PHILADELPHIA — Allen Iverson waited backstage on Saturday night, and the crowd waited to cheer him.
Iverson, the 38-year-old former NBA icon whose rise started two decades ago at Georgetown, emerged at halftime at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, where he dazzled crowds for a dozen seasons, watching as his No. 3 jersey was retired.
“I feel like I’m dreaming,” Iverson said during an emotional address to the crowd.
Other basketball luminaries, including former 76ers stars Julius Erving and Moses Malone, were in attendance as Iverson — a rebellious, troubled, transcendent star — was honored at halftime of Philadelphia’s game against the Washington Wizards. New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver attended, too, thanking Iverson and calling himself an Iverson fan.
“You define the city of Philadelphia more than any other athlete,” Silver said.
Before tip-off, another former Georgetown star, Otto Porter Jr., sat in the visiting locker room and discussed how Iverson changed the game. Iverson, known as much for his cornrows and tattoos as his crossover dribble, was the first player to leave former Hoyas Coach John Thompson II’s program with eligibility remaining — at the time seen as an audacious move toward the coach who had given Iverson an important chance.
“It’s way different,” said Porter, the Wizards’ first-round draft pick last June. “I’m not the only one who left. Big Coach was like: ‘You have to go.’ ”
“Coach Thompson basically saved my life,” Iverson said during a news conference last October, when he formally announced his retirement.
Listed at 6 feet and 165 pounds, Iverson was known as one of the quickest, most daring players to ever play basketball. He earned a reputation as a player rarely willing to pass up a shot, and along with his unfiltered language and aversion to customary behavior among professional athletes, he occasionally rubbed some teammates, opponents, coaches and fans the wrong way.
His unwillingness to conform led to famous clashes with former coach Larry Brown, who guided Iverson and the 76ers to the NBA Finals in 2001. Brown, now the coach at Southern Methodist University, since has renewed his relationship with Iverson, inviting his former star to speak to his upstart team before the season.
“God put me there to coach you,” Brown said in a video message shown during the ceremony.
Iverson, the 2000-01 NBA MVP and an 11-time all-star, won four scoring titles and ranks 21st on the league’s all-time scoring list with 24,368 points. He last played in 2010. In the years since, Iverson has chased a comeback and closure; his bitter divorce from longtime wife Tawanna was finalized last year, and stories of Iverson’s financial hardships and drinking occupied recent headlines.
He has been on a kind of personal comeback quest over the past few months, mending a once-fractured relationship with the 76ers, accepting that his NBA career is finished, and appearing more often in public. The team spent most of this past week preparing for Iverson’s return to Philadelphia, decorating the arena with banners and memorabilia for Saturday night’s ceremony, which was held at center court with legends surrounding him.
“My name could be mentioned with those names,” Iverson said, his lower lip trembling. “Y’all have to show me the fool that says dreams don’t come true. Because they do.”