THERE'S NO QUESTION that what Sixers ownership heard - the sound of sneakers in a half-empty arena - was as damning as what it saw during this season's first nine home games.

Average attendance before Wednesday's big house to see the Celtics was 11,960. That's last

in the Eastern Conference, ahead of only the New

Orleans Hornets (11,571) in the NBA, based on

figures released by SportsBusiness Daily earlier this week. And they have as far a climb out of

this cellar as they do in the division standings.

No game on the schedule is sold out, a Sixers

official said yesterday, although several could give the place the feel of the old days. Visits by the Lakers (Friday, Dec. 21), Heat (Wednesday, Dec. 26) and A.I.'s Nuggets (Wednesday, March 19) have been in the most demand.

Attendance leaguewide is down 5.7 percent in the East and 4.6 percent in the West,

so the Sixers aren't alone. The Timberwolves are forcing their fans who want to see the Celtics and Kevin Garnett's first return to Minneapolis to buy seats to two other games. Charlotte, pulling in fewer than 13,500, had a two-for-one ticket offer on Wednesday against the Bulls. Still, said sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, this isn't a story about the demise of the NBA.

"It's not as though basketball is about to be replaced by soccer as the third sport, but it is a story about the doldrums," he said earlier this week. "It's in part, at least attributable, I think, to terrible management of the franchise in New York. And secondarily perhaps to the failure of franchises in Philadelphia, the fourth-largest market, and, since [Michael] Jordan has retired . . . in Chicago, the third-largest media market."

In short, you're not the only ones hoping this franchise finds its way again. An NBA, treading water in popularity, has as much at stake.

"You know, you have great franchises in San Antonio and smaller cities, which is great," Zimbalist said. "Nice to see smaller cities have success. But, if they're the ones that carry the story year after year, eventually the league will suffer." *

- Paul Vigna

Panel comments on the Sixers, NFL at go.philly.com/yawn

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