- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2012

PHILADELPHIA — He bears the awkward burden of having the same initials, A.I., as the most recent iconic figure to wear a Philadelphia 76ers uniform, Allen Iverson. Loved and hated by the passionate 76ers fan base, Iverson was a controversial figure during his 12 seasons in the City of Brotherly Love.

For Andre Iguodala, called “the new A.I.” when he arrived in Philadelphia seven years ago, it hasn’t exactly been fun and games. Impatient fans expected more than a star, they expected a superstar to build around, and Iguodala didn’t deliver on those lofty expectations.

But Thursday night, Iguodala silenced many of his critics when he led the Sixers to a 79-78 win over the Chicago Bulls to advance to the second round in the NBA playoffs, leading all scorers with 20 points and sinking two free throws with 2.2 seconds left.

Clad in a dark sweater, and wearing black framed glasses, with no glass inside them, Iguodala sat on a podium in Wells Fargo Center next to teammate Elton Brand, and talked about his journey, and that of his team, which hadn’t reached the second round of the playoffs since 2003.

“I’m happy, but not as happy as I am for my teammates,” said Iguodala, who made his first All-Star team this season.

“As my career has gone on, it’s about what type of mark I leave on my teammates.”

76ers coach Doug Collins was visibly emotional after the win.

“He’s gone through a lot here,” Collins said. “I told him ‘nobody deserves this more than you, to have this moment, to move on and be able to experience this.’ “

Collins didn’t include himself in his statement, but he easily could have.

“[It’s been] a crazy year,” Collins said.

“A compacted schedule, injury to Spencer [Hawes], five-game losing streak, fire Doug Collins. … I heard it. Doesn’t take long to turn. Makes me feel better, because I’m a Sixer. For life.”

Collins, who played just eight seasons in the NBA before injuries ended his career, spent all of them in a Sixers uniform. After starting out as an assistant coach in the college ranks, he landed his first head coaching job, with the Chicago Bulls.

Defeating them to advance in the playoffs was bittersweet for the intense and introspective coach.

“You have to understand, this Bulls organization gave me my first opportunity to coach,” said Collins, who reached the second round in the playoffs for just the third time in his 10-year coaching career.

“I was 35 years old. I had never coached before. To be a part of this and to beat that organization is extra special to me.”

“I told the guys ‘Now, we’re in the high rent district,’ ” Collins said. “Now, you start really finding out what it’s all about. To watch the joy they had in that locker room after the game was something I’ll never forget.”

Their second-round opponent, the Boston Celtics, is a heavy favorite to end the Sixers’ improbable run and leads the series 1-0 entering Game 2 on Monday night. Collins, though, remains unfazed. It’s something he’s learned over time.

“I’ve had my experiences as an athlete, and I’m not in this for me,” Collins said.

“I’m almost 61 years old, and I’m in it to try to just impart some things to the young guys and make them understand what this business is all about, to be professional on a daily basis.”

Collins said returning the Sixers to relevancy is just one step in a journey he began since his return to Philadelphia last year.

“There’s a lot of ways to be relevant. It can be through winning, through the behind-the-scenes building of an organization that I think is one of the proudest in the NBA.

“That’s one of the things I try to do — plant seeds and nurture, and hope that through the tough times, those moments will cary you, and make you stronger on the other side.”

• Carla Peay can be reached at cpeay@washingtontimes.com.

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