Every since Allen Iverson arrived in the city of brotherly love, the Sixers have searched for his “Pippen,” the teammate who would perfectly mesh with AI to lead Philly back to the Promised Land. First it was supposed to be Jerry Stackhouse, and then it was Larry Hughes. Countless numbers of guards, later it all ended with the same result. No one could seemingly fit in the backcourt with Iverson.
That is until another AI set foot in the Wachovia Center.
Drafted out of the University of Arizona in 2004, Andre Iguodala came to the Keystone State with the ideal pedigree; a team-first mentality, the ability to play anywhere from point guard to small forward and the body of an NBA veteran, but no one knew for sure what would occur when the season started. What happened was more than the growth and maturation of a suitable role player. Philly had a bonafide budding NBA star in their hands, one who finally provided a fitting piece to their backcourt puzzle. “I’m a team player first,” states Iguodala. If I have to score and be the man then I don’t have a problem doing that, but being a complimentary player to a higher scorer, I can do that as well.”
Flying under the radar most of the season to rookies with more established NCAA reps (Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon), “Iggy Pop” steadily averaged 9 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 1.68 spg (good enough for 6th in the league), while helping lead the Sixers to the playoffs. Despite a tumultuous inaugural season that saw the arrival of the oft-injured Chris Webber, the seemingly annual Iverson trade rumors and the fact that the players never quite adjusted to the style of last year’s coach Jim O’Brien, Iguodala flourished in his transition from college to the pros.
This season, there should be more stability in the Illadelph, with the hiring of former 76er great, Maurice Cheeks in the off-season. “[Mo’s] gonna be a good addition to our team. He’s a player’s coach, we can relate to him as he can relate to us,” says Iguodala. “So it’s going to be an easier vibe between the players and coaches and we can grow and express our feelings and hope it will turn out for the better.” It’s not like the new sheriff in town should get any complaints from the 6-6 Illinois native. Constantly recognized as the type of player who’ll always give 100%, (even in practice, which should be a relief to Sixer fans), Mo should quickly find No. 9 to be one of his best weapons. If he happens to need any more convincing, all he has to do is call up Dre’s old coaching staff at his alma mater, Arizona.
“[Andre’s] work ethic drove him to get to the next level, so it’s not surprising that he’s done well,” said Wildcat associate head coach Jim Rosborough. “He may have one of the best basketball bodies that I’ve ever seen. He is a gifted athlete with wonderful basketball acumen and he’s got a really good feel for the game, for where his teammates are and for what should happen under a lot of circumstances.” For Iguodala, the respect is mutual for his former acquaintances in Tucson. “I came to Arizona nowhere near ready for the NBA. I needed college, Coach [Olson], is a coach who takes a lot of raw athletes and a lot of raw players and incorporates fundamentals into their game and I think that’s what helped me.”
There were some bumps in his rookie year, which can be expected especially when you’re asked to guard guys like Vince Carter and Kobe Bryant night in and night out, but the true student of the game eventually adapted to the adjustment between NCAA and NBA competition. “The biggest lesson I learned last year, is preparation is the key to every game. That means eating right and resting, so the whole time getting ready for the game is just as important.” There was also someone alongside him to make it easier through the maturation process. Contrary to what some of the old school critics of the NBA may think, the original AI has been nothing but helpful for Iguodala and the rest of the youngsters for the Sixers.
When asked about sharing the floor with “The Answer” for 82 games, Iguodala declares, “It’s probably the greatest experience you could ever go through. [Allen] gives you an example of how a player’s supposed to go hard and play every minute like it’s his last. It’s easy playing with Allen; he’s teaching me a lot of things.” Andre has always been the kind of player who is willing to listen. That thirst for knowledge and some of his other most admirable character traits come from his strong family background.
“My biggest influence is probably my grandmother and my mother. My grandmother’s just so strong, she never gave up on us and my mother kept me straight and on track,” states Iguodala. “My main focus in life was basketball, and [I learned] anything that was going to jeopardize that, I stayed away from.” Andre also learned one more important thing from his mother that has made him who he is today. “[She] taught me how to play basketball,” admits Iguodala.
The two most important women in his life also instilled in Andre the importance of giving, and we’re not only talking about assists. In his first season, he immediately became involved in community service and successfully started the “Andre’s Caps for Kids” program, which collected over 1,000 hats benefiting local pediatric oncology units in the Philadelphia area. Back home in Illinois, Andre also holds basketball camps and clinics for young players and this summer held a charity celebrity basketball game with part of the proceeds helping a local 13-and-under AAU team fund a trip to a national tournament in Florida. He also plans to adopt a school in Philadelphia this season to aid students in need and is incorporating the Andre Iguodala Foundation, specifically aimed for the youth in the area. Andre believes such initiatives are imperative for “giving kids an opportunity to get out of bad situations.” He continues, “A lot of kids come from single parent homes and they don’t get the proper education that they need. By just giving them that extra help so they get a chance to do some of the things that I did growing up; go to college or just be able to know how to work a computer, they will see things that will inspire them to be somebody and not settle for less.”
That sort of demeanor should have Philly supporters glowing with excitement, as if they weren’t already. He acknowledges that the same fans that once booed Santa Claus, can be among the most demanding on their athletes, but he knows that if they see you competing diligently on a nightly basis, “they’ll respect you and continue to support you.”
So that’s why during the summer, while some of the NBA‘s “ballerz” may have been lounging in the Caribbean or worrying about a contract, Iguodala spent the off-season working out vigorously, as he says, “improving on shooting the ball and being more of an offensive threat,” while expanding on his defensive game in an effort to get his averages up across the board, especially in rebounds and steals. He was also glad to see guys like Samuel Dalembert and Kyle Korver remain with the team. Iguodala deems that by keeping them along with all-stars Iverson and Webber, the Sixers should gel together a lot quicker this season and be right in the thick of things in the race for the wide-open Atlantic Division.
That familiarity with his teammates should do nothing but benefit the growth of this rising superstar into a category amongst the league‘s elite. But no matter how many personal accolades come his way, Iguodala states that he just wants to be remembered as “a hard working player who played to the best of his ability.” But just like the label of him being a “complimentary player” wore thin in his rookie year, his own modest assessment doesn’t encapsulate the true meaning of what this AI means to the Philadelphia 76ers.