3.04.2014

The City of Brotherly Love

http://cdn.tss.uproxx.com/TSS/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Allen-Iverson-Slam-Magazine.jpgLast weekend, in the midst of a dreary season, the Philadelphia 76ers packed the house for a meaningless game against the mediocre Washington Wizards - why?  Two letters: A.I.

At halftime, Allen Iverson's jersey was retired, and it was an out-and-out lovefest between him and his adoring fans.  Tears were shed and platitudes said in this recounting of the little dynamo who willed a suspect 76ers team to the precipice of NBA greatness.

I am failing to think of another athlete so embraced by and representative of his city.  Jordan in Chicago, Big Papi in Boston, Jeter in New York, and Kobe in LA come to mind, and all four share A.I.'s success, clutchness, and charisma. 

What separates Iverson from them all is his underdog, anti-establishment, and flawed hero creds.  In the land of giants, A.I. was a short 6'0" - and, truth be told, I met him once and he's not taller than I, and I'm 5'10".  He brought corn rows and baggy shorts to a league previously defined by the corporate polish of Jordan the Brand.  And he famously questioned the necessity of practice, had very public domestic disputes with his wife, and suffered greatly with alcoholism. 

What mattered most to Philadelphians was not just that he won - the Sixers never did win a championship with A.I., and some years they were quite bad - but that he fought with all his heart.  Through injuries, against defenders bigger and badder, and under the reproach of legions of naysayers, he kept on. 

I do think, though, that it mattered to Philadelphians that A.I. was an imperfect icon.  Picture-perfect stars like Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson, and Albert Pujols suit cities like Indianapolis, Seattle, and St. Louis.  Could you imagine A.I. getting love in any of these places, gold chains, tats, and all?  But in Philly, A.I. was the man.  Back in A.I.'s prime, a native Philadelphian once told me the people in his neighborhood called the man "Sweet Baby Jesus," because he was all three things to them. 

But this post isn't mainly about Allen Iverson - although I did love the guy so am happy to give him some love on the heels of his big lovefest at the Wells Fargo Center - but rather about the city he has become permanently associated with.  Other cities may seek heroes and saviors in tall, chiseled Supermen who do good deeds and say all the right things.  Here in Philly, for better or for worse, we worshiped a more complex idol.  We loved him not just in spite of but, tellingly, because of his flaws.  For those of us who love Philadelphia and who seek to love Philadelphians, may A.I.'s beloved status in this town instruct us about what truly matters to this city and its residents.
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