Iverson and McNabb: A Tale of Two Retirements

Why we've always loved bad-boy Allen and remain ambivalent about model citizen Donovan.

The tale of two retirements speaks volumes about Philadelphia and our relationship with our sports stars.

Allen Iverson is finally calling it quits after running out of teams and countries that want his diminishing skills. The Philadelphia 76ers are sure to retire AI’s number 3 at a game this year.

The Philadelphia Eagles will retire Donovan McNabb’s No. 5 at halftime on Sept. 19, when former Eagles coach and McNabb mentor Andy Reid comes to town with his new team, the Kansas City Chiefs.

Iverson and McNabb dominated the Philadelphia sports scene for a decade. Iverson led the 76ers to the NBA Finals in 2001, only to lose to the Los Angeles Lakers. McNabb led the Eagles to the Super Bowl in 2004, only to lose to the New England Patriots. Iverson won the MVP in 2001. McNabb was the NFC Player of the Year in 2004. On the NBA all-time scoring list, Iverson is 19th. On the NFL all-time passing yards list, McNabb is 17th.

Both stars were traded away from Philadelphia, only to have their careers flail and finally fizzle out.

The similarities are endless, but the two are as different as day and night, or more appropriately, good and bad.

Iverson was a thug. McNabb was a model citizen.

Iverson complained about practice. McNabb was the coach’s pet.

Iverson has a mug shot. McNabb shot soup commercials.

Iverson went everywhere with his posse. McNabb went everywhere with his Mom and Dad.

Iverson is bankrupt. McNabb is an analyst for the NFL Network.

If Philadelphia sports were a western, Iverson would be the villain that rides into town with his gang, waving their pistols in the air, and McNabb would be the reluctant loner who saves the day.

So why will Iverson get an unquestioning, long standing ovation when the Sixers retire his number, while we wonder if McNabb might get booed at his ceremony? Why do callers to sports radio remember Iverson fondly, while they talk about the bad aftertaste left by McNabb?

It is much deeper than the obvious observation that Philly has a thing for bad boys. It has much more to do with expectations and attitude.

More than anything else, Philadelphia wants to be loved. Sandwiched between New York and Washington D.C., we have always suffered from middle child syndrome. We are the municipal version of Jan Brady. When a high-profile athlete comes to town, we want him to love Philadelphia. Iverson did immediately. McNabb never seemed to. That’s why it was weird seeing Iverson in a Denver Nuggets uniform when he left Philly. McNabb in a Washington Redskins uniform didn’t seem that unusual.

Of course, it didn’t help matters that WIP sports radio sent a busload of fans to boo McNabb when he was selected second overall by the Eagles in the 1999 draft. The greatest moment of McNabb’s life was ruined by a radio stunt. McNabb never got over it. (It is worth pointing out that WIP wanted the Eagles to select running back Ricky Williams, who, as it turns out, would have been an awful pick.)

Contrast the unfortunate booing at Madison Square Garden with the explosion of pure elation from new 76ers President Pat Croce on national TV when he learned he would get the first pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. It was widely accepted that the first pick would be Allen Iverson from Georgetown, which is saying something since the 1996 draft was thick with talent.

Iverson was accepted from day one without condition. From day one, McNabb was never really accepted.

McNabb, however, had greater success. Surrounded by a better team, expectations soared for a championship. It was expected. But after five NFC Championship games, all of which the Eagles were favored to win, and only one Super Bowl, a loss stained by the quarterback’s infamous panic-attack vomit in the huddle, McNabb, the Eagles’ greatest quarterback of all time, was a disappointment. In 2008, when the Eagles lost their last NFC Championship game to the underdog Arizona Cardinals, dazed Philadelphia fans walked the streets like extras in The Night of the Living Dead. McNabb was muttered like an obscenity.

On the other hand, expectations were low every year for Iverson and the cast of no-names that walked onto the court with him. Larry Brown wanted to trade Iverson to Detroit in 2000. It was fate that the deal fell apart, as magic followed. No one expected the 2000-2001 season. When the 76ers lost game five to the Lakers at the then-First Union Center, a capacity crowd stayed to thank the team with a five-minute standing ovation. Iverson was the miracle maker. His name revered.

Fans were more than willing to ignore Iverson’s off-court antics and arrests. He was the hero of 2001. Fans started getting annoyed at everything McNabb did off the field. He was “goofy,” a “mama’s boy,” a “company man.” He was the goat of 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2008.

Has enough time gone by now to realize that both were great players, who had their flaws, but gave us some of the most magical moments of a great era in Philadelphia sports?

I hope so.

Both shared the stage in the drama that is our sports history, both playing important and complex roles parallel to each other. It is fitting that they both make their curtain call this year to nothing but appreciation for superb performances.