All-Star. Olympian. Overpaid. Overrated.
Aloof. Enigmatic. Polarizing. Underappreciated.
Andre Iguodala has been called all of those things – as well as other, unprintable things – ever since he arrived in Philadelphia in the summer of 2004. So perhaps it was only fitting that the city’s most mercurial athlete was five time zones away when the Sixers decided to trade him last week.
The four-team deal that ultimately shipped Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers could have easily been consummated at any point before the 2012-13 NBA season. But with each of the franchises eager to pull the trigger before any of its fellow trade partners got cold feet, Philadelphia agreed to send Iguodala to the Denver Nuggets.
Three days later, the former Sixer helped the U.S. Men’s National Team capture a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics.
So to recap: Less than 72 hours before the greatest athletic achievement in his life, Iguodala was traded away by the only team that he had ever known in his professional career. But trades in the NBA are relatively commonplace. The more important story is the divorce between a man and the city that – in contrast to its still-infamous tourism campaign – never loved him back.
The split between Andre Iguodala and Philadelphia should be amicable for both parties: It isn’t as if this was a case of unrequited love.
For the better part of eight seasons, Sixers’ fans have been anything but silent in their disdain for the 6’6″ swingman. Professional basketball hasn’t often been a topic of conversation on the Philadelphia sports talk radio airwaves in recent years, but whenever it was, Iguodala typically was the lightning rod for most callers’ vitriol.
Things changed only slightly with the advent of social media. 82 nights a year – or 66 nights during a lockout-shortened campaign – thousands of hands throughout the Delaware Valley remained poised above keyboards and smartphone screens during Sixers’ games. What Iguodala did on the defensive end was unimportant: Whenever he missed an ill-advised three-pointer, or failed to convert a pair of free throws, 140-character missives began to flood Twitter timelines all across the region.
After the Sixers fell in the first round to the Miami Heat in the 2011 Eastern Conference Playoffs, Iguodala was asked if he expected to return to the team the following year. His response? “I expect to be in the NBA.”
One day later, Iguodala skipped his end-of-year exit interview with Sixers’ head coach Doug Collins. If Iguodala’s goal was to anger an already hostile fan base, then he couldn’t have played his cards any better.
But in true enigmatic fashion, there were plenty of times when he got it right. Before the start of the 2011-12 season, when a group of fans came together for an “End Of Lockout” party, Iguodala showed up, even though he was under no obligation to do so. He shook hands, he posed for pictures… he probably would have kissed a few babies if any were present. It was a genuine display of goodwill for a group of supporters who truly loved the Sixers and the game of basketball.
That one gesture began the reconciliation process between a man and his fans. Not much changed on the court: In fact, it appeared as if Iguodala made a conscious decision to shoot even less than he had in the past.
Yet last season, Iguodala had perhaps his best year ever, culminating in his first-ever All-Star appearance. He led the Sixers to a 35-31 record – the team’s first winning season in seven years – and provided us with one of the most thrilling endings in Philadelphia sports history.
Last May, in the closing moments of Game 6 of the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, the 76ers trailed the Chicago Bulls by a single point. With 7.7 seconds left in regulation, Iguodala corralled a missed Omer Asik free throw and drove the length of the court with reckless abandon.
He was fouled with 2.2 seconds to go, and in front of a sold out Wells Fargo Center crowd – very few of them optimists at that moment – Iguodala calmly sank two free throws, securing Philadelphia’s first playoff series victory since 2003.
Shortly after the final horn, Iguodala jumped on top of the scorer’s table, posed, and bathed in the admiration from a sea of Sixers’ fans.
“I don’t know how you could write a better script,” said Collins during the post-game press conference. “Dre has gone through a lot here and I told him after the game that no one deserves more than you do to have this moment.”
And in that moment, something of a truce was formed between Andre Iguodala and the city of Philadelphia. The two neighborhood kids who never seemed to get along had finally made peace with one another.
Three months later, those two game-winning free throws are little more than a distant memory. One of those neighborhood kids is now headed halfway across the country, and his replacement (Andrew Bynum) is already more popular than the old kid ever was.
Andre Iguodala never gave us what we wanted while he was here, but in leaving, the Sixers – and their fans – got the franchise player that they’ve long wished for.
The 76ers will open the 2012-13 season against the Denver Nuggets at the Wells Fargo Center. There will be some sort of ceremony to honor Iguodala before the game, and most fans in attendance will give him his proper respect. Ironically enough, Iguodala may be cheered more that night than he ever was while he wore a Sixers’ uniform.
Perhaps Andre Iguodala isn’t the only one that we should be calling enigmatic after all.