THE 76ERS kept this as quiet as the Wachovia Center was becoming. They kept their lips sealed for about a week while the wheels turned internally. They knew they needed to change. They knew who they wanted in and who they wanted out, the timing be damned.

They had been told that they could get Ed Stefanski from the New Jersey Nets now, but that they couldn't get him later, not as the NBA draft and free agency moved closer. They went for it, surprising both Stefanski and Billy King. They told King before Monday night's loss to the Atlanta Hawks that his tenure as president and general manager was over. They introduced Stefanski yesterday as his successor.

King accepted his situation gracefully, telling chairman Ed Snider that he would maintain protocol, watch the game from a suite as he usually did, visit the locker room afterward and leave without comment. He didn't want to be a distraction on a night when he felt the Sixers had a chance to defeat the Hawks.

King, earning $1.75 million in the final season of his contract, said yesterday that he had decided not to speak publicly until at least today, allowing Stefanski to thoroughly enjoy his day in the sun.

The Sixers, as you know by now, couldn't win against the Hawks, which was ironic because it sometimes seemed as if King couldn't win for losing. The big winners were Stefanski, Delaware County born and bred, and the team's fan base, which had been screaming for change, for reasons to hope.

"I'm a Philly guy, through and through,'' said Stefanski, whose contract has been estimated at 5 years. "I die with every Philadelphia team . . . I'm a poster child for Philadelphia. I love this place. There's nothing like it.''

Stefanski, 53, a onetime guard at Monsignor Bonner High and Penn and a 10th-round draft choice of the Sixers in 1976, will determine the rest of the winners and losers. He said he will evaluate everyone - coaches, players, front-office staff, scouts, etc. - and make decisions as he goes along. That means that coach Maurice Cheeks, in the final season of his contract, is probably safe for a while. Asked about the status of executive vice president Larry Brown, a close confidant of Snider and King, Snider said that, too, was in the hands of the new president/GM.

Everyone, then, is up for debate, including Andre Iguodala, who walked away from a $57 million contract extension and cannot resume negotiations as a restricted free agent until July 1.

"I'm not averse to making change,'' Stefanski succinctly said.

When your team is 5-12, has lost 10 of 13 and is beginning to border on irrelevance in a sports city as passionate as Philadelphia, there is nothing to do but to change. It's not nearly enough that the Sixers play hard, that they practice hard, that they support their coach; they have to win. Without change, there seems little chance of that happening any time soon.

"I got a call from [Nets president] Rod Thorn about a week ago," Stefanski said. "I was totally surprised [that the Sixers were asking for permission to speak with me] because I wasn't looking for a new job and I was very comfortable there. But it's always flattering when someone else wants to come after you."

It was equally flattering that the team in East Rutherford, N.J., didn't necessarily want him to leave.

"He's made an unbelievable contribution to our organization,'' Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "He has been involved in every facet. He's as good a human being as there is. This sounds like a eulogy. He's going to be missed.''

Thorn and Nets owner Bruce Rattner were willing to let Stefan-ski, the team's GM, go because the job with the Sixers represented a promotion.

"Bruce Rattner told me if I didn't like what [the Sixers] had to say, he'd drive down and bring me back," Stefanski said.

Stefanski was willing to come because it was a promotion and because it was Philadelphia. He isn't sure he would have gone anywhere else.

"I won't say totally [that I wouldn't], but I think Philadelphia is the one team that I would want to [move to] in the middle of a season,'' he said. "I had a very high comfort level in New Jersey, but the chance of coming home to [work] for the franchise I grew up with, that's pretty special.''

Once the press conference was over, Stefanski went directly to the team's practice site at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, where he briefly met with the players and coaching staff.

"No question, the bottom line is personnel,'' he said. "You've got to get as high as you can get. We'll look at every option available.''

Even though the Sixers could have somewhere in the area of $14 million or more in salary-cap space in the summer, he said that would not stop him from making deals sooner, if possible. He established power forward and a scheme to improve scoring as priorities.

"It's risk/reward,'' he said. "Is it worth taking the [new] player on?''

He is all about risk/reward. He twice ran successful mortgage companies, and at 44 decided to follow a lifelong dream, accepting a scouting position offered by close friend John Nash, then the general manager of the Nets.

"I'm prejudiced,'' Nash said, "but if I were hiring, he's exactly the guy I would hire. He's incredibly bright, has a Wharton School education and a wealth of business savvy from his time in the mortgage industry. There were some raised eyebrows when I hired him with the Nets because he didn't have an extensive basketball resume, but he worked as a TV analyst and stayed in touch with the game. I always felt he was the best talent evaluator I ever met. He has an ability to get a good read on players, which is one of the most important ingredients in his job.''

Stefanski is also hands-on. He will be on the road with the Sixers. He will be on the road as a scout.

"With the Nets, he was probably in Europe as many times as he was in Wayne,'' said Speedy Morris, the St. Joseph's Prep coach and a close friend.

Why, Snider was asked, pull the trigger now? Why not before the last draft, or before the start of the season? There had been some belief that Snider and Comcast-Spectacor president and chief operating officer Peter Luukko would not make a change until after this season.

"We weren't expecting major things; the experts picked us for last place [in the East] before the season started," Snider said. "But we are disappointed in some of the things that have been happening. We needed a change. We just felt this organization needed a change.

"I'm the guy who made [King] president and general manager. It's just . . . there comes a time for change in every organization. This is the time, in our view. There's a lot of factors that went into it, and no specific reason. We're disappointed in our play so far this year. Not that we were going to set the world on fire, but [I hoped] that we were going to show progress. I don't think we're showing the kind of progress we hoped that we would.'' *