Allen Iverson was on time.
Anyone who’s followed Iverson’s career knows he has a penchant for flaking. He famously eschewed practice. He skips autograph sessions. In his last full season for the Sixers, he blew off Fan Appreciation Night. He’s no-showed appearances at basketball games and high schools.
But, at 4:35 p.m. yesterday, Allen Iverson arrived at the arena in South Philadelphia. I know this because that was the same time I arrived. I saw him walk in. Iverson wasn’t just on time, he was early. His Big3 team wasn’t going to play until around 9. This may have been the earliest Allen Iverson arrived for any event, ever.
It was a good start to the Big3. Fans filed into the arena. “Lotta dudes in Iverson jerseys that don’t fit anymore,” @85mf wrote on Twitter, a group that included Iverson himself. An in-arena host promised cash prizes for fans who made shots during breaks in the action. The crowd was small—the mezzanine level of the arena was closed—but things were going well.
Big3, the 3-on-3 summer basketball league featuring former NBA players, was Iverson’s chance to come back to Philadelphia for one last game. Think of it as the basketball equivalent to the House of Hardcore wrestling shows Tommy Dreamer runs at the old ECW Arena. Though he looked old and out-of-shape in previous Big3 appearances, with any luck we’d get to see Iverson hit one last shot in South Philly.
We wouldn’t. About 25 minutes before the first of four games were about to begin, Iverson announced on his Instagram that he wouldn’t be playing in his later game on the advice of his doctor. (Presumably, he didn’t mean Dr. J.)
And, you know what, I should have known. Because when I saw Allen Iverson heading into the building, he was walking like an old man.
Iverson had been honest about his role in the league at a press conference the day before. “I’m not going to go out there and be the 25-year-old Allen Iverson,” he told reporters. “You’re going to see a 42-year-old man out there.” Iverson had played in the three previous Big3 games, if only for short spurts. Ice Cube, one of the co-founders of Big3, admitted that the whole point of the league was to get Allen Iverson on the court again: “That was part of the dream. The hope, the wish. Just seeing him run out of that tunnel in that uniform, seeing him warm up, basketball in his hands.”
So Big3 was in a bind. As nice as it was last night to see Reggie Evans—one of my favorite Sixers role players—nobody bought their tickets to see him. They bought their tickets to see Allen Iverson. Here was their marquee attraction, in the city where he’s most popular, and he wouldn’t be playing.
Big3 did not handle this well. There was no announcement in-arena that Allen Iverson wouldn’t be playing in the marquee game of the evening. When Iverson gave a speech to the crowd before the game—he was introduced as a coach—he didn’t mention that he wouldn’t be playing. As such, the crowd chanted “We want A.I.” throughout the last of four games. People booed. Half of them left early, as word spread that Iverson wouldn’t be getting off the bench.
Well after the crowds left, Ice Cube tweeted that “doctors told [Iverson] not to get out of bed and he came anyway.” If he’s in such bad shape, why was he being advertised as playing until a half hour before the games start?
In Iverson’s speech, he told fans that he and the Philly fans have a closer bond than Michael Jordan and Bulls fans, LeBron James and Cavs fans, or Kobe Bryant and Lakers fans. (The Kobe mention received loud boos; Stephen A. Smith was also booed when he was announced earlier.)
But it seemed that bond really only runs one way: Iverson couldn’t be bothered to tell everyone he was too out-of-shape or sick or hurt to play. When I went to House of Hardcore last year, and Terry Funk couldn’t even “manage” at ringside based on the advice of his doctor, he was nice enough to go out and tell the fans that he wouldn’t be assisting Tommy Dreamer in the main event. Iverson just posted a video on Instagram.
In fact, Big3 didn’t even tell the players Iverson wouldn’t be playing. “I kind of found out right before we were about to play them,” said Bonzi Wells, who helped the Tri-State team to a victory over Iverson’s 3's Company squad. “We understand Allen is the guy who drives our league. We were hoping he was going to play for the fans. But we got the win, so it was good for us.”
Jermaine O’Neal then asked reporters how they felt about it. There was silence. “That bad, huh?” he joked.
After O’Neal and Wells, reporters were slated to hear from Iverson and Ice Cube. An unnamed PR flack came out and told everyone that press conference was canceled. He tried to run off, but the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mike Jensen wasn’t having it. “No, stay here.” he said. “What is your name, and why is the press conference canceled?”
The flack wouldn’t give his name, saying he was just “here helping out with PR.” He also wouldn’t give an answer. I decided this was my time to butt in: “Why weren’t fans in the arena told Iverson wouldn’t play tonight?” He admitted: “I have no answers for you.”
At this point I thought this might become like a press conference in a movie or TV show, where everyone yells questions at the same time. Alas, mine was the last question. I’ve always wanted to be in one of those! (On the plus side, now I can honestly say that Ice Cube once canceled a press conference because he was too scared to take my questions. He later tweeted he hadn’t talked to the media after any game this year.)
Dan Levy, a reporter at Billy Penn, came up to me immediately following the canceled press conference. “You knew this was going to happen,” he said. And, yeah, I should’ve known. Of course Big3 wasn’t going to do this press conference: They did one the day before, when they were still selling tickets. But now they already had their money from Philadelphia fans.
Big3 was already a better idea in principle than in execution. Heroes of Basketball is a fun idea. But the games were boring. The lack of an announcement on Iverson’s status was a joke. Several times, they forgot to have a basketball on hand for the fan shooting contests during timeouts. It was a mess.
And we all shouldn’t have expected anything else.