Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality

Sama Al-Bakr poses with her trophies. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
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Sama Al-Bakr poses with her trophies. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
Sama Al-Bakr poses with her father. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
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Sama Al-Bakr poses with her father. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago. (AN photo by Muhammad Hashim Nadeem)
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Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago. (AN photo by Muhammad Hashim Nadeem)
Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago. (AN photo by Muhammad Hashim Nadeem)
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Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago. (AN photo by Muhammad Hashim Nadeem)
Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago. (AN photo by Muhammad Hashim Nadeem)
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Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago. (AN photo by Muhammad Hashim Nadeem)
Sama Al-Bakr plays tennis. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
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Sama Al-Bakr plays tennis. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
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Updated 10 March 2024
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Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality

Sama Al-Bakr poses with a trophy. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
  • The response from Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar was swift, describing their views as “outdated” and “Western-centric”
  • Talented players of different age groups are being cultivated

RIYADH: When former tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert decided to question the Women’s Tennis Association’s ties with Saudi Arabia, they failed to take into account how far tennis, and women’s sports in general, have come in recent years, and the level of empowerment that female athletes have been afforded in that time.
The response from Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar was swift, describing their views as “outdated” and “Western-centric.”
Tunisian star Ons Jabeur, a strong supporter of Arab and Saudi tennis, said critics should be “more informed.”
Indeed, anyone keeping an eye on the development of Saudi tennis in recent years will know how different the reality is to those negative stereotypes.
Talented players of different age groups are being cultivated.
Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago through her two older brothers, before her father began training with her.
Today, Bukary boasts some impressive achievements. She represented Saudi Arabia in the Kingdom’s first-ever participation in the Billie Jean King Cup in 2023, took home a silver medal during the 2022 Saudi Games, and followed that up with a bronze last year.
“I was the only Saudi on the podium, so that was pretty exciting,” Bukary told Arab News.
“I just want to be able to represent my country and, hopefully, get some titles, international tournaments, and grow as a tennis player.”
Among tennis circles in Saudi Arabia, 8-year-old Sama Al-Bakr is a name on many people’s lips, her undoubted potential symbolizing just what the future of Saudi women’s tennis could offer.
“She’s the only one in the Al-Bakr family that plays this sport,” her father, Ali Al-Bakr, told Arab News.
Hailing from Alkhobar in the Eastern Province, Sama has already rubbed shoulders with tennis greats such as Novak Djokovic when he visited during the Riyadh Season in late 2023.
She described being “happy, surprised, excited” when offered the opportunity to play with him and “beat him with the backhand.”
In September, Sama came first in a regional aged 7-10 mixed boys and girl’s tennis tournament.
After she was invited to participate, her father was told she would be playing among boys, in case he had any objections. Her father said that, on the contrary, his only thoughts were “I’m happy for the challenge and I feel sorry for these boys.”
The goal for Sama “is definitely going to be an international level,” Al-Bakr said.
He added that the “sky is the limit in the future,” and his daughter has the potential to become “the first Saudi girl who will play in Wimbledon as she promised.”
In Riyadh, 24-year-old Maha Kabbani has been playing tennis since seeing a Rafael Nadal match on television at the age of 9.
Like Bukary and young Sama, family support played a crucial role in her love for tennis.
Kabbani’s role model is her brother, who from a young age nurtured her passion for tennis and encouraged her to pursue a career in the sport.
“We used to train, me and my brother, at home and we started hitting the walls and then we got a tennis net,” she told Arab News.
“My family is the biggest supporter. They saw my passion, they saw the light inside me. Tennis has put such a light inside me that it made me shine,” Kabbani added.
From practicing with her brother in a make-do tennis court built in their small garden to training at Tennis Home Academy in Riyadh, Kabbani’s tennis journey highlights the transformative role played by Saudi Arabia’s post-2016 social reforms.
“I remember being 9 years old and trying to find a court. We could barely have one court, let alone academies. So, that’s huge progress,” she told Arab News.
“Right now, we are living our dreams and meeting the people that inspired us when we were younger.”
Kabbani said that past obstacles are now firmly behind them, and this is the “perfect time” for women and girls in the country to get involved in tennis.
“This is the perfect motivation,” she said.
The Saudi Tennis Federation is currently headed by a woman, Arij Almutabagani.
“We deserve to live our dreams, and see this progress and we deserve to enjoy our passion,” Kabbani said.


Wemby works magic as Spurs shock Nuggets 121-120

Wemby works magic as Spurs shock Nuggets 121-120
Updated 13 April 2024
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Wemby works magic as Spurs shock Nuggets 121-120

Wemby works magic as Spurs shock Nuggets 121-120
  • The 20-year-old from Paris led an injury-hit Spurs lineup with 34 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two blocks, underscoring his reputation as the most exciting talent to land in NBA since LeBron James
  • Joel Embiid scored 32 points as the Philadelphia 76ers kept their bid for an automatic playoff berth alive in the East with a 125-113 victory over Orlando Magic

LOS ANGELES: Victor Wembanyama scored 34 points as the San Antonio Spurs stunned the Denver Nuggets 121-120 on Friday to upend the race for the No. 1 seeding in the NBA Western Conference.

French rookie Wembanyama, who has produced a dazzling debut season in the NBA despite playing on a struggling Spurs team, was superb once again as San Antonio pulled off a remarkable victory over the reigning NBA champions.

The 20-year-old from Paris led an injury-hit Spurs lineup to finish with 34 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two blocks, underscoring his reputation as the most exciting talent to land in NBA since LeBron James.

The result delighted San Antonio’s veteran coach Gregg Popovich, who saw his team recover from a 23-point deficit early in the third quarter to snatch victory.

“Really proud of them, they played a great second half but they’ve done that all year — they don’t give in,” Popovich said of his team.

“Obviously with a lot of guys not there, we had a lot of people step up. Victor’s Victor — he did a lot of good things. But it couldn’t have happened without everybody else.

“Everybody contributed, they deserved it. They should all go get a beer, or a Coke, or whatever they do.”

Denver, meanwhile ,were left wondering where it all went wrong after 35 points from Jamal Murray and 22 points from Nikola Jokic.

Denver went into the game in Texas knowing that wins in their final two games would guarantee them top seeding from the West.

However, the loss against the team that is bottom of the conference with a 21-60 record leaves everything hanging in the balance heading into Sunday’s final regular season fixtures.

The Nuggets (56-25) are now third behind Oklahoma City, who pummeled the Milwaukee Bucks 125-107, and Minnesota, 109-106 winners over Atlanta.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 23 points while Chet Holmgren added 22 for the Thunder, who face a tricky final home game of the season against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday.

Friday’s results mean that leaders Oklahoma City, Minnesota and Denver are all level on 56-25, ensuring the race for top spot and home advantage will go down to the wire.

Elsewhere on Friday, Joel Embiid scored 32 points as the Philadelphia 76ers kept their bid for an automatic playoff berth alive in the Eastern Conference with a 125-113 victory over the Orlando Magic.

Orlando could have clinched a postseason berth with a win, but instead now face a nervous finale to the season on Sunday.

The Sixers have now won seven games straight in a late season run that has coincided with Embiid’s return from a two-month injury layoff.

The reigning NBA Most Valuable Player finished with 32 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists to shepherd Philadelphia to victory at the Wells Fargo Center.

Tyrese Maxey added 28 points while Kelly Oubre Jr finished with 21.

Franz Wagner led the Magic scoring with 24 points.

In Cleveland meanwhile, the Cavaliers punched their postseason ticket with a 129-120 defeat of the Indiana Pacers.

A 70-point first-half performance set the Cavs on the way to victory, with Donovan Mitchell scoring 33 points and Jarrett Allen 24 from 11-of-12 shooting from the field.

Cleveland improved to 48-33 with the win to assure themselves of a postseason ticket.

Indiana meanwhile are locked in a three-way scrap with Philadelphia and Orlando heading into Sunday’s final round of regular season fixtures. All three teams have identical 46-35 records as they chase the final two automatic playoff places.

In Boston, the top-seeded Celtics got back to winning ways with a 131-98 defeat of the Charlotte Hornets.


Formula E reveals driver lineup for first rookie session of season 10

Formula E reveals driver lineup for first rookie session of season 10
Updated 13 April 2024
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Formula E reveals driver lineup for first rookie session of season 10

Formula E reveals driver lineup for first rookie session of season 10
  • Session is scheduled for rounds 6, 7 of championship taking place at Misano World Circuit in Italy

RIYADH: Formula E and the FIA have revealed the full roster of 11 rookie drivers set to debut at the first rookie session of season 10, scheduled for rounds six and seven of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship at the Misano World Circuit in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.

The rookie free practice sessions are designed exclusively for drivers with no previous experience racing a Formula E car on-track and who hold a minimum International Grade B license. The session is designed to promote new and emerging talent in the premier electric racing series, offering drivers a platform to showcase their skills in the seat of the GEN3 race car — the fastest, lightest, most powerful and efficient electric race car ever built.

The last on-track rookie session conducted by the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship was the official rookie free practice in Rome for rounds 13 and 14 of season nine. Notably, Jehan Daruvala, a rookie from that session, has since advanced to a full-time seat for season 10 with Maserati MSG Racing.

The rookies representing all 11 teams in the championship got the opportunity to shine in a free practice session this weekend.

For the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship’s first visit to the Italian track, the drivers will face the 14 turns of the 3.382 km track complete clockwise, infield at turns one, two, three and four, before returning to the GP layout down toward what will be turn five and the turn seven hairpin. A high-speed straight follows into a sharp left-right at turns eight and nine before another fast sprint around the complex at the back of the circuit before hooking back through turn 14 on to the home straight.

“As we embark on this exciting new venture in Misano, we welcome a new wave of talent to the Formula E stage,” Alberto Longo, co-founder and chief championship officer at Formula E, said. “These rookie sessions not only showcase the potential of emerging drivers, but also our underlying commitment to nurturing fresh talent in the world of electric motorsport.

“Formula E stands at the forefront of motorsport when it comes to technological advancement and innovation,” he added. “We’re thrilled to harness that energy and provide the upcoming generation of racing prodigies with the ultimate platform to showcase their skills: Behind the wheel of the GEN3 race car.”

Drivers to watch

Zane Maloney, Andretti Formula E: Andretti is set to once again highlight the talents of Zane Maloney, who will commandeer the team’s Porsche 99X Electric in both the rookie free practice session in Misano and the upcoming Berlin rookie test. Returning to represent the American outfit, Maloney is poised to further solidify his role as the team’s official reserve and development driver, clocking valuable laps in the Misano session. This will mark his fourth appearance with the team, building on his experience from the 2023 rookie test, as well as his participation in the rookie free practice session in Rome and the season 10 preseason test in Valencia.

Paul Aron, Envision Racing: At just 20 years old, Aron is hailed as one of the most thrilling young talents in single-seater racing, holding the second position in the Formula Two standings for the season. With an impressive three podium finishes under his belt already in his inaugural full FIA Formula Two campaign this year, the Estonian driver is swiftly establishing himself as a standout prospect for the future.

Jordan King, Mahindra Racing: With Nyck de Vries of Mahindra Racing unavailable for the double-header around Tempelhof Airport due to a prior commitment in the FIA World Endurance Championship, the team will turn to King to fill the void. A seasoned racer with a rich background in international single-seaters, including stints in the IndyCar Series, FIA Formula Two and FIA Formula Three, King brings a wealth of experience to the table. Having served as test driver for the Manor Racing Formula One team in the past, he currently holds a crucial simulator and development role with the Alpine F1 Team.

Sheldon van der Linde, Jaguar TCS Racing: The 2022 DTM champion will make his return to the Formula E paddock, gearing up for today’s free practice zero test. The South African — brother of Kelvin van der Linde — stepped in at ABT CUPRA in season nine, swiftly acclimatising himself when he took part in the championship’s official Berlin rookie test for Jaguar TCS Racing last April.


Scheffler, DeChambeau and Homa share lead at windy Masters

Scheffler, DeChambeau and Homa share lead at windy Masters
Updated 13 April 2024
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Scheffler, DeChambeau and Homa share lead at windy Masters

Scheffler, DeChambeau and Homa share lead at windy Masters
  • Blustery conditions played havoc with the world’s top golfers at Augusta National
  • 15-time major winner Tiger Woods grinded out a 23-hole walk to set a record by making his 24th consecutive Masters cut

AUGUSTA, Georgia: Top-ranked Scottie Scheffler shared the lead with fellow Americans Bryson DeChambeau and Max Homa after battling fierce winds in Friday’s second round of the 88th Masters.

Blustery conditions played havoc with the world’s top golfers at Augusta National, where 15-time major winner Tiger Woods grinded out a 23-hole walk to set a record by making his 24th consecutive Masters cut.

Scheffler, the 2022 Masters winner, fired a par 72 to stand on six-under 138 after 36 holes alongside Homa, who shot 71 in quest of his first major title, and DeChambeau, the 2020 US Open champion and round-one leader who shot 73.

“It was very difficult out there,” DeChambeau said of the brisk breeze. “It was a good challenge. I had to back off quite a few times. I’ve never experienced anything like this out here at Augusta National before.”

Scheffler had three birdies and three bogeys but was proud of seven back-nine pars while tree limbs danced while brutal winds gusted.

“Conditions were really tough out there,” he said. “Proud of how I fought and kept myself in the tournament. I was trying to make a bunch of pars to stay in the golf tournament. Proud of how I did that.”

PGA Tour star Scheffler and Saudi-backed LIV Golf’s DeChambeau, from opposite sides in golf’s civil war, were set for a weekend showdown on a major stage, the only avenue for such a clash in a divided era.

“It’s different, not being able to play most of the same events and seeing how successful he’s been out there,” DeChambeau said of Scheffler.

“He’s the best player in the world and it’s going to be a lot of fun competing and seeing what he can do compared to what the rest of the field can do, what I can do. I’m looking forward to it, I really am.”

Scheffler, who could join Woods as the only players to win the Masters twice while ranked world number one, plunked his approach into Rae’s Creek at the par-5 13th and made bogey to fall out of the solo lead.

Homa birdied two of the first four holes and made his lone bogey at 11.

“I struck the ball really well,” Homa said. “Most proud of our course management and just controlling thoughts and expectation.”

Denmark’s Nicolai Hojgaard, among 20 Masters newcomers trying for the first rookie win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, closed with back-to-back bogeys to fire a 73 and stand fourth on 140.

Woods, meanwhile, had a second-round 72 to share 22nd on 145, breaking the old Masters cut streak record he shared with Gary Player and Fred Couples.

“(I’ll) text Freddy and give him a little needle,” Woods said.

Five-time Masters winner Woods had to play his last five holes of round one on Friday after storms delayed Thursday’s start.

“I’m tired,” he said. “I’ve been out for a while, competing, grinding. It has been a long 23 holes, a long day.”

Woods has struggled to walk rounds since suffering severe leg injuries in a 2021 car crash, but went to practice after his hefty walk.

“Just need some food and some caffeine, and I’ll be good to go,” Woods said.

Woods, whose only missed Masters cut was as an amateur in 1996, is in his first major since right ankle fusion surgery last April due to injuries from the accident.

Spain’s Jon Rahm, the 2023 Masters champion, struggled to a four-over 76 to stand on 149, one inside the cut line, and stretched the longest active streak of made cuts in majors to 18 events.

“Fighting it all day, never comfortable. I had to play really good golf and get lucky a couple of times with gusts. It was a bad day not to have it,” Rahm said. “I still made cut. Two rounds to make up 12 shots. It has been done.”

Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, who needs a victory to complete a career grand slam, fired a 77 to stand on 148 despite a double bogey and three bogey.

“I still think I can go out tomorrow and shoot a low one, get back into red numbers, and have half a chance going into Sunday,” said the Northern Irishman.

Among 29 players missing the cut were fourth-ranked reigning US Open champion Wyndham Clark, Norway’s sixth-ranked Viktor Hovland and three-time major winner Jordan Spieth.


5 first-round light heavyweight finishes highlight 2024 PFL Global Season event

5 first-round light heavyweight finishes highlight 2024 PFL Global Season event
Updated 13 April 2024
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5 first-round light heavyweight finishes highlight 2024 PFL Global Season event

5 first-round light heavyweight finishes highlight 2024 PFL Global Season event
  • Kasanganay, Wilkinson, Yagshimuradov, Carlos Jr., Silveira, Dufort, Collard, Primus, Espinoza and Rabadanov earn victories in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS: The Professional Fighters League on Friday returned with Global Season action, with the 11-fight card delivering five first-round finishes coming in the light heavyweight division.

The second event of the season featured athletes from the light heavyweight and lightweight divisions at The Theater at Virgin Hotels, Las Vegas.

The main event saw 2023 PFL light heavyweight champion Impa Kasanganay face off against Alex Polizzi. Kasanganay overwhelmed Polizzi in the first round with a barrage of vicious strikes for a TKO victory and six points in the ultra-competitive division.

In the co-main event of the evening, Rob Wilkinson, the 2022 PFL light heavyweight champion, confronted Tom Breese. Wilkinson turned in an impressive performance in his return to the PFL SmartCage, defeating his rival via first-round TKO and earning six points in the division.

In a battle of strikers, Clay Collard faced Patricky Pitbull in an all out action matchup. The two lightweights traded haymakers before Collard put together a series of punches in the second round leading to a TKO. Collard’s victory was the 25th of his career and earned him five points in the lightweight standings.

In lightweight division action, Mads Burnell and Michael Dufort battled valiantly, but it was Dufort who left the cage as the decisive winner after he choked out Burnell in the second round. Dufort was awarded five points for his dominating performance.

“The second event of the 2024 PFL Global Season delivered unmatched MMA excitement to fans around the globe with five first round finishes in the light heavyweight division,” said PFL CEO Petery Murray.

“The PFL’s unique season format is a catalyst for action with elite athletes aware of the stakes and impact of each contest in the Global Season standings.”

“Tonight the light heavyweights and lightweights showed the depth of the PFL Global Season roster with incredible action from start to finish,” said Ray Sefo, president of Fighter Operations at PFL. “We are proud of our athletes and cannot wait to step back into the PFL SmartCage April 19 in Chicago.”

Josh Silveira squared off with Sadibou Sy, who made his light heavyweight debut. The fight ended with a first-round TKO for Silveira when Sy could not continue due to injury. The TKO gives Silveira six points in the PFL light heavyweight standings.

Action continued in the light heavyweight division with the return of 2021 PFL light heavyweight champion Antonio Carlos Jr. Carlos Jr. wasted limited time in submitting Simon Biyong via rear naked choke in the first round. The submission earned Carlos Jr. six division points.

Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov overwhelmed 2023 PFL Europe light heavyweight champion Jakob Nedoh with a series of strikes leading to a first-round knockout. The victory gave Yagshimuradov six points in the light heavyweight division.

Continued lightweight action saw Bruno Miranda and Brent Primus step into the PFL SmartCage. Primus emerged victorious, submitting Miranda with a rear naked choke in the second round, earning five points in the PFL lightweight division.

Lightweights clashed when Gadzhi Rabadanov, a combat sambo specialist, faced off against Solomon Renfro, a 2023 PFL welterweight semifinalist. After a back-and-forth contest, it was Rabadanov who defeated Renfro by unanimous decision, earning four points in the PFL lightweight division.

Elvin Espinoza stepped into the PFL SmartCage on a three-day notice to take on Adam Piccolotti. Espinoza kept his undefeated record intact, knocking out his rival in the third round and earning four points in the lightweight division.

In a PFL Heavyweight Showcase bout, Marcelo Nunes defeated Jordan Heiderman by first-round submission via armbar. Nunes notched his 11th professional victory.

The 2024 PFL Global Season action returns on Friday, April 19, at Wintrust Arena in Chicago, with welterweight and featherweight action.

 


Allen Iverson immortalized with sculpture alongside 76ers greats Julius Erving and Wilt Chamberlain

Allen Iverson immortalized with sculpture alongside 76ers greats Julius Erving and Wilt Chamberlain
Updated 13 April 2024
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Allen Iverson immortalized with sculpture alongside 76ers greats Julius Erving and Wilt Chamberlain

Allen Iverson immortalized with sculpture alongside 76ers greats Julius Erving and Wilt Chamberlain
  • Few played better in the games for the Sixers than Iverson, who won four scoring titles, an NBA MVP award, and led the franchise to their last trip to the NBA finals in 2001
  • Iverson was feted with a ceremony that nearly rivaled his Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction

CAMDEN, New Jersey: Yes, there is something quite wry about the fact Allen Iverson was immortalized in his crossover pose at — of all sites — the Philadelphia 76ers’ practice facility.

Practice. Not where the Sixers play their games. Practice.

Almost 22 years after AI ranted about “practice” 22 times in an often-spoofed news conference — see, Ted Lasso — even Iverson got a kick out the location of the sculpture unveiled Friday on the team’s Legends Walk, joining the likes of Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley and Maurice Cheeks. The Hall of Famer who made ” talking about practice ” a permanent part of the pop-culture lexicon is now a permanent part of the Sixers’ home.

“I could sit out a practice,” Iverson said after the ceremony. “Play me in the games.”

Few played better in the games for the Sixers than Iverson, who won four scoring titles, an NBA MVP award, and led the franchise to their last trip to the NBA finals in 2001.

His numbers stamped him as one of the NBA’s greats.

His legacy stretched beyond the court, the undersized guard with the supersized heart making the hip-hop element cool in the NBA with his braids, his tattoos, his throwback jerseys — heck, the NBA even instituted a dress code in large part to wipe out Iverson’s influence. His dogged style of play has been emulated to this day by everyone from Russell Westbrook to Ja Morant to even Philly’s own All-Star, Tyrese Maxey.

Never, ever, though, duplicated.

Iverson was feted with a ceremony that nearly rivaled his Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction. Former Sixers teammates and executives Pat Croce, Billy King, Rasheed Wallace, Eric Snow and Aaron McKie posed with and praised AI. Even retired NFL receiver Terrell Owens shot video of the tribute and snapped photos of the statue. Former coach Larry Brown — who famously clashed through the years with Iverson — was in the house.

“Me and Coach didn’t see eye-to-eye on things,” Iverson said. “But he wanted the same thing that I wanted out of my career and our team goals. Once I bought into that, that’s what turned me into an MVP basketball player. That turned us to a team that were winners, that could go to the finals and compete with the best teams.”

The 165-pound guard averaged 31.1 points in 2001, was the MVP of the All-Star game and propped an entire franchise on his 6-foot frame all the way to the finals.

Guided by Brown, the Sixers needed Game 7 wins in consecutive playoff series for the right to play the Los Angeles Lakers. Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers swept their way through the postseason before Game 1 in Los Angeles.

Iverson had 48 points in 52 minutes of an overtime victory. The Sixers didn’t have enough to go the distance and the Lakers won the next four games.

Iverson is still connected with the franchise as a team ambassador and occasionally pops up at a courtside seat and receives a roaring standing ovation each time he is announced to the crowd. Iverson complained last year that his role with the Sixers was “nowhere near what I think it’s supposed to be” but any unhappiness appeared to be smoothed over. Sixers coach Nick Nurse has invited Iverson to spend more time around the team to offer his voice in a mentorship role.

“They came up to me and said that they would love to talk to me about different things on the basketball court and I just love and respect that they respect me because they know I’ve been through what they’re going through at a high level,” Iverson said. “So I’m trying to have my voice be heard as much as possible. I’m doing a lot of things with the organization and I just think that I’m blessed to have that opportunity, to have that relationship with the organization after I retired.”

So, about that statue. Much like Iverson, the tiny depiction took a beating on social media for not being properly lifelike for a statue. But it wasn’t built for sizes normally found outside sports stadiums, but rather is part of a row of similarly-sized ones that line a private walkway that only players, employees and executives (and the media) can access at the practice facility.

“How do you think I got that good? I had to practice,” Iverson said. “I just thought it was a bad rap on me. One day I’m walking in the streets and people come up to me and say ‘Practice? We’re talking about practice?’ and I be like, ‘Man, out of all the things I accomplished in my career, that’s the only thing you can come up with?’ Crazy.”

Iverson wore a Roman numeral III chain (in honor of his retired No. 3 uniform number ) and other Sixers gear including a hat that read “LEG3ND” as he yanked off the cover of the statue. Iverson’s statue shows him wearing a headband and about to launch the crossover — a seminal move in his career that once bewildered Michael Jordan — with a basketball affixed to his outstretched left hand. Part of the inscription said Iverson’s “toughness made him unstoppable.”

As Iverson surveyed the friends, former teammates and family that included his mother that flocked to New Jersey, he could only choke back tears as he expressed his thanks.

“When you think about the statue,” Iverson said, “that’s a representation to y’all people that helped me. To every one that played a part in my development and in my life. When y’all see that statue, y’all could feel good about the part that y’all did in helping me with my life. This is such an honor, man. It don’t even seem real.”