He's 34 now, but he looked the same as when he left town a few years ago. Diamond studs sparkled in his earlobes, his hair was pulled back in tight corn rows, and that familiar neck tattoo peeked out from underneath a white V-neck T-shirt.
Allen Iverson sat at a podium at the Wachovia Center yesterday. The scene felt so familiar it was almost as if he'd been here the whole time. That's what happens when you form a relationship, even a rocky one that didn't end well: You can step away for a while and then pick up where you left off.
Iverson doesn't know the fans - not in the truest sense - any more than they know him. Yet watching him sit down in front of the 76ers logo was like watching your ex (the one you never fully got over) come back into your life. Maybe your heart skipped a little, and you got choked up. That's the way it went for Iverson. He tried to keep his emotions from pouring forth, and he did a pretty good job of it - for the first three or four minutes.
"I have fans all over the world," he said. "I appreciate my fans in Denver, my fans in Memphis, my fans in Detroit. But the relationship I have with these fans is like no other, I think, in sports. I have a love for them, and they love me. It's evident."
That did it. That's when he broke down, and the tears flowed freely. Sixers president and general manager Ed Stefanski was seated to his left and tried to cover for him, asking the assembly to move on to the next question. The team's media relations director slipped Iverson some tissues as subtly as he could, but there was nowhere for Iverson to regroup and gather himself. He just sat there and sobbed for a moment.
That's the good part about coming home, the thing that seemed to hit Iverson the hardest: You can be yourself around the people you love. You don't have to hide.
"All I could think about was the people who made me who I am. These people in Philadelphia made me a household name," Iverson said. "I just grew a relationship with the fans here like no other player and fan base, I think."
From ESPN.com to your friendly Philadelphia newspapers, there has been no shortage of breathless prose dissecting this move and what it all means. A lot of the analysis has focused on his potential impact on the team, his legacy, and whether signing him signals an act of desperation by Stefanski and the organization. Those concerns are not without merit, but they are premature.
Iverson's return really isn't about basketball - not yet, anyway. Not until he plays a few games, and the reunion is more than a few hours old. Right now, it's about something so few athletes experience anywhere, let alone here in Philly. It's about a real and lasting connection. It's about a guy who embodies the things this city has always loved about itself - grit and guts and a heart so big you couldn't get your arms around it if you tried.
It's impossible to forget that Iverson made countless mistakes while he was here the last time, that he was young and foolish and impulsive. And it's also true that when he left in 2006, he was ready for a change - and maybe the rest of us were, too. Breaking up is necessary sometimes, but it's never easy. Just because you move away doesn't mean you move on.
Iverson copped to that yesterday, admitted that he pined for Philly and the wound never healed. He said he loved the NBA and watched the other teams in the league - save one. While he was gone, he couldn't bring himself to check on the 76ers. Too painful.
"It was just a feeling that I [got]," he said. "I gave everything I had here for 10 years, and it was just always tough to watch them, so I didn't."
No one knows whether getting back together will ultimately work out. Will all this end in the happily-ever-after Iverson says he's always wanted, or are we headed for another messy divorce? Iverson said he hopes it's the former, that he'd like to make a bigger commitment than a non-guaranteed, one-year deal. After a few years, he said, he'd like to end his career here. Of course, he's made similar remarks in the past. For all his faults, he's always been a charmer.
Some people will no doubt question his sincerity, but as he sat in front of the media he seemed to speak from the heart. Iverson said Philly is "one of the realest places in the world," which felt appropriate, since he wasn't holding back.
As he dabbed tears from his eyes, Iverson sounded genuinely happy to be in Philly again - and yesterday, at least, it was good to have him.
Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813 or firstname.lastname@example.org.