Allen Iverson’s final on-court battle with Kobe Bryant took place exactly 10 years ago Wednesday.
As the world now knows, the legendary Lakers star, a Philly native and Lower Merion grad, was killed in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif., on Sunday. The crash also took the lives of his daughter Gianna Bryant and seven others: John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah and Payton Chester, and pilot Ara Zobayan. Bryant was 41 years old.
Iverson released a statement in memory of Bryant on Monday, saying, in part, “Words cannot express how I’m feeling today… He will always have my respect as a competitor, as a brother, as a friend.”
But for much of their careers, the pair were fierce rivals. One was an out-of-towner who cultivated a bad-boy image that won the hearts of his adopted team, the Philadelphia 76ers. One was a local native who became a California golden boy and earned a place as one of the city’s beloved villains.
On Jan. 29, 2010, Bryant faced off against Iverson in a #tbt duel that sold out South Philly’s then-Wachovia Center basketball arena a decade ago almost to the day.
With AI on his way out — it was one of the last games he’d ever play — the Sixers weren’t supposed to be any real competition for the Lakers. The teams had met in the 2001 NBA finals, but Philadelphia had floundered in the following nine years, while the Los Angeles squad was still going strong.
That night, Philly fans came out as much to to heckle Bryant as they did to support the home team.
With the loss of Bryant, who’s now been whole-heartedly embraced by his native city, the matchup burns strong in the memories of Philadelphians who were there to see the last time he faced AI. And though the Sixers lost that night, Iverson did muster a 23-point game.
A ‘duel’ between two of the NBA’s best
Iverson and Bryant were each others’ worst nemesis and greatest motivators almost as soon as they joined the NBA together in the 1996 draft, arguably one of the best ever.
Some 21 years later, Bryant wrote a famous essay talking about how much of an influence Iverson had been on his own career. After AI scored a searing 41 points against him in 1999, Bryant said, he studied his biggest competitor obsessively.
“I swore, from that point on, to approach every matchup as a matter of life and death,” Bryant wrote. “No one was going to have that kind of control over my focus ever again.”
It presented a dilemma for Philly basketball fans. One of them, Matthew Santangelo, 27, said his feelings about Bryant evolved as the man’s career did.
Bryant was “a player who I had despised growing up for all the hardship he dealt my Sixers,” particularly in the infamous 2001 finals game, Santangelo told Billy Penn.
“You had Iverson going for the Sixers, and then he had Kobe who grew up in that area and grew up as a Sixers fan,” Santangelo said of the championship face-off. “I just find it kind of funny how things kind of came full circle.”
That circle would make its final revolution one Friday in January 2010.
Back then, the Lakers were still on top of the world. They’d win the NBA Championship again that year, after earning five rings in the early and late 2000s, ending the 2010 season with a 57-25 record. Players Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Steve Nash and Bryant all topped best players lists and stats rankings.
Meanwhile, the Sixers were having one of their worst years to date, ending the season with an abysmal 27-55 record. Iverson was there for his last go ’round in Philly, returning after a brief stint in Denver.
Longtime fan Jacob Justice was in the electrified, sold-out Wachovia Center crowd the frigid night Iverson and Bryant went head to head for the last time. “I think they were both aware of the situation and brought their all that game,” he told Billy Penn.
The odds were ever in LA’s favor, and the visiting team won — but not before fans got a show.
Bryant scored zero points in the first quarter for only the third time that season. Despite that, the Sixers trailed by 15 points at the top of the third. Then Iverson kicked into second gear.
“Allen Iverson revisiting the Allen Iverson of old tonight against the Lakers!” a commentator exclaimed after AI sunk a 2-point fadeaway and picked up the foul.
“You now have a duel goin’ on, I’ll tell ya’,” the other play-caller noted.
Game highlights lay it bare: Iverson would drop two, Bryant would return the favor. With an explosive third quarter, Iverson at one point carried the Sixers to trail their opponents by just three points. An effervescent Philly crowd vacillated between chants of “MVP! MVP!” drowned out by boos as Bryant went to the foul line.
At the end of the showcase, which the Lakers took 99-91, Iverson and Bryant dapped and hugged. It was obvious they respected one another.
Said Iverson on Monday: “There’s something we can all learn from the ‘Mamba’ mentality.”