Tracy Ford had the people around her in Section 104 laughing. Her anger sounded real, though. Her son and daughter were at the Wells Fargo Center in their Sixers jerseys, to see Allen Iverson. They’d bought tickets some weeks ago, stayed in their seats even after they heard the news — Iverson announced before the game on his Instagram page that he wasn’t playing in Sunday’s BIG3 tournament in Philadelphia.
That was it for the announcement. People could see Iverson out there coaching, had stood when he came out, as the building practically shook like in the old days, as Iverson cupped his hand to his ear and blew kisses.
That eventually wasn’t enough for Ford. Maybe the slightly bored look on her son’s face watching retired NBA players go half-court 3-on-3 got to her.
“We went through a lot with him,” Ford, from Sicklerville, N.J., said toward the end of the night, ticking off dramas. “Tawanna, his mama, gun charges. For me, not to show up” — she meant for him not to play for a minute or two — “I’m done.”
Ford was just getting started — “When they said Ice Cube and A.I. on the marquee … he’s on the marquee as the headliner.”
The first of four BIG3 games had started at 6 p.m. Iverson had made his announcement about a half-hour before the tip-off. He was already in the building at that point, had arrived around 4:30. Word filtered around the mostly filled lower deck, to many but not all. There still was a chant, “We want A.I.,” during the final game that began just after 9 p.m., Julius Erving coaching the other squad. People who knew Iverson wasn’t playing still joined in the chant.
It didn’t surprise Ford that a lot of people left at halftime, even as Fat Joe put on a little show.
“Everybody has to work tomorrow,” Ford said.
Around the arena, sentiments legitimately varied, greatly. There were no boos in Section 104 but plenty of wisecracks. Disappointment seemed the word of the night, although some still got to meet Iverson on the concourse and there was little disappointment up there as it became a mob scene. The commitment to Iverson was tangible — not just from the couple who said they had flown in from Hong Kong, and she was pregnant. (Guess what they want the name to be?)
A lot of true Iverson believers were in the house. Iverson shirts came in practically every version possible. Hundreds of Sixers No. 3 jerseys. Knockoff Iverson jerseys in strange colors. A scattering of Iverson Georgetown jerseys. A guard on the Frostburg (Md.) State hoops team, Steven Glasbrenner, wore an Iverson Nuggets jersey. A 12-year-old from Skippack, Jackson Bender, wore an Iverson high school jersey, from Bethel High (Hampton, Va.). His dad had bought it online.
Nobody had been expecting more than a brief cameo from Iverson. The day before, that’s what he had suggested they’d get.
“I’m not going to go out there and be the 25-year-old Allen Iverson — you’re going to see a 42-year-old man out there,” Iverson had said.
Then there was the video on his Instagram: “To all my fans out there, based on advice from my doctor, I will not be playing in the game tonight for the BIG3. I will be there coaching my team and beat Dr. J’s team. I will be interacting with all my fans and we will have a great time. You will see some great basketball. I love you fans for supporting me all the years up to date. I’ll see you when I get there.”
Nobody from the tournament ever made an announcement to the crowd that Iverson wouldn’t play. This all would be edited into a television show to be shown Monday. Boos apparently weren’t the vibe they were going for. Iverson was out there in shorts and basketball shoes but not in uniform. Former Temple star David Hawkins took his place, played more minutes than Iverson would have, got an “All right, Hawk!” cheer of his own from Section 104.
Someone else in 104 yelled for Iverson to get out there anyway. Who cared what the official roster said?
“Who’s going to stop you?”
Not Doug Shugar from Northeast Philadelphia. Buying a pretzel an hour before the first game, he wore a “Got Iverson” T-shirt. “Everybody says they’re the biggest Iverson fan, but …”
Shugar made his case. He used to work in a hoagie shop and even customers knew not to put the game on or talk about it because he had the whole thing VCR’d to watch later. Shugar lived in California briefly but flew home when the Sixers retired Iverson’s number.
“I just put down my dog of 18 years,” Shugar said, and if you took a stab at the dog’s name, you’d have it. Shugar said he just got a new dog. Name: Deuces. (Iverson’s son’s name is Deuce.)
Other contenders lined up for top devotee. The real show started up on the concourse just after 6 p.m., the first game getting started down on the court. An usher had told Sixers season ticketholders Dennis Moore and Susan Deaton that Iverson would be showing up at a concession booth to sign autographs. They lingered and ended up first in line when Iverson suddenly appeared. Deaton wore an Iverson jersey. Moore had on a Dr. J jersey but had an Iverson jersey slung over his shoulder. They told Iverson they had been up in Springfield, Mass., when he was inducted into the basketball of fame.
“Dude, it was crazy,” Moore told Iverson.
“How long did you stay?” Iverson asked.
“Four days,” Moore said.
“Four days?” Iverson said, laughing.
Christine Sipler of Bridesburg saw Iverson and yelled, “I love you, Allen!”
“Mom!!” said her daughter, Olivia.
“I do,” she said. “I can’t help it. … I’m not embarrassing you.”
The line quickly went down the concourse as word spread. Natalie Puzzo decided getting in the line wasn’t her best move. She stood outside a rope right across from Iverson as he sat signing items. She had two of her own Iverson shoes from the early 2000s, not a pair, one blue, one red and black. “I’m just trying to get him to sign them,” said Puzzo, explaining that she had worn them when she played ball at Poly Tech High in Delaware, getting a new pair whenever Reebok came out with a new Iverson shoe.
Just then, Jason Jones, reaching the front of the line, asked Puzzo if she’d take his photo with Iverson. She would, she said, if he’d take her shoes to get signed.
“Those look beat-up,” Iverson said when he saw the shoes.
“Yo, God,” Puzzo said when Jones handed her back the signed shoes.
Back in the line, Ida Tsui and Adrian Wong had their sign, Hong Kong loves AI #3. They had another sign down at the court. Courtside Seat $800 Flight from Hong Kong to Philly $1000. Watching Allen Iverson on the court priceless.
If the price tag for their courtside seats sounded crazy — compared to the more typical $30 seats, and $50 for closer to the court — the group, which included their friend Penny Chang, wasn’t complaining since it included a VIP reception Saturday where they got to meet Iverson.
“We met because of him,” Tsui said of Iverson, explaining that she and Wong had been in an Iverson fan club in Hong Kong.
Just then the concourse began chanting MVP. They joined in.
Tsui pointed to her belly, said that she was 17 weeks pregnant, and that they had asked Iverson the day before if it was all right if they named the baby Allen. They already know, they said, that it’s a boy. It was good by Iverson.
They weren’t going to get to the front of the line. Did they know he wasn’t playing?
“Really?” Wong said.
Tsui’s face dropped.
“It’s OK,” Wong said.
“It’s OK,” Tsui said.
They got more up-close time with Iverson, though. They were so close to the court that practice balls bounced over to them. When Iverson came out and moved around, he stopped at Tsui and flipped up the lid of her Sixers hat. The looks on the faces of the group from Hong Kong, maybe they didn’t say priceless but absolutely suggested it was at least OK.
Farther away from the court, not everybody had that same look. There were jokes as Iverson’s team fell behind — “this team needs an answer.”
“Just like last time — I was at fan appreciation night,” said a guy named David from Washington Township before the game in Section 105, remembering when Iverson didn’t play that night at the end of his last Sixers season and didn’t show up until after the game had started. “Thanks, Allen.”
David’s friend Carlos Toro from Washington Township, there with his son and daughter wearing their Iverson shirts, stuck it out, his 9-year-old son Matias saying maybe Iverson would play the last minute. A minute left, they saw it wasn’t happening and they left with Dr. J’s team about to finish off the win.
Afterward, at first a spokesman said Iverson and league co-founder Ice Cube would appear at a full press conference. Sounded good. First, the winning team would speak. Made sense. Except the winning coach didn’t appear, just a couple of players. Since the winning coach was Julius Erving, this was fishy. When the winning players finished, another announcement: No Iverson or Ice Cube or anybody else. Iverson’s video would stand as a statement. A tournament spokesman, who declined to give his name or answer questions about when the operation knew Iverson wasn’t playing, said the league co-founders speak on a conference call every Wednesday. But those same men were in this building, right?
The success or failure of the night maybe depended on your seat, or if you got your bit of Iverson interaction.
“Welcome home,” Kim Bayer of Warminster had yelled outside when she saw Iverson get out of a Suburban before a game, getting a wave from him.
Just after the doors had first opened, at the same concession booth where Iverson later sat, a young boy looked over the gear and said to his father, “It’s all Iverson jerseys.”
Ida Tsui and Adrian Wong, with their friend Penny Chan, arrived from Hong Kong to see Allen Iverson courtside, at the BIG3 Tournament at the Wells Fargo Center, July 16, 2017. CAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer