Philadelphia, the supposed City of Brotherly Love, sure doesn’t show much brotherly love for its superstars.

You recognize the lead?  You do because it’s what every hack columnist in the world-wide-web phones in (or texts in so it comes up in their T9) when a Philadelphia franchise takes part in the city’s great bi-annual tradition of jettisoning one of its superstars. We’re a deeply traditional people. 

The charge – that we hit it and quit it with our stars – isn’t entirely undeserved and is pretty easily explained. We just don’t have a lot going for us.  Our unemployment and poverty rates are well above the national average.  We’re ugly.  We’re fat.  Our police officers sell heroin.  So because we’re so miserable and unfulfilled in other aspects of our life, we put a lot of stock in sports. 

This stock, as is well-documented, is mislaid.  We’ve won one championship in four sports in 27 years and this losing makes us crazy.  It makes us crazy not only because we need sports to distract us from our awful lives but because we’re unusually connected to these teams.  Nobody leaves Philadelphia.  It’s not a city with a transitory population like Washington or Dallas or New York or LA: everybody who lives here has lived here forever and rooted for the teams forever, marinated in the crazy passion forever.  So when they lose, and lose they do, everybody goes crazy, and this wave of craziness makes each individual, already crazy, a little crazier, which in turn makes the group crazier, which in turn makes individuals crazier, and so on.  It’s a feedback loop. 

The object of this craziness (and its fraternal-twin, anger) is our athletes in general and our superstars in particular.  Those among them who are psychologically normal obviously don’t respond well to this intensity and when they crack, and most of them crack, we ship them out. But the funny thing is, sometimes they come back. 

Which brings us to a question that was posed to me the other day: Whose return was/will-be bigger, Iverson’s or McNabb’s? 

Lots of unpacking to do here, but first, the rules.  Because there are only 16 games in an NFL season and over five times as many in an NBA slate you can’t really weigh the importance of a single NFL game against an NBA one, so we’re going to have to take a slightly different tact.  The question we’re dealing with is, by necessity, a more abstract one, and this is it: Whose return is more psychologically fraught for the city?  Or, to put it another way, who meant the most to us?We’ve broken it down into six rushed and arbitrary categories: Likeability, leadership, greatest single moment, greatest team accomplishment, darkest moment, and greatest career.  Here goes. 


Iverson was considered a thug by many.  He was a gun toter.  He bitched about practice. He wrote controversial but kind of awesome rap songs.  There were a lot of white (and black) people in Philadelphia who were never completely comfortable with the way he carried himself, the things they thought he represented (and that he probably did), or the fact that their grandsons wore his jersey. These people weren’t necessarily wrong, but they weren’t right either.  AI had a powerful, but hard to pin down charisma. There was a self possession, a confidence, a swagger and a sense that he really didn’t need any of it, that made us lean in closer.  We wanted him to like us. 

McNabb on the other hand was more overtly charming than Iverson, but his charms were of the hammy, mom-pleasing variety.  Plus the constant harping about race (he always saw himself, first and foremost, as a “black quarterback”), the resulting persecution complex (granted, a lot of it wasn’t just in his head, like the Rush Limbaugh brouhaha {Rush was right by the way about Donovan getting more credit than he deserved, but wrong about the racial component, as every QB gets more credit/blame than they deserve}, the Philadelphia NAACP inexplicably criticizing him for not running the ball more, not to mention the intemperate Philadelphian sports climate of desperation and un-healthy fixation we talked about earlier), and his slipperiness when it came to taking accountability for his failings got really old. 

It’s close here. I’d rather Donovan date my sister, but I guess I just like Iverson more.  I suspect most of you agree with me.  Iverson takes this one. 

Greatest moment 

Iverson’s greatest moment was, without question (seriously, don’t question me on this one) that magical night in the City of Angels when he banged the corner three in game one of the 2001 finals and, always a showman, STEPPED OVER Tyronn Lue on his triumphant strut to the other end of the court.  The Lakers looked bulletproof coming into the series.  They had yet to lose in the playoffs up to that point (and as we all remember, would lose only this one the rest of the way) and had absolutely hammered every team in their path.  We feigned confidence (“Dikembe can handle Shaq, AI’ll go off, and Kobe’s a…well… Kobe sucks”) but it was a put on.  Most of us were just happy to be there and expected a quick exit until (sorry in advance for this tired cliché, seriously, I feel like a jerk) our tattooed David bitch-slapped Goliath and we were right back in the thing.  We actually thought it could happen. And that fact that his step came over Tyronn Lue, a B grade Iverson poseur, made it all the more satisfying.  And it further galvanized us.  “If their ‘AI’ is Tyronn Lue, and our ‘AI’ is AI, then maybe we really do have a shot at this thing.”  Of course we didn’t, but it was a hell of a moment. 

McNabb’s greatest moment is a little tougher to peg, but I’m partial to the 4th and 26 against Green Bay.  Though it was ultimately all for naught (as I guess to an extent all McNabb and Iverson’s great moments were, as none led to championships), at the moment it looked and felt like the sort of play that happens to a team when it’s “their year.”  After all, after we put the finishing touches on the Packers, we had won 13 of 15 and were headed to an NFC championship game against Jake Delhome.  At home.  It was a kinesthetically beautiful, completely unlikely, and manifestly portentous play.  That said, while 4th and 26 was a hint of promise of a title to come, Iverson’s was an emphatic down payment.  The Answer takes this one. 


Both of these guys were lousy leaders, but for very different reasons.  Iverson’s problem was preparation.  He would show up late to practice, sometimes skip it all together, and that was the least of his sins.  He was a night owl and allegedly a heavy drinker.  Legend has it he played more than a few day games with a BAC just shy of his of his three-point shooting percentage.  You have to think that when the best player and alpha dog on a team is out on the town the night before games, the kids will follow. So he was an awful role-model.  But despite AI’s extracurriculars, he always left it all on the court.  Read Boys Will Be Boys.  AI was a corn-rowed Michael Irvin.  McNabb on the other hand practiced his ass off. He trained hard in the offseason, invited other Eagles to join him, and basically did everything right from Monday morning to Saturday night.  But there was a softness to him.  Sometimes the moment got too big, and his teammates sensed it.  That was never a problem for Iverson.  Showing up for practice and staying sober was though, so McNabb takes this one. 

 Greatest team accomplishment 

Iverson’s was, obviously that 2000-2001 run.  That was an imperfect team (the immortal Eric Snow ran the point) that wasn’t even particularly lucky (the Theo Ratliff injury).  Somehow they won 56 games, eeked through the Eastern Conference playoffs, and landed a punch on a Lakers team that ate lightening and shat thunder.  Oh, and AI won the MVP that year.  Which by the way makes him the answer to the trivia question, “Who is the only NBA MVP to record a song with the lyrics, ‘I sling bang if you need it, man enough to pull a gun, man enough to squeeze it?’” (I know, most people guess Tim Duncan.) 

 McNabb’s is the 2001-2004 run of four straight NFC title game appearances.  He gets lambasted (rightly) for only winning one of them and then lambasted again (even more rightly) for failing so spectacularly in the final game the one year he did break through, but credit where credit is due, that was a great run. Super Bowl or no Super Bowl, going 48-16 in the regular season and 6-4 in the playoffs in a four year stretch is just unconscious. 

Chalk one up for D-Mac. 

Darkest moment 

An admitted copout here, but McNabb’s is a tie.  The TO debacle and the Super Bowl dry heave.  The TO thing tore the team apart, and in doing so demonstrated to the sporting world that McNabb didn’t have the wherewithal to hold things together.  No way that happens in New England or Indianapolis.  I actually should have marked this against him in the leadership category.  Too late.  As far as the dry-heave in the huddle goes, I think it’s self-evidently awful and I don’t want to think or write about it any more than I already have.  Next. 

 Iverson’s done some pretty horrible things in his life.  Here’s a fun one I pulled off his Wikipedia page. “On February 24, 2004, Iverson urinated in a trash can at Bally’s Atlantic City casino in full view of staff and patrons.  He was told by casino management not to return.”  He’s done a lot of stuff like that. Oh, and he occasionally threatens people with guns.  But he’s never broken my heart like McNabb has. Iverson, by virtue of having the least dark moment, takes this one. 

Best Career 

 I don’t want to belabor this one: McNabb had more team success, but Iverson got more individual recognition.  Which do you value more?  I’m gonna go with Donovan on this one, though I could be dissuaded, especially when I imagine a day some years in the not too distant future when Iverson is enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a Sixer and gives a ridiculous but oddly moving speech while McNabb yucks it up with the insufferable Strahan and Howie Long on Fox NFL Sunday. 

McNabb.  For now. 


So at the end of regulation we have a tie.  And I’m not really sure which way to go.  Iverson is without question the figure who resonated the best with the city.  He’s the guy that we identified with.  He was a fighter.  The little, surly, kind of crazy, underdog, with a boulder on his shoulder and a scowl on his face (Like Rocky).  Allen Iverson was Philadelphia.   

And McNabb…well we loved Donovan, but always at a distance.  He was a little too goofy, tried a little too hard to ingratiate himself.  He was like the guy who dates our favorite sister who we’re never too sure about, but we come to kind of love just because she’s our sister and he seems to treat her ok.  And we don’t really realize how much we came to resent him till she finally ends it. 

It’s not that simple though.  McNabb was our quarterback, and for all his failings, he was a pretty good one.  A city, especially a football crazed city like this one, develops a relationship with its quarterback that is really unlike anything else in the fan-athlete universe: they carry, more than any other figure, our hopes on their shoulders.  And when you have the same guy carrying those hopes for eleven years, even if you don’t really like them, you do, in spite of yourself, sort of grow to love them. 

We loved Iverson the best, but ultimately, McNabb meant more to us. 

 And I hope we f***ing kill him on Sunday. 


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