With the Hoyas surprising everyone by staying in NCAA Tournament contention into February and the Knicks losing 14 games since New Year’s Day, the NBA has been pushed to the back burner of my sports priority list.

But the other night, I saw a line I liked and placed a small wager on the 76ers-Pacers game. Even though it was about as ho-hum an NBA regular season game as there can be, NBA TV was showing it, and the most boring games become a lot more interesting when a few dollars are involved, so I ended up watching most of it.

The game went about as expected. The players tried for a few minutes, then mailed it in for a few minutes after that. The 76ers ended up winning by one, exactly what the line was, proving once again that the guys in Las Vegas are a lot smarter than any dope on ESPN or anywhere else.

Aside from gambling, there was probably only one reason to watch the game if you aren’t a big fan of either of the two teams: Allen Iverson.

The Answer didn’t have a terrific game, just his typical play-your-heart-out, leave-it-all-on-the-court type of game. He played 44 minutes and shot only 8-24 from the field. But, as he always does, Iverson managed to will his team the win, regardless of whether he had the hot hand or not.

Iverson tossed his 6-foot-0, 165-pound frame all over the court and got beat up pretty well in the process. But he got to the free throw line 12 times, made 11 and finished the game with 27 points while grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out eight assists. Philly, a team without a single other player who is even remotely close to being an all star, picked up its 21st win of the season – about 20 wins more than they would have without Iverson.

To say that people have been less than fair to Iverson over the course of his career would be an understatement. It’s not surprising, giving that he is the antithesis to everything your average middle-aged, angry, white sports reporter who thinks there hasn’t been a good NBA player since Bob Cousy wants in the athletes he covers. He’s got tattoos and dreadlocks, and he even uses Ebonics from time to time in a press conference.

Iverson hasn’t done himself a lot of favors either. His rap album and his long soliloquy about the value of practice didn’t win him many friends in the media. He was convicted of felony assault when he was still in high school in 1993 and spent half of his senior year of high school in prison. He was arrested again in 2002. People have long memories about things like this when they didn’t really like Iverson in the first place.

What people don’t remember as quickly is that all charges against Iverson were dropped in the case two years ago and the 1993 conviction was overturned. In the latter case the general consensus is that Iverson, who was already a big star back then, was railroaded.

In 1994, John Thompson II took a chance on the troubled superstar. All Hoya fans should be glad he did. I’ve been rooting for the Hoyas for a long time, but I’m still too young to remember their really dominant days in the 1980s. The two years Iverson spent on the Hilltop were the only time I can remember when there was real electricity to Hoya games. Any game with Iverson playing brought the possibility that something amazing could happen, like the night he had 10 steals against Miami or when he led the Hoyas to a blowout win over then-No. 3 Connecticut before a sellout crowd at USAir Arena and a national TV audience.

His NBA career hasn’t been too bad either. Despite playing with only one other All-Star in his entire career – fellow Hoya Dikembe Mutombo in 2002, whose best days were well behind him by then – Iverson has managed to turn around a 76ers franchise that had been absolutely awful in the seasons between Charles Barkley’s departure and Iverson’s arrival. They went to the playoffs five straight years and got all the way to the finals in 2001. They stunned Kobe and Shaq’s best Laker team in Game 1 of that series and may have had a chance to win the whole thing if Mutombo was the player he was when he played with the Hoyas and the Denver Nuggets in the early 1990s instead of the broken-down version he was that year.

Iverson has won three scoring titles and happens to be the only NBA MVP the Big East Conference has ever produced – something I like to point out to Syracuse and Villanova fans when they try to get all high and mighty about him.

Iverson’s far from perfect, but he’s a true basketball warrior. All Hoyas should be proud that he’s one of us.

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