PHILADELPHIA — Welcome back, A.I.
Your spot in the Philadelphia 76ers starting lineup was kept warm for three years and is waiting for you Monday night.
The fans who loved you as a hustling, hard-charging MVP even as you clashed with coaches will pack every seat in the arena, waiting in their No. 3 jerseys to hear, “At guard, from Georgetown University …”
And the team you left mired in the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, well, they’re still stuck there.
Allen Iverson’s second act with the 76ers begins much how the first one ended.
“It was like deja vu,” 76ers centre Samuel Dalembert of Montreal said of watching him practise Sunday.
Iverson joined the first team of Dalembert, Elton Brand, Thaddeus Young and Willie Green on Sunday in his first practice with Philadelphia since 2006. Iverson acknowledged he’s not yet in game shape after sitting out for nearly a month, and needs more time to adjust to the offence and his new teammates.
“I think it’s important for my coaching staff, my teammates and my fans to be a little patient with me,” Iverson said.
Coach Eddie Jordan said he “anticipated” Iverson would start against the Nuggets, one of three teams he played for after leaving Philadelphia.
“He made a difference already in practice,” Jordan said.
“His talking, his presence, being a step ahead of the play defensively.”
The 76ers need a healthy Iverson. Guard Lou Williams (jaw) is out, leading scorer Andre Iguodala (ankle) did not practise Sunday and is a game-time decision, and guard Jrue Holiday missed Saturday’s game with a strained rotator cuff.
All the injuries — and an underachieving lineup — have the Sixers ahead of only lowly New Jersey in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Sixers are 5-15 and have lost nine straight entering Monday. When the Sixers traded Iverson on Dec. 19, 2006, they were 5-18 and on an 11-game losing streak.
Iverson’s return has given the slumping Sixers a jolt in ticket sales. The Sixers, who ranked 29th in the NBA in attendance, have standing-room only tickets left for his return.
“I know if he plays, people will come out,” Bobcats coach, and former 76ers coach, Larry Brown said.
“But he never disappoints you with his effort. And they respect that in that city, and hopefully he’ll help that team.”
Iverson may start, but he isn’t counting on playing anywhere near 48 minutes.
He played only three games with Memphis this season, and hasn’t played since Nov. 6, leaving him a bit winded after the nearly 45-minute practice.
“It’s frustrating for me because I was kind of in a rhythm before I left Memphis,” Iverson said. “Sitting out as much as I did, I kind of got off beat a little bit. It won’t take me but a little while to get it back.”
The 10-time all-star guard who’s scored more than 24,000 points signed a non-guaranteed deal with the 76ers last week.
“I’m trying to learn this whole thing on the fly,” Iverson said. “That’s the toughest part.”
Retired NBA guard Eric Snow, Iverson’s backcourt teammate on the 2001 Eastern Conference title team, supported Iverson’s second chance in Philadelphia.
“There are some things differently Allen could have done, he knows that,” Snow said.
“He’s said it. For every time you could say something negative, you could say five, 10 things positive. He played with broken bones and he sacrificed his body. No one cares.”
All of Philadelphia cared when he won the MVP and led the Sixers to the NBA finals in 2001. He etched his name alongside Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain and Charles Barkley as one of the greatest 76ers to wear the uniform.
He posted the highest scoring average in Sixers history (28.1), was second on the points list (19,583) and holds the record for three-pointers (877). He was a seven-time all-star and won two all-star game MVPs.