Thursday March 20th, 2008

"Fans don't understand our lives and what we go through. They don't look at us as humans." -- Allen Iverson, March 2002

"We're sitting here, and I'm supposed to be the franchise player, and we're talking about practice." -- Iverson, May 2002

"They are targeting guys who dress like me. You can put a murderer in a suit, and he's still a murderer." -- Iverson, November 2005

PHILADELPHIA -- What will be Allen Iverson's legacy in Philadelphia?

Will it be that Iverson was a charismatic, uber-competitive guard who put his body on the line for nearly 11 years with the 76ers while garnering seven All-Star selections, four scoring titles and one MVP award and leading the team to the 2001 NBA Finals along the way? Will he be remembered for the Emmitt Smith-like respect he earned from players and coaches throughout the league while leading Philadelphia back to basketball relevancy?

Or will Iverson's legacy be one of a malcontent? Was he less a fabled star and more the man who once expressed an open disdain for practice, put his foot in his mouth on more than one occasion and had his share of run-ins with the law? Will he be considered the player who led Philadelphia to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings at the end of last year before being unceremoniously shipped out of town?

Whatever you think of Iverson -- I believe the former assessment to be more true than the latter -- his contributions to the Philadelphia franchise deserved to be honored, and they were (to a certain degree) Wednesday night. Iverson, with THXPHILA etched on his sneakers, received a 49-second standing ovation from the capacity crowd at the Wachovia Center in his first visit here since being traded to Denver 15 months ago. The 76ers did not prepare any sort of tribute to their former franchise player but did introduce Iverson first and allowed the ovation to carry on as Iverson walked the floor acknowledging the crowd. During the game, whenever Iverson touched the ball, a cheer rose from the crowd.

"I dreamed it up a certain way," Iverson said. "It was better than that."

"Whenever we would score, the fans cheered," the 76ers' Andre Iguodala said. "And whenever he would score, they would cheer. It was a little weird."

It was clear that Iverson was determined not to be controversial in his first trip back to the city he once called home. Iverson deftly deflected questions about his rocky relationship with Maurice Cheeks ("I don't have any hard feelings," Iverson said), whom he hadn't talked to since the trade and whom he warmly embraced before tip-off. Iverson placed a large portion of the blame for his departure from Philadelphia on himself ("I had a big hand in getting traded," he said. "I always wanted to finish my career in Philly but in a lot of ways I made sure that didn't happen") and said his relationship with the franchise is "a lot better" now than when he left.

"A lot of the time when things didn't go my way I acted angrily," Iverson said. "Especially when I thought it wasn't fair. But [the Sixers] took care of my family. I never had any contract disputes."

Iverson's return cast an unintentional shadow over the real story in Philadelphia: The Sixers are a pretty good basketball team. Wednesday night's 115-113 victory over Denver was their 16th win in 20 games. Since bottoming out at 14th in the East in early December, Philadelphia has climbed all the way to seventh.

"Nobody wants to play them in the first round," an assistant coach from an East team said.

How have the Sixers turned things around? The credit begins with Ed Stefanski. The Sixers' GM, who was hired Dec. 4 to replace Billy King (who also deserves a lion's share of credit for constructing the current roster), instructed Cheeks to throw the young players into the lineup and pick up the tempo. "But Mo was all for it," Stefanski insisted. "He felt very comfortable with that kind of offense."

It helps when you have the horses. Iguodala, Thaddeus Young, Louis Williams and Samuel Dalembert are thoroughbreds. Andre Miller has been solid at point guard, and rugged power forward Reggie Evans has emerged recently as a force on the backboards.

"Everybody on this team is playing like they have something to prove," Iguodala said.

Young, the Sixers' top pick in the 2007 draft, was a non-factor in the first month of the season. But by virtue of his freakish athleticism and ability to swing between the two forward positions, he has become a valuable role player.

"Thaddeus could be a great 4 in the West," Iguodala said. "He has a real knack for finding the ball."

Moreover, the Sixers are a motivated bunch, particularly Iguodala, who turned down a five-year, $57 million extension in the offseason and is seeing his stock rise by the minute. It's a fact that is not lost on Iguodala.

"What good is it if we tank it and go to the lottery?" Iguodala said. "What good am I to a team this summer if I played for a team that was tanking games?"

Maybe that is a part of Iverson's legacy too. The Sixers are a hard-working team with no quit in them. That attitude reflects leadership, and for many of the current Sixers players, Iverson is the only true leader they know.

• Not to be overlooked in the Rockets' winning streak has been the play of Dikembe Mutombo, the 41-going-on-51-year-old center who has ably filled the void left by Yao Ming. Prior to Yao's injury, Mutombo averaged 2.4 rebounds and 0.3 blocks (scoring has never been his forte) in 8.1 minutes. Since Yao went down, Mutombo is averaging 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 19.1 minutes. Mutombo, who is a free agent after the season, says he is now rethinking retirement and may return to Houston for another season.

• Speaking of Mutombo, his return to relevancy presents an opportunity to ask a frequently revisited question: Why in the name of David Stern does the NBA continue to allow Mutombo to do his patented finger wag? The issue of "is it or isn't it taunting" was back in the news last week, when New Jersey's Richard Jefferson was given a technical foul after wagging his finger at Mutombo following a dunk. The call infuriated Jefferson, whose anger may have been justified: Earlier in the game, Mutombo had blocked one of Jefferson's shots and Babu'd his finger at the crowd.

According to an NBA rule that was clarified in 2001, a player is allowed to wag his finger if it is not done "in a taunting fashion," which basically means he can do it at the crowd (which Mutombo did) and not in the direction of another player (which Jefferson did). The rule is absurd because no matter what direction Mutombo is wagging his finger, it is still taunting. But it's also not likely to change. Mutombo, one of the most philanthropic players in NBA history who has -- among other things -- opened a $29 million hospital in the Congo, is a Stern favorite and will be allowed to wag his finger anywhere he wants.

• The Knicks' reported interest in Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh has sparked questions: Will Walsh come to New York if Isiah Thomas is still employed, in any capacity? Or will Walsh, who hired Thomas as the Pacers' coach in 2000, keep Thomas on the bench?

The answer to the last question is a resounding no. Thomas has lost the team. The bulk of the roster has quit on him and -- judging by his demeanor during a loss to Indiana on Monday, when he rarely left his seat on the bench -- he has quit on them.

Still, Thomas won't quit. He has survived some of the worst treatment any person could be asked to endure. He has been splashed on the back pages of the New York tabloids more often than Alex Rodriguez and has been vilified by the media and fans, who have staged several anti-Thomas events and fill the air inside Madison Square Garden with calls for his firing. He's not giving up a dime of the four-year contract extension Knicks owner James Dolan handed him last year, meaning Dolan will have to fire Thomas to be rid of him. If he gets Walsh or another big name (Jerry West, Jerry Colangelo) to commit, Dolan will do exactly that.

• Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor's statement that Kevin Garnett quit on the team last year is absurd. Forget the fact that Garnett, who sat out the last five games of the season with a quadriceps injury, doesn't know the meaning of the word quit. The Timberwolves as a team quit last year, and they probably didn't do it on their own. Needing to lose to keep its first-round pick, which would have gone to the Clippers if it was outside the top 10, Minnesota lost four of its last five down the stretch, including a season-ending loss to the inept Grizzlies.

It wasn't the first time the Timberwolves tanked, either. While jockeying for draft position two seasons ago, Minnesota lost a double-overtime game to the Grizzlies in the season finale. In that game, Mark Madsen launched (and missed) seven three-pointers, the only threes he attempted all season. You think the affable Madsen would have taken those shots if he wasn't told that winning the game was optional? For the record, the loss bumped the Timberwolves up to a tie for the NBA's sixth-worst record.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.