Pat Devlin is the Assignment Manager at NBC Sports Philadelphia and was working 18 years ago on the day of Allen Iverson's "practice" press conference.
Tuesday, May 7, 2002. The Philadelphia sports landscape had hit the lull in the game schedule that happened when the Sixers' and Flyers' seasons ended.
The Sixers had been trounced by the rival Celtics the previous Friday night, in Game 5 of a best-of-five series to knock them out of the NBA playoffs. The Flyers were bounced in the first round by Ottawa in April. The NFL draft had been two weeks prior, and Eagles were coming off one of the most successful drafts they'd have for a long time (though they didn’t know it yet) when they took four pretty successful NFL players in Lito Sheppard, Michael Lewis, Sheldon Brown, and Brian Westbrook, guys that would make Pro Bowls and be key members of their Super Bowl run a couple years later. The Birds’ Veterans Stadium roommates, the Phillies, were starting their turn as the only team in town playing games for the summer.
So the talk on Daily News Live that day was supposed to be about the Phils' game that night at the Vet vs. the Astros. Our friendly neighborhood relief pitcher Ricky Bottalico was supposed to be a guest on DNL that day, and he pitched a scoreless eighth inning in a win later that night. DNL would also touch on two other events from the weekend — War Emblem winning the Kentucky Derby and the Philadelphia Kixx winning the MISL championship. In the old Comcast SportsNet newsroom, it was supposed to be a pretty standard day. But one thing you learn working in sports news is you can’t rely on any day being standard.
Monday’s DNL had been heavy on Sixers talk, with the late, great Phil Jasner on the panel with John Smallwood. The previous Saturday, the day after the Sixers' season had ended, the team held what we call “cleanout day." The players come in to meet with coaches, gather whatever they had at the facility and then meet with the media one last time before summer vacation. For some, it is a last hurrah. For others, a look ahead. Iverson was at the cleanout day but wouldn't speak with reporters. As we later found out, for a couple of reasons, he came back in on the 7th. And it didn’t go well.
According to Kent Babb’s 2015 book “Not A Game," Iverson was still mourning the death of a close friend from Virginia. On Tuesday, Iverson and Brown got into a heated discussion in the parking lot at the team’s practice facility at PCOM. AI was angry that there were reports he was on the trading block, and the two finally calmed down after Brown promised he wasn’t getting traded. The organization then asked Iverson to do a media availability at the First Union Center (now Wells Fargo Center). But we didn’t know any of that at that time. All we knew was that AI hadn't spoken to the media at the cleanout day. By Tuesday, he was not expected to be around.
I remember the question like it was yesterday. A little before 4 p.m. one of our studio techs, Chris Melchior, asked me, “Do we have to set up for the press conference?" I asked him “What press conference?" He replied, “They’re setting up a presser downstairs."
For reference, where the Sixers have done their press conferences for the last 20 years or so is right outside of our television news control room, literally on the other side of the wall. So when we walk in or out of the door, the whole setup is right there. Can’t miss it. So, I asked Chris if he knew which team it was for, and he said they hadn’t put up a backdrop yet. I was trying to figure out which organization to call to find out what was going on (the Flyers also did pressers there for some time, and Comcast Spectacor could have been announcing something for the building).
I went out to our lobby and asked our Emmy-winning guard, the late Fred “The Security Guard” Bibbo, if he could call up a security camera at his desk so I could see the area. We could see a part of it, but still no backdrop.
Back then, we had a different way to transmit our signal for live shots at press conferences and courtside. Everything had to be hardwired. And for us, within the building, we had to use a camera similar to a studio camera, not like what we would use out in the field. So it took more time to get set than it would nowadays. And that’s why Chris needed to know. He wouldn’t be the cameraman for it, but he would have to set up the cabling, communication, etc. And once 5 p.m rolled around, he had to be in the control room. I told him I’d try to find out what was going on. He headed back downstairs, and a couple minutes later he called me saying there was a Sixers backdrop up. I said, if you have time, please set up our shot. We may not use it, but at least we’ll be ready.
I called the Sixers PR and talked to one of the assistants. I asked if there was going to be a press conference we needed to cover. The staff member said he didn’t know about any press conference. I told him there was one being set up in the usual spot, I just needed to know if it was happening that day, the next day, if it was even a news event. I needed to know for planning purposes. He didn’t know. And I believe he didn’t. If you know you are going to have a press conference, you let the media know. Why would you hide that when we can obviously see a Sixers logo behind the podium? But he wasn’t the head of the department, so he may not have been in any meeting discussing what was happening.
Turns out we may have known before him, strictly because of where our control room is. Around 4:30, we got an email from the PR department saying they were having a press conference at 6 p.m. That didn’t leave much time, so I’m glad we set up the live shot. In the end, I think only two stations were able to get cameras there. Our guy Kevin Foy rushed back from the Vet, and NBC10 also had a guy there (we were not affiliated at the time).
During the DNL broadcast, we were just waiting for the signs that the presser was going to start. We were obviously going to join it live. When people start moving around, PR reps show up near the podium, writers start putting recorders up there, we know it’s about to start. But for a while, there was little to no movement. So the producer of DNL, Rob Ellis (yes, that Rob), kept the panel talking. We probably made a couple calls to the Sixers, just to make sure this was still happening. And then there was a murmur and movement, and AI walked out of the back door of the locker room around 6:20.
A lot of press conferences can be pretty basic. Media asks some questions, players give standard answers. Iverson’s pressers were never that way. He almost always spoke from the heart and was honest in what he felt and said. Even if teammates, coaches or fans wouldn’t like it, he would say it. It’s just who he was, and it made his postgame pressers must-see. But as he started talking on this day, you could tell this was going to be a little different, even for him.
Before he even sat down, he mocked our Neil Hartman, who had been doing a live shot and doing a “talkback” with Michael Barkann on DNL. As the questions started coming in, you could tell he was agitated. One question about practice led to another. We’ve all heard how many times he says “practice," especially to Neil after he asked about it. Some questions were about his workouts and conditioning. That led to my favorite line from the whole presser: “I’ve been the MVP, boney as hell!"
As the presser wore on, we just stayed on the air live. Once we passed our regular DNL time, Michael rushed out of the studio, headed downstairs and asked a few questions. Our first handful of years, we didn’t do dedicated pregame shows — we usually had SportsNite at 6:30. That worked in our favor this night because we went right past the start time of SportsNIte with the presser. AI dropped a few curses, and someone brought up the idea of going on delay. But to do that, we would have had to go to a commercial break to reset the control room, and I remember our news director saying, “No way can we go to break. This is way too compelling.”
We were just riding it out, and we had no idea when it would end. I was taking calls from stations and feed services all over the country asking if we were at the presser. I was trying to feed video back, then took a number of phone calls and coordinated with the only other CSN at the time, our station in D.C. The phone was ringing off the hook.
Finally, just before 7, AI got up from the podium, told the reporters to “Have a lovely life, live it up to the fullest” and walked away.
When it was all over, I remember thinking that was an incredible couple of hours. We went from having no press conference scheduled, to getting everyone ready and in place just in case one did happen, to showing one of the most famous press conferences in sports history live for almost an hour. AI showed all his emotions — angry, mournful, at times light-hearted, and as always, honest. You just knew this would be something people would talk about for a long time.
My head was spinning, trying to take in what had happened. And in the newsroom, we took a deep breath and then got ready to cover Ricky Bo and the Phils beating the Astros.
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