SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - As soon as Allen Iverson exited the limo outside Symphony Hall on Friday night, a little slower then when he raced past defenders but an hour earlier than necessary, it was clear this was no ordinary night.
For one thing, the former 76ers superstar, who during his sensational NBA career wore his hip-hop garb as proudly and consistently as he wore his heart on his sleeve, dressed formally, donning a black tie and tuxedo for his enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
"This is a special night for me," Iverson explained when asked about his unusual attire.
For another, from the moment he appeared to great cheers from the fans lining the downtown concert hall's steep steps until his halting but heartfelt acceptance speech concluded to thunderous applause, he seemed on the verge of tears.
Thirty minutes before the ceremony's 7:30 p.m. start, Iverson choked up as, standing in the ornate lobby with his wife, five children, mother and friends, he answered mundane questions from a reporter.
"So many people did so much for me," he said then, explaining that he was as tense as he'd ever been. "I've got to make sure I thank them all."
At the podium, the sixth of the nine men and women honored in the Class of 2016, Iverson stopped often during his free-wheeling, 25-minute speech to compose himself. Rocking nervously from side to side, as if he were preparing to blow by an unseen defender, he went through a long litany of "Thank-you's" and "I-love-you's".
He credited Georgetown coach John Thompson, one of his three presenters, with "saving my life".
"After [an arrest in a Virginia bowling alley brawl scared off college recruiters] my mother went to Coach Thompson's office and begged him to give me a chance. He did."
He thanked his wife and children for comforting him during those times when he feuded with the media and, occasionally, his coach in Philadelphia. He thanked 76ers broadcaster Marc Zumoff, most of the team's front-office staff, former owner Pat Croce.
And he thanked an obscure Georgetown walk-on, Dean Barry, whom he said taught him the devastating crossover move that became his signature.
"And he was a walk-on," Iverson said incredulously. "He didn't even get his name on the back of his uniform."
The rambling talk, done without notes, was interrupted often by the cheers of raucous Sixers fans who conspicuously populated a corner of the balcony.
"The Philly fans," he said, triggering another raucous reaction from them. "My relationship with the fans in Philly is like no other. They supported me through my ups and downs."
Iverson said Larry Brown, the 76ers coach with whom he had an often contentious relationship, was responsible for him becoming a Hall of Famer.
"Once I started to listen to Larry Brown and take the constructive criticism, I learned how much of a great, great, great coach he is. That's when I became an MVP, that's when I became an all-star," he said.
Presented by Thompson, Brown and fellow Sixers legend Julius Erving, Iverson was elected to the Hall in his first year of eligibility.
The league MVP in 2001, when he carried the 76ers to the NBA Finals and a four-time league scoring champ, Iverson remains the only player 6-foot or shorter among the NBA's top 66 all-time scorers.
"I was just telling somebody that there are a lot of fans in Philadelphia who think he was the greatest Sixer of all time," said Erving of a group that includes Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley and himself. "And he just might have been. He was a thrill a minute."
The 10-person Class of 2016's other star honoree was Shaquille O'Neal, the man-child center who won four NBA titles. The others were Yao Ming, the 7-6 Houston Rockets center who broadened the game's international appeal; Sheryl Swoopes, who won four WNBA titles and three Olympic gold medals; Tom Izzo, who coached Michigan State to the 2000 NCAA title; Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf; and four deceased inductees – players Cumberland Posey and Zelmo Beatty, pioneering black coach John McClendon, and longtime director of NBA officialting Darrel Garretson.
Iverson, who missed Thursday's jacket presentation at the Hall, also failed to show up for a scheduled appearance at a Springfield high school Friday, causing some Hall officials to wonder if he'd make it in time for his speech, scheduled for between 8:30 and 9 p.m.
But he and his large entourage were among the earliest arrivals at the classical facility where the Hall holds its annual, star-studded enshrinement ceremony.
Spotting Iverson, a familiar figure even in a tuxedo, as he stepped from the limo, a man in a 76ers jersey shouted, "I love you, Allen!"
"I love you, too," Iverson responded. "I love everyone tonight. It's the Hall of Fame."