March 3, 2014

Brotherly Love

Stop number one of my March 2014 NBA and NBDL barnstorming tour is complete. This past weekend I spent my Friday and Saturday nights a couple of hours north of D.C. in the heart of Philadelphia knocking another Wizards' opponent's arena off my seen-'em-in person-on-the-road list. Now I'm down to just three more basketball cities (one NBA / two NBDL) to visit this month before what I hope will be the start of spring. It's about time, I think.

This was not my first trip to Philadelphia. I'd been there at least a half a dozen times before for various reasons. Astonishingly (to me), I'd never actually been to see the Liberty Bell on one of my past trips to the city so I made that my first priority Saturday morning. It was pretty much what I thought it would be: a series of interpretive exhibits about the history of the cracked bell followed by a chance to take a few snapshots of the item itself before exiting the building. I did learn that the bell was not known by the Liberty Bell until it was given that name by the abolitionist movement, who coined that name to point out the injustice of slavery in our nation. Who knew?

I followed the Liberty Bell up with a trek to the Philadelphia Art Museum, prominently sited at the end of Benjamin Franklin Boulevard, to check out the statue of Rocky while listening to Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now" on my iTouch before a couple of afternoon pints and a quick nap. Quite a contrast in tourist attractions, I know. One important touchstone of American history and a statue of someone who never existed for real. Go figure.

The main event for me in Philadelphia was the Wizards-76ers game that night and it turned out to be a good one. Despite an uneven performance that could be blamed on a triple overtime win in Toronto two days beforehand or the team missing Nenê and Kevin Seraphin with injury or just the Wizards' tendency to play at the level of their opponent every game, our team won this one going away and it was never really in doubt. The Wizards scored 41 in the first period including a monster 24 from Trevor Ariza on 6 for 6 from long distance and never looked back, even when Philly cut the deficit to six mid-way through the second quarter. Ariza ended up with 40 and John Wall ended up with 16 assists, all of which was enough to win by 19. This brings my Wizards road games record to 2-4, which is a damn sight better than 1-4 even though it's just one more win.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver at the mic during the halftime ceremony.
The win was great and I like Philadelphia enough to spend a weekend there every now and then. But the real highlight of the evening was the Allen Iverson jersey retirement ceremony that took place during the halftime break. Rarely will I acknowledge that anything will trump a Wizards game for me, let alone something that happened at halftime of a Wizards game, but clearly this ceremony was more important for more than 99% of the people in the building than what took place on the court and that made it just as special than the Wizards taking home the victory.
Just to be clear I made the trip to Philly strictly for a Wizards Saturday night game, not for the Iverson jersey retirement ceremony. I circled this game when the NBA season schedule came out in August as a potential road game and bought some tickets on StubHub about a month later for a little more than $140 per as soon as I found some that I thought I couldn't pass up. I figured $143 a seat for third row center court was pretty good, even against a team that pretty much everyone had tanking for as many lottery combinations as possible.
Then in November the Sixers announced that they would be retiring Iverson's number 3 jersey at halftime of the game I just bought. Bonus! It's a good thing I bought early. It doesn't always pay off for me but it definitely did here. As of the Sunday before the game, the cheapest tickets on StubHub in the building were $100 for upper deck end seats. Seats comparable to the ones I snagged were $442. I would have stayed at home for those prices.
Saturday's game was not the first jersey retirement ceremony I have attended. The Wizards retired Earl Monroe's number 10 jersey a few years back at halftime of a game I watched from the upper deck of Verizon Center. But Earl Monroe in D.C. in 2007 is not Allen Iverson in Philadelphia in 2014. I doubt most people in Verizon Center that night had ever seen the Pearl play and they certainly didn't see him play in Washington because he was traded from the Bullets to the Knicks before the team moved out of Baltimore. Allen Iverson was playing in the NBA just four years ago and most everyone in the Wells Fargo Center can probably remember seeing him play either in person or on national TV for the Sixers. I know I could.
Iverson represented Philadelphia 76er basketball for ten plus seasons and showed a grit, fight and determination that belied his size and endeared him to home fans. He also helped usher in the hip hop era in the NBA, being one of the first superstars with neck tattoos and cornrows. He took the Sixers to their only NBA Finals since 1983 after the 2000-2001 season, the same year he also won the league's Most Valuable Player trophy. It was clear standing in the arena Saturday night that AI represented something very special to the city of Philadelphia even though he didn't manage to deliver a title to the city.

I rarely place a lot of stock in speeches the likes of which Iverson was supposed to and did deliver. There's always a lot of love and thanks given out and past differences with those to be thanked are usually forgotten or glossed over and indeed AI proved he was not Michael Jordan making his Hall of Fame induction speech and followed the script he was supposed to follow. But I believed in Iverson's proclaimed love of the city, Philadelphia fans and especially Larry Brown, the coach who helped the franchise get back to the Finals on 2001. I was touched by the humility he displayed (not necessarily an attribute he possessed while playing) and I thought the line "Y'all have to show me the fool that says dreams don't come true, 'cause they do." was the perfect ending to what could have been a fairly ordinary speech.
There's no doubt the whole building Saturday night belonged to Iverson for those fans who stuck around for the whole game (not a lot in the place by the middle of the third quarter by any means). There were auctions of Iverson memorabila on the concourse, giveaways for all fans in attendance and even a dude rendering a likeness of Iverson into some kid's hair while a crowd watched, which is about the strangest sports entertainment I've ever seen at an NBA game and that's saying something. I somehow left the game with a replica retired jersey banner and an AI 2001 MVP bobblehead. Not sure what I'm going to do with those. I mean I can't put a Sixers bobblehead on the same shelf as my Wiz bobbles, right?

Anyone want an Allen Iverson portrait in their hair? Ooh! Ooh! Me! Me!
Throughout the game Saturday night, the scoreboard screen played video messages from current and former NBA players who had played with or against Iverson. All the Sixers legends got deserved ovations and the love shown by the crowd for former 76ers still playing in the league like Lou Williams and Kyle Korver was impressive. Only two players delivering video tributes got booed: Carmelo Anthony (just a little) and LeBron James (a LOT!). I kinda like Sixers fans now.
At one point during a Sixers run during the second quarter, a Philly fan in front of me turned around and declared "we're going to win this game, you know." I've been to enough basketball games in my life to know that this game is a game of runs and you don't react to small comebacks during the game too optimistically. I was right. By the time the third quarter was a few minutes old, about all the fight was gone from the home team in addition to the guy sitting in front of me. I guess he didn't much believe what he said either. I did tell him the Wizards had to win the game, that I couldn't go back to D.C. without a win. Fortunately the Wizards made sure that I didn't have to. Up next tonight: Memphis during a snowfall that is snarling traffic everywhere. Should be an interesting house tonight.

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