Philadelphia's Souring Love Affair

Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson is being criticized in Philadelphia for failing to lift the 76ers beyond mediocrity. (Tim Shaffer - Reuters)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 12, 2006

PHILADELPHIA -- Fans at Wachovia Center applauded Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson last Monday whenever he completed one of his mad dashes toward the hoop. They got out of their seats whenever he dived onto the floor chasing down a loose ball.

Once again, Iverson didn't disappoint, scoring 32 points. But once again, his team did, losing to the Houston Rockets and going through a 15-minute stretch in which it missed 19 consecutive shots.

Few fans stuck around to see the end result, an 87-81 loss, hitting the exits while the final result was still in doubt. "They pay their money," Iverson said afterward. "They can come and leave when they want to."

In his 10th season with the 76ers, Iverson, 30, is having the best statistical season of his career, averaging a career-high 33.3 points and more than seven assists for just the second time in his career. His teammates have dubbed him "freak of nature" because he has yet to slow down, playing with the same intensity as he did when he entered the league.

But the Iverson Show doesn't appear to be enough for Philadelphia anymore. Instead of being praised for playing at such a high level at an age when most players begin to decline, Iverson is being criticized in Philadelphia for failing to lift the 76ers (24-25) beyond mediocrity despite playing alongside four-time all-star Chris Webber.

With Iverson no longer the gate attraction he once was, a few members of the local media have claimed that Iverson has outgrown his usefulness to the organization and recently began calling for the 76ers to consider trading him.

Philadelphia, which has been yo-yoing through this season, has lost four of its past five games and is coming off a disappointing road loss to the Charlotte Bobcats as it prepares to face the Wizards on Sunday afternoon, but Iverson refuses to let the situation drag him down.

"I'm fine," said Iverson, a four-time scoring champion who is in the running for a fifth this season. "I'm doing what I love to do. Every season I play, it hasn't been easy for me. You know, it's tough, the losing and everything but I'm fine. I'm doing what I want to do and we still have a chance to make something positive out the season. That in itself helps me get through the season."

Ed Snider, chairman of the ownership group that oversees the 76ers and the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers, said the trade speculation has no basis.

"We're not even thinking about doing that," Snider said. "Allen has been an integral part of our organization and there is nobody that we could get that could do a better job that he's doing. He's pound for pound, the toughest player I've ever seen in my life. He can't do it all by himself."

Still, attendance at Wachovia Center has dipped to its lowest point since Iverson's rookie year. After reaching a peak of 20,560 in 2001-02 there was a slight decline over the next three seasons before plummeting to 15,722 this season, ranking 26th in the league. "Philly crowds are a little spoiled, I think," Snider said. "I think they are disappointed in the overall record of the team."

Iverson is hugely popular away from Philadelphia, however, luring 18,338 fans per game at visiting arenas. Only the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami and defending NBA champion San Antonio have greater road followings. A sellout crowd at MCI Center will greet him when he faces the Wizards. Washington fans embraced the former Georgetown star long before he became recognized for tattoos, headbands and corn-rowed hair.

He was elected as a starter for the NBA all-star team for the seventh consecutive year and was one of just five players to get more than two million votes. His jersey is the second-best seller in China -- ahead of Houston's Yao Ming -- where Iverson is featured on a huge Reebok billboard in Shanghai.

Sixers President Billy King, who has been with the organization for nine seasons, said Iverson is "part of the fabric of the city. . . . You got to look at players like Allen and say, 'We're going to try to continue to build and win while we have them.' And not worry about trading this guy, because sometimes the grass isn't always greener."

Iverson admitted that the trade talk bothers him -- referring to the negativity in the newspapers as "Tales of the Dark Side" -- but said he has found a way to deal with it. "I don't want to go," he told reporters in Philadelphia recently. "I love this place."

Despite their struggles, though, the Sixers are just 2 1/2 games out of first place in the Atlantic Division, and Iverson chooses to focus on that. "The positive part of it all is the season is not over," Iverson said. "We still got a chance to have a successful season. We've still got a chance to get to the playoffs. That's the whole objective."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company