PHILADELPHIA -- Welcome back, A.I.
Your spot in the Philadelphia 76ers starting lineup was kept warm for three years and is waiting for you Monday night. The fans who loved you as a hustling, hard-charging MVP even as you clashed with coaches will pack every seat in the arena, waiting in their No. 3 jerseys to hear, "At guard, from Georgetown University ..."
And the team you left mired in the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, well, they're still stuck there.
Allen Iverson's second act with the 76ers begins much how the first one ended.
"It was like deja vu," 76ers center Samuel Dalembert said of watching him practice Sunday.
Iverson joined the first team of Dalembert, Elton Brand, Thaddeus Young and Willie Green on Sunday in his first practice with Philadelphia since 2006. Iverson acknowledged he's not yet in game shape after sitting out for nearly a month, and needs more time to adjust to the offense and his new teammates.
"I think it's important for my coaching staff, my teammates and my fans to be a little patient with me," Iverson said.
Coach Eddie Jordan said he "anticipated" Iverson would start against the Nuggets, one of three teams he played for after leaving Philadelphia.
"He made a difference already in practice," Jordan said. "His talking, his presence, being a step ahead of the play defensively."
The 76ers need a healthy Iverson. Guard Lou Williams (jaw) is out, leading scorer Andre Iguodala (ankle) did not practice Sunday and is a game-time decision, and guard Jrue Holiday missed Saturday's game with a strained rotator cuff.
All the injuries -- and an underachieving lineup -- have the Sixers ahead of only lowly New Jersey in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Sixers are 5-15 and have lost nine straight entering Monday. When the Sixers traded Iverson on Dec. 19, 2006, they were 5-18 and on an 11-game losing streak.
Iverson's return has given the slumping Sixers a jolt in ticket sales. The Sixers, who ranked 29th in the NBA in attendance, have standing-room only tickets left for his return.
"I know if he plays, people will come out," Bobcats coach, and former 76ers coach, Larry Brown said. "But he never disappoints you with his effort. And they respect that in that city, and hopefully he'll help that team."
Iverson may start, but he isn't counting on playing anywhere near 48 minutes. He played only three games with Memphis this season, and hasn't played since Nov. 6, leaving him a bit winded after the nearly 45-minute practice.
"It's frustrating for me because I was kind of in a rhythm before I left Memphis," Iverson said. "Sitting out as much as I did, I kind of got off beat a little bit. It won't take me but a little while to get it back."
The 10-time All-Star guard who's scored more than 24,000 points signed a non-guaranteed deal with the 76ers last week.
"I'm trying to learn this whole thing on the fly," Iverson said. "That's the toughest part."
Retired NBA guard Eric Snow, Iverson's backcourt teammate on the 2001 Eastern Conference title team, supported Iverson's second chance in Philadelphia.
"There are some things differently Allen could have done, he knows that," Snow said. "He's said it. For every time you could say something negative, you could say five, 10 things positive. He played with broken bones and he sacrificed his body. No one cares."
All of Philadelphia cared when he won the MVP and led the Sixers to the NBA finals in 2001. He etched his name alongside Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain and Charles Barkley as one of the greatest 76ers to wear the uniform.
He posted the highest scoring average in Sixers history (28.1), was second on the points list (19,583) and holds the record for 3-pointers (877). He was a seven-time All-Star and won two All-Star game MVPs.
Nuggets coach George Karl, who paired Iverson with Carmelo Anthony from 2006 to early last season, said he didn't have the run-ins with "The Answer" that seemed to stain his other stops. Karl said Iverson's antics can sometimes overshadow his basketball IQ.
"A.I. knows the game. I think at times he knows the game better than he plays it sometimes, especially at the defensive end of the court," Karl said. "He understands the mistakes he makes. AI's been well coached by Larry to start with. He has a cerebral feel for the game that he doesn't always play to, but he does know the game and understands why coaches are doing things and what circumstances you've got to react to it."
He nearly ran himself out of the league after miserable stops last year in Detroit and this season in Memphis. Iverson worked out hard at the start of Grizzlies camp, then partially tore his left hamstring -- keeping the guard out of the entire preseason, and he didn't debut with the team until Nov. 2 at Sacramento.
The plan had been for Iverson to use the preseason to work himself into shape and compete for a starting job. When he returned, he came off the bench and made his unhappiness known immediately after that first game. Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley flew to California where he met with Iverson and coach Lionel Hollins.
"The plan always was to try to get on a good year with us and get on a team he thought had a better chance of winning a championship," Heisley said.
The plan lasted three games before Iverson was finished in Memphis. The 34-year-old flirted with retirement, before the 76ers offered him a second chance with the franchise -- and perhaps a final one in the NBA.
"I don't put no pressure on myself," Iverson said. "It's basketball. It's something I love to do."