear his emotions on his sleeve but to roll the sleeve up and tap the emotional vein while we watch. It is who he is, and it has so much to do with why, as he put it, Philadelphia “grew on me just like I grew on them.
He thanked the people here for “supporting me my whole career – the ups and downs.” He said he’ll “always be a Sixer, till I die.” And he choked up when he said the community embraced him.
“It’s home,” Iverson said. “It’s home.”
That’s always the easiest place to be yourself and rest for a while.