"I've been trying to focus on what we're doing right now, but I'm not going to lie to you, I knew I had to go back, and I knew what the date was on the calendar," Iverson said Tuesday.
The ones who know the fans best believe Iverson will get an ovation that will rattle the roof of the Wachovia Center when the 6-foot guard out of Georgetown is introduced Wednesday. Iverson's first game in Philly since he was traded in December 2006 might be one of the more prominent and passionate moments in his old home, even though he'll be wearing a Denver Nuggets uniform and trying like mad to stick it to the Sixers instead of vowing to win them a title.
"I think they will show the appreciation that he deserves for all the great things he did when he was here," said Ed Snider, chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, which owns the 76ers. "On the court, he was magnificent."
Was he ever.
Few athletes ever electrified, and polarized, the city like Iverson. He was an MVP with a rap sheet. A wanna be rapper with a stat sheet stamped for the Hall of Fame. He whined about practice, clashed with his coaches, crossed over Michael Jordan and stepped over Tyronn Lue.
Iverson always proclaimed his love of Philly, the fans and the Sixers and swore he wanted to end his career with the franchise that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 1996 draft.
Any problems he ever had in a dysfunctional relationship with the Sixers were somehow always worked out until the one month they didn't and Iverson was gone faster than a drive down the lane.
"I thought he would end it here in Philadelphia," said former 76ers president Billy King. "I was hoping his career would end here like Reggie Miller's ended in Indiana."
Instead, King was the one who signed off on the deal that sent Iverson to Denver on Dec. 19, 2006 as part of a trade that brought Andre Miller to Philadelphia.
That ended a career that saw Iverson post the highest scoring average in team history (28.1), finish second on the points list (19,583) and hold the record for 3-pointers (877). He was a seven-time All-Star, won four scoring titles, two All-Star game MVPs and the league MVP award in 2001 after taking the Sixers to the NBA finals.
"He's a great player. He's done a lot of great things for this franchise and this city," Snider said.
Iverson's final days in Philadelphia were mostly miserable. He skipped a team function for the fans, was banished from a game against Washington and developed the same contentious relationship with coach Maurice Cheeks that he had with one-time nemesis Larry Brown.
The Sixers sent him home, cleaned out his locker, and edited out his video highlights while actively trying to shop him.
"I think he looks back at regret at some of the things that happened," said King, who was fired in December. "I think for the most part, he looks at everything he's done in Philadelphia with a lot of pride."
Iverson had survived the rift with Brown, joked about his memorable rants about practice, and had seemingly put his troubled off-court past behind him. What he couldn't do was handle the losing, the responsibility of leading a mostly young team and wanted input on the style of play.
Neither Cheeks nor King have spoken to Iverson since the trade.
"It hurts that someone I respected so much, that I still respect, and to have the relationship the way it is, it hurts me a lot," Cheeks said.
Iverson was arguably one of the four greatest Sixers, compiling a sparkling resume over 10-plus seasons that put him in the mix with Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and Charles Barkley. His No. 3 jersey was a best seller around the globe, the headband wrapped snugly around his cornrows, and the tattoos were as much a part of his image as the way he ricochets around the court. Play every game like it was his last was more than a catchphrase, it was a lifestyle.
"I'd like to say I played as hard as he did but I couldn't," said former Sixers center Todd MacCulloch. "I couldn't put my effort up against him. I don't know how many people in the league could. He's a special talent, a special player."
Iverson fearlessly crashed the lane against players nearly a foot taller than him, played through countless injuries and added the pizzaz that was missing in what was a staid franchise.
Iverson transformed the 76ers from lottery losers to contenders, though he couldn't bring home an NBA title to this championship-starved city. He came close in 2001, when the 76ers lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals.
Iverson had not wanted to talk about his return to Philadelphia until after the Nuggets played at Detroit on Tuesday night. Iverson, who scored 20 points in a 136-120 loss, said he wasn't sure what kind of reception he'd receive from the crowd.
"I just know it will be fun," he said. "It's going to be something I always remember and cherish for my whole life."
The Sixers will not honor Iverson with a video tribute or plan to acknowledge his return in any form other than the standard announcing of his name when starting lineups are introduced.
"There will be plenty of time for accolades for Allen Iverson when he retires," Snider said.
Still, the Flyers recently presented San Jose Sharks star Jeremy Roenick with a Tiffany crystal in a short pregame ceremony for scoring his 500th goal and Roenick only played three seasons in Philly. Snider, who runs both teams, insisted he has no ill feelings toward Iverson.
"We needed to change direction and I think that we're happy," Snider said. "I think sometimes it's good if everybody ends up happy."
The Nuggets are certainly happy with the Iverson-Carmelo Anthony pairing, even if they started Tuesday 2½ games behind Golden State for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Iverson is third in the league in scoring with a 26.5 average and Anthony is right behind him at 25.5, combining for a dominant 1-2 punch that Iverson never found in Philadelphia.
While Iverson's scoring has remained steady (just a tick off his 27.8 career mark), his leadership has surprised Denver coach George Karl.
"He's had an influence," Karl said. "He's taken a good team and made it better."
Iverson said his years in Philadelphia turned him into the locker room leader the Sixers truly hoped he'd one day become.
"Being in this league as long as I have, and being around Eric Snow and Aaron McKie and guys like that, I learned a lot from them. Being around coach Brown, I learned a lot from him," Iverson said. "Now I'm a lot more vocal than I used to be. I think it helps younger guys, think it helps guys that haven't been in a lot of playoff wars."
Yes, this idea that Iverson is now a leader is hard to believe coming from the same player who made "talkin' about practice" part of the sports lexicon and once infamously asked, "How the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing?"
Iverson faced the Sixers twice already, both times in Denver. He scored 30 points and was ejected in a Sixers win in January 2007 and had 38 points in a Nuggets victory in January 2008. With the Nuggets chasing a playoff spot and the Sixers looking to grab the fifth or sixth seed in the East, there's more at stake for all this time than a trip down memory lane.
"I think he'll come back and play just as hard as he always plays, maybe a little harder, but I think his main focus is getting Denver in the playoffs," King said.
Perhaps, but it's easy to believe the ultimate undersized underdog has one more fantastic show left for the fans he used to call his own.
--- AP sports writer Pat Graham in Denver and AP freelance writer Dave Hogg in Auburn Hills, Mich. contributed to this story.