Jim O'Brien coached the 76ers in 2004-05. One and done, abruptly fired despite two guaranteed seasons remaining on his contract. Yesterday, perched on a table in the practice gym in Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Samuel Dalembert sounded as if he would have gladly driven the moving van.
Dalembert had his sore left shoulder wrapped. His emotions, though, were laid bare. He said there was no question whether he would play tonight against the host Indiana Pacers, now coached by O'Brien, back in the NBA after a two-season hiatus.
This will be the Sixers' first meeting against a team coached by O'Brien, the onetime star at Roman Catholic High and Saint Joseph's University and the son-in-law of Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay.
"I have to," he said. "It's personal."
Because . . . ?
"I'm saying nothing," he said. "I just have to play."
And then . . .
"I could be on crutches and I'd play," he said. "I could shoot myself and play."
Some of the Sixers remaining from that team, notably Kyle Korver, recall O'Brien fondly. Not Dalembert.
"It wasn't a pleasant [experience]," he said. "But, God bless him, he got a job."
Dalembert sounded as if he will forever wonder who determined that he would have a major role in the first-round playoff series that season against the Pistons, O'Brien or someone above him. Asked whether that might have been then-president/general manager Billy King, he declined to answer.
Still, he couldn't say it was surprising when O'Brien was fired, immediately replaced by current coach Maurice Cheeks.
"Not surprising, because there was so much going on I didn't want to be involved in outside of basketball," Dalembert said.
It was a rewarding season for some, because the Sixers won 43 games, 10 more than the previous season under Randy Ayers and Chris Ford, and because they reached the postseason. They had not gotten there the previous season and have not been back since.
It was a rewarding season for Dalembert, because - despite the presence of Allen Iverson - he was their best player as they were eliminated by Detroit in five games. The 6-11 center went from there to the negotiating table, where he and agent Marc Cornstein eventually came away with a 6-year contract worth $64 million.
"I look at [tonight] like another game I just have to go and play hard, but it's a little bit more than that," said Dalembert, who has 66 rebounds and 21 blocked shots in the last six games. "They have the coach who was with us before. We just have to go out there and prove ourselves."
Looking back, Dalembert said of O'Brien's firing, "For the organization, it was a smart decision they made."
"He was winning, but a lot of guys didn't get along with him," he said. "I just was waiting for my name to be called and go out and do the best I [could]."
But as effective as Dalembert was in the playoffs, he hasn't forgotten being surprised at the role he was given - significantly more, he thought, than during the regular season.
"If you believe in me, if you're so confident in me to put me in the playoffs, it's like putting you in the mouth of a lion, or the front line of a battle," he said. "That was what worried me. Whose decision was it? . . . I think it was something that needed to be done, [but it was like] 'OK, let's see what he can give us?' Throughout the season, it wasn't the same."
A source familiar with the situation said it was O'Brien's decision to play Dalembert extensively in the postseason.
The rest of the players remaining from that season - Korver, Andre Iguodala, Willie Green and Kevin Ollie - remember O'Brien as defense-oriented, demanding, single-minded and almost uniquely statistics-conscious. O'Brien hasn't spoken substantively to the Philadelphia media since his firing.
Iguodala, the first-round draft choice in O'Brien's season, recalls "hard shootarounds" and having to tape his ankles for those sessions, uncommon in the league.
"His defensive philosophy was really strict, and everything was done one way," Iguodala said. " . . . I really hadn't seen the business side of basketball. That was my first taste of it. I was excited just to be in the NBA. I was happy being here; I was getting a lot minutes. I enjoyed my rookie year a lot. Anything that was negative, I didn't pay much attention to." *