WHEN Andre Iguodala entered the NBA draft following his sophomore season at the University of Arizona, he didn't know which team would select him. It wound up being the 76ers who snapped up the versatile, 6-6 swingman with the ninth pick in the first round.
As fate would have it, his new team was also the hometown of Mustafa Shakur, Iguodala's Arizona teammate and a former Friends' Central guard. Shakur took it upon himself to educate Iguodala as to all that he could expect at the first site of his professional basketball career.
"After he was drafted we talked and I kind of told him about the city and things like that," says Shakur, recalling their conversation during the Wildcats' recent appearance in the NCAA Tournament. "When he got to Philly, he gave me a call and we went out to dinner on City Avenue, where he was staying near the team's practice facility [Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine]."
So, did Shakur rhapsodize to Iguodala about the joys of a good cheesesteak? The green tracts of Fairmount Park? The tranquil splendor of Boathouse Row when it's lit up at night?
"He let me know that the media here is pretty tough and I should never listen to the radio," Iguodala recalls. "Oh, and he told me about the city wage tax."
You have to wonder if Shakur also informed Iguodala of the time Santa Claus got pelted with snowballs at Franklin Field. Having been given a pep talk like that, no one would have blamed Iguodala had he run screaming into the night, demanding a trade to, oh, almost anywhere.
But Iguodala, blessed with an adaptable temperament to go with his adaptable game, has learned to survive in the tough-love cauldron that is the Wachovia Center. In fact, "Iggy" has more than survived; the only Sixer to have started all 73 games, he has won over a notoriously difficult-to-please fan base that has come to appreciate his unselfishness, superb defense and highlight-reel hops.
None of that is likely to stamp Iguodala as a dark-horse candidate to be voted rookie of the year. That honor is likely to fall to the Charlotte Bobcats' splendid first-year big man, Emeka Okafor, who is in town tonight for a game against the Sixers.
Others who are sure to draw support include the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard, who went No. 1 in the draft straight out of high school, and Ben Gordon, the shooting guard who provides instant offense in the fourth quarter for the Chicago Bulls. At 36-37, the Sixers' record is too pedestrian to draw much national attention to Iggy, whose statistics (8.8 points per game, 5.7 rebounds, 1.7 steals) are solid and workmanlike but hardly spectacular.
But someone once said that numbers are there to be crunched into whatever form the cruncher cares to make of them, and Iguodala's bosses insist his value supersedes statistical quantification.
"He has been even better than anticipated," says coach Jim O'Brien, when asked if Iguodala's name should be floated during rookie of the year discussions. "Unfortunately, a lot of people will dwell just on points and rebounds. They rarely look at the full package.
"Everybody in Philadelphia has, or should have, an understanding of what Andre means to our basketball team. He plays [Boston's] Paul Pierce, he plays [Dallas'] Michael Finley. He plays all the other teams' best perimeter players. You can see how he's grown as a defensive stopper.
"He really gets up and down the court, he's a good passer, he has a nice assist-to-turnover ratio. He has been a very, very key ingredient to our being in the playoff race right now. I don't know where we'd be without him."
Billy King, the Sixers' president and general manager, says every team can use a player such as Iguodala, who subjugates his ego for the collective good and has no glaring weaknesses on the court; at worst, there seems to be some agreement that his jump shot could use a bit of fine-tuning.
"People say his shooting's not that great," King says, "but he's at 31 percent from three-point range and almost 50 percent overall, which in part is because of all the dunks he gets.
"Dunks will get you on 'SportsCenter,' but I think what people in the league notice more is his overall play. When he came here, a lot of people didn't know much about him. But he's earned a following by showing everyone what he can do in all aspects of the game. I think the fans in Philadelphia appreciate players who work hard, and Andre leaves it all on the court every night."
Iguodala says he never wanted to be known only as a defensive specialist or as an incredible leaper. Basketball is a game of textured subtleties, and those who master all or most of its nuances are even rarer than those with a singular gift.
"I want to be a complete player," Iguodala says. "A lot of guys have to score because that's the only way they can dominate a game. The way I play, I do a variety of different things... I don't need to score a lot to contribute. I can set guys up, be a great defender. Whatever it takes."
Iguodala's versatility has been his stock in trade for as long as he can remember. He was a ballhandling point guard at Lanphier High in Springfield, Ill., through his junior season, until circumstances obliged coach Craig Patton to convert him into more of a low-post player as a senior. Not that changing roles had much effect on his productivity; Iggy averaged 23.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists and was named the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year.
"We're talking big numbers across the board - lots of points, lots of assists, lots of rebounds, lots of steals," Patton says. "Even then, people were comparing Andre to Scottie Pippen. I thought the comparisons were valid. Still do. Their games are very similar.
"This is the sort of athlete who does not come along very often. He high-jumped 6-10, which is an incredible feat when you consider track and field wasn't his primary sport. He probably could have had major success in the high jump had he concentrated only on that.
"But I want to stress that he doesn't do what he does only because he's physically gifted. This is a young man who gives you everything he's got all the time. He has just an incredible work ethic. You hear all the time about guys being gym rats, but that's Andre. He never believed he ought to get by on talent alone. He's the kind of player who comes to practice early and leaves late."
At Arizona, the all-court sensibilities he first exhibited at Lanphier were honed and polished by the Wildcats' Hall of Fame coach, Lute Olson.
"I did everything in college," Iguodala says. "I mean, I was kind of that way in high school, but I was mostly a scorer. It wasn't until I got to Arizona that I really started to understand the complete game. Coach Olson taught me to use all my abilities in as many ways possible."
Iguodala averaged 6.4 points as a freshman and 12.9 as a sophomore, but his shooting range was suspect (he nailed only 32 of 117 three-pointers during his career, an unsightly 27.4 percent) and some prospects in the draft were rated higher on other teams' draft boards.
King surveyed the field, figured he had at least an outside shot at Iguodala, and did everything short of collecting horseshoes, rabbit's feet and four-leafclovers in the hopes his targeted player would fall to the ninth spot.
"We were ecstatic when Andre was still there when our turn came up," King says. "We knew he was somebody who could give us exactly what we needed.
"For what he's done for us, he's been all that we could have hoped for, and more. His upside is tremendous. I think he has unbelievable potential."
For now, fulfillment of that potential mostly involves getting down 'n' dirty on defense against guys such as Pierce, whom Iguodala describes as his toughest challenge because "he posts up a lot and can score in a variety of different ways - off the dribble, off the pick-and-roll, one-on-one, isolation. You can't relax on him."
At the other end of the court, Iguodala is content to take a secondary role in an offense that is forever dominated by Allen Iverson, the Sixers' first and foremost A.I.
"A.I. can score. C-Webb [Chris Webber] can score," Iguodala says. "Scoring a lot of points isn't something I have to worry so much about with this team."
Ah, but those majestic throwdowns are reminiscent of a time when Julius Erving ruled the air above the rim, when Billy Cunningham bounded about like a crazed marsupial. Those Sixers legends had the catchy nicknames, Doctor J and the Kangaroo Kid, which seem more, well, fitting for a high flier than Iggy, which sounds like a term of endearment for Dr. Frankenstein's assistant.
O'Brien says he doesn't pay too much attention to dunks in any case, and he surely doesn't want Iguodala being defined primarily for his soaring swoops to the hoop.
"I care about putting the ball in the basket, not how it's put in the basket," O'Brien says. "But because he has the strong lift, we want Andre to take that powerful leaping ability and become a potentially dominating low-post player. He can get the ball down low without the dribble and use that explosiveness to finish plays.
"I will say this, though. Anybody who's a fan of the game, whether you're just sitting in the stands or an NBA player, has to get a kick out of seeing some of the dunks he makes."
Sixers forward Kyle Korver, the three-point sniper who admits to being comparatively earthbound, admits that Iguodala's airborne acrobatics can leave an observer slack-jawed.
"It can do that, especially to me since I can't hardly jump at all," Korver says. "It's fun to play with him because you can just throw up those lobs. You know that all you have to do is put it up there by the backboard somewhere and he'll go and get it."