NEW YORK - There's a display dedicated to Philadelphia basketball in the new, ambitious Sports Museum of America. It features a wrinkle-free 1983 Sixers jersey worn by Julius Erving, a size-16 sneaker ('fo-times-'fo) that belonged to Moses Malone, a chunk of twine from the net cut down by Villanova's shock-the-world 1985 championship team.

And, tucked in a corner, a fan letter to Wilt Chamberlain, and his sincere reply. "Have respect for all," Wilt wrote in his bold, sprawling handwriting, "and demand the same for yourself."

The essence of the greatest basketball player ever, distilled to one rich, powerful sentence. A crisp lesson in the history of the game, a sour look at the preening, strutting charade it has become. A Dipper dunk!!!

There are 800 artifacts in this sleek, modern mother of all sports museums, and I liked Wilt's letter best, on the chance a kid will ask his dad: How good was Wilt and why did they change so many rules when he came along and why didn't he win as many titles as Bill Russell and how come you never see a photo of Wilt "snapping" his jersey?

That's what great museums do, they stimulate questions. The SmA is a very good museum, with a chance to be a great one. A man named Philip Schwalb had this dream, and after he maxed out four credit cards he finally found enough wealthy folks who shared his vision.

It's at 26 Broadway and if the neighborhood looks familiar it's because it's called the Canyon of Heroes and that's where they start ticker-tape parades when New York teams win something. Parades. Surely you remember parades?

Schwalb's formula is simple enough. Recruit the existing sports museums as partners, borrow some of their memorabilia, share the profits with them. Which partly explains the hefty admission fees, $27 for adults, $24 for seniors, $20 for kids 4-14.

It's easily reachable by subway (the 4 or the 5 to Bowling Green), located in a fascinating neighborhood emerging from the tragic World Trade Center rubble. It is not for the cynical or the rabble-rousers. Jesse Owens is featured in the Olympic section, with no sign of Tommie Smith or John Carlos thrusting black gloves toward the Mexico City sky.

"We'd rather focus on what's really beautiful and powerful and good," Schwalb has said. It's more Disney than dissonance, more Lefty Grove than left-of-center, more sunshine than shadow.

So you swallow hard when Negro League baseball is described as "a parallel universe" and hope the kid asks dad why are they standing in front of that battered bus and how good was Cool Papa Bell and if Josh Gibson hit all those home runs how come Jackie Robinson was the first black player in the National League?

Some of the descriptions need work. Alongside Joe Frazier's boxing shoes, it says, "Joe Frazier's strength took him from picking radishes for 15 cents a crate to Olympic glory in 1964." More than strength, son. Factor in determination, grit, hard work and pride. No shortcuts from Beaufort to Tokyo. None.

One item has to go, a chintzy replica of the Stanley Cup fashioned out of gray plastic bowls that Gary Bettman wouldn't use to feed his dog. But there are some remarkable items, too, including the flag that goalie Jim Craig wore after the U.S. hockey team beat Finland in the 1980 Olympics.

Feminists will gasp at the Barbie doll given to golfer Nancy Lopez by her parents. And grin when they read the accompanying card that says they also dug a sand trap in the yard for her to practice in.

There's boxing and college football and soccer and the sights and sounds of NASCAR. Best of all, there's all that interactive stuff, a chance to heft a discus or an A-Rod bat, peer through an NHL goalie's mask. And plenty of chances to find out how much or how little you really know about pro football or horse racing or famous knockdowns in boxing (did Jersey Joe Walcott beat the 10-count in his rematch with Rocky Marciano?)

There's a Lefty Grove cap and a Mike Schmidt bat, but not a lot of recent Philadelphia stuff. But you already knew that. *

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