WHEN ED STEFANSKI called Bob Levy to tell him he had agreed to become president and general manager of the 76ers, Levy said: "Honestly, I was crying when he told me, I was so happy for him. He's one of the great guys."
Levy, the former owner of Atlantic City Race Course, former part owner of the Phillies, a major player at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the city's great sportsmen, has known Stefanski since Penn recruited him out of Monsignor Bonner.
Levy, speaking by phone from Tucson, Ariz., where he is attending a horse-racing industry symposium, has no shortage of Stefanski stories.
One he remembers vividly was a fall trip the Quakers took to Italy before Stefanski's senior year (1975-76).
Penn coach Chuck Daly's mother had just died, so he could not make the trip. The Penn president called Levy and asked whether he could cover as a chaperone. Levy and his wife Cissie agreed and went with the team for 10 days.
"It was the high Jewish holidays," Levy remembered. "Cissie insisted we go to synagogue. I obviously do whatever she says. So we drove to Milan, about an hour's drive."
Before they went to the synagogue, they went to look at a horse. The horse's name? Bobby Morse.
Morse was one of the great shooters in Penn history. And the horse could run. Levy was shown some other horses to see whether he was interested in buying them. But they had other business.
"We go to the synagogue," Levy said. "Eddie was with us. He's Catholic. It was an Orthodox synagogue. The women had to go upstairs. The men stayed downstairs. They're translating Hebrew into Italian, so I had no idea what was going on. We stayed 10 minutes and left. We got friendly on that trip, and we've been friendly ever since."
Stefanski was the starting point guard his final two seasons at Bonner and captain in 1972. Rollie Massimino was his freshman coach at Penn.
"By the time I was a senior, I had the best seat in the house, right next to Chuck Daly at the Palestra for every game," Stefanski said of his college playing career.
During summers while he was at Penn, Stefanski worked at Atlantic City in the racing department. He eventually became a small partner in Levy's 1987 Belmont Stakes winner Bet Twice, the colt that finished second in that year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
The Bet Twice entourage grew with each success, but Stefanski was there from the start. He was strong into the mortgage business by then, raising his four young boys with wife Karen. He was a senior vice president at Philadelphia Mortgage, run by La Salle grad Tony McDermott, then became president of his own mortgage company, Preferred Mortgage.
While he was raising a family and trying to make some money, he found time to coach at his alma mater for 4 years, winning the Catholic League championship with Rodney Blake in his final season, 1982-83.
He also was PRISM's longtime color commentator for Big 5 games and, eventually, did games for the Atlantic 10 network and ESPN.
When Penn was looking for a coach in 1989, Stefanski was on the search committee. He had gotten to know Fran Dunphy through Dunphy's high school and college classmate, McDermott.
Stefanski was helpful in Dunphy moving from an assistant's job at La Salle to the same job at Penn. When the Penn head-coaching job came open after Dunphy's one season there, Stefanski pushed hard for him.
"I remember him saying, 'You'd be great for it,' " Dunphy said. "I don't remember specifics. I am sure he must have said something in the meetings."
Turned out Stefanski got it exactly right. As calls go, that was hard to beat. Dunphy won a school-record 310 games at Penn in 17 seasons before taking the Temple job in 2006.
Stefanski was in business, but he never lost his love for basketball.
"The one thing I never lost was my desire and passion for basketball," Stefanski said at yesterday's introductory news conference.
When, in 1999, he told then-Nets general manager John Nash, a lifelong friend, that he wanted to get into the game full time, Nash hired him as his director of scouting.
Just that fast, at age 44, Stefanski gave up a safe business to explore his passion. He rose quickly through the ranks, eventually becoming the Nets' GM. New Jersey's runs to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003 had Stefanski's imprint all over them.
"Why did I come here?" Stefanski said. "It's easy to say you come home. But the 76ers are very close to my heart. Obviously, when I was a young kid growing up, you talk about tradition and heritage. My brother Buddy, when I was 10 years old, took me to Convention Hall. Back then, you could get close to the players."
Recalling watching the players come down the ramp, he said: "I would see Wilt Chamberlain go by. I'd see those white socks up to his knees. I'd see those rubber bands. You see Luke Jackson and Chet Walker, Wali Jones and Hal Greer making those 15-foot jumpers.
"The other thing, the smoke above Convention Hall was just hanging there. The excitement. They're my team. The Sixers. I root for the jersey . . .
"I'm a Philly guy through and through. I die with every Philadelphia team. They tease me up in [New Jersey] about my Philadelphia roots . . .
"I'm a Delaware County guy, as everybody knows from Bonner . . . To get to the University of Pennsylvania, to get to the Wharton School, it was a dream. It really helped me in the business world."
Stefanski was with the Nets, but he never left home. He commuted on the New Jersey Turnpike from Delaware County. He finally got an apartment this year, but it will go vacant now, as Stefanski's commute just got a good deal shorter. He has come full circle.
The room at the Wachovia Center was filled with people he has known for years. Fred Shabel, vice chairman for Comcast-Spectactor, is a former Penn athletic director who played at Duke and was the head coach at Connecticut. He knows his hoops, and Stefanski mentioned him prominently yesterday.
"I told Shabel for 5 years he should have hired him," Levy said. "He finally figured it out. I said, 'You blew this. You had Stefanski in your own back yard. You missed him.' "
Levy has Sixers tickets. Lately, they have gone mostly unused, as the Wachovia Center, the hottest place anywhere in 2000-01, has become a basketball mausoleum.
"I'm going to start going now," Levy said.
If only Stefanski's friends start going, attendance might increase by 50 percent overnight. If Stefanski finds a way to draft a player from among O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, Eric Gordon or Derrick Rose and follows that with a major free-agent signing, Levy and the rest of Stefanski's friends will have a lot of company. *
Daily News sports writers Phil Jasner and Ted Silary contributed to this report.