AMID THE WHIRRING of blenders and chatter of customers, Billy King sipped a sweetened iced tea at the Starbucks in Narberth. The evening before, the ex-Sixers executive had watched his former team lose its sixth consecutive game, an occurrence that would have caused him considerable consternation back when he was running the club. But circumstances are such now that he can click off the television, log an untroubled 8 hours of sleep, and get up early to take his 2 1/2-year-old daughter to the Please Touch Museum.
"I happened to run into Danny Ainge at the Duke-Villanova game," King says of the Boston Celtics general manager (who coincidentally would later be hospitalized with a heart attack). "And Danny looked at me and said, 'Why are you smiling?' And I told him, 'Because I'm not in your position. I'm enjoying life. You're winning and you look miserable!' "
Sixteen months have passed since Billy King walked out of his December 2007 meeting with owner Ed Snider, unemployed. As he looks back on it, he says the "timing" of the dismissal surprised him, given that the season was just 6 weeks old and that he and ownership seemed to be on the same page. But as president and general manager of the Sixers, King understood that letting people go was part of the deal in sports. He looked upon it as a chance to evaluate what he wanted to do. Some believed he was polished enough to try politics or that he would be an ideal candidate for a job in the league office. But while King had been perceived as an ascending star in the executive suite, he himself was not exactly sure if he wanted to work again in the NBA when the Sixers replaced him with Ed Stefanski.
Now he is.
He wants another NBA team to run.
"I am at a point where I am anxious to come back," says King, now 43, who at one point was the youngest executive in the NBA. "You do miss it. I miss the competitiveness involved in putting a team together, going to practice, [and] the ups and downs of a long season. I am anxious to come back."
No immediate openings appear on the horizon, but King says he plans to stay close to the game by doing some television work and possibly some scouting. The time off has given him a chance to assess his work during his 9 years running the Sixers, when the club ascended to the NBA Finals in 2001 but also struggled through a period of transition that led to the departure of superstar Allen Iverson. King says there are things he would do differently if he had the chance to do them over, beginning with the circumstances that led to the dismissal of head coach Randy Ayers in February 2004 after less than a year.
"I think it was unfair to give him Allen, Derrick Coleman and Glenn Robinson to coach," King said. "I think a veteran coach would have had a hard time managing these three difficult personalities. So it was unfair to ask a rookie coach in the league to work with them."
Iverson was a conundrum for King. On one hand, there were few players in the league who were as dynamic or played with such inexhaustible intensity. King understood his value to the team. But in order to rebuild the team for the long haul - which is to say, clear the cap space - King says it became clear that he would have to move Iverson. Two years before he shipped Iverson to Denver for a package that included point guard Andre Miller, King says he began entertaining offers for Iverson, whose erratic behavior off the floor had triggered what King remembers as some "very loud" conversations laced with language that "I would not want my mom to hear."
"I had hoped that I could do what Indiana had done, when they had Reggie Miller as the elder statesman and surrounded him with young players," King says. "But it became clear that that was not going to work. And I remember telling Ed [Snider], 'This is going to be a major trade. And we are looking at a 3-year process to get back to a point where we could compete for the playoffs.' Because even as you get the pieces you need, the players need to learn to play together."
King says that by the end Iverson and his teammates were "looking at each other on the court in disbelief." King adds, "When Allen had confidence in his teammates and he believed in his teammates, he played well and they played well. But when he no longer had confidence in his teammates, they sensed it and it became hard for them to work together as a team. I think Allen understood the time had come."
King is of the belief that Iverson still can be a starter in the league, despite the fact that his career has been in a slide since the Pistons acquired him from the Nuggets in November. Iverson bridled at being used as a reserve by the Pistons and was sent home before the playoffs with an alleged sore back. King says Iverson has to come to terms with the fact that his role has to change.
"Any player of his stature, it has to be hard when that happens," King says. "Guys who can adjust can play in the league a long time. Look at Reggie Miller. But Allen has to understand that he is not going to be the player who is going to take the most shots. He has to be able to say, 'My job is to be the leader and figure out how I can help the team win with my experience and knowledge.' "
Does Iverson have it in him?
King shrugs. "He has to come to that realization," he says. "If he wants to continue playing in the league, he has to adjust."
King says he learned something valuable from dealing with Iverson.
"You have to do your job rather than try to keep your job," says King, who found himself at odds with Iverson over his inability to show up for practice. "I was doing my job and there came a point where I was just trying to keep my job. And in doing so, what happens is that you turn your head in order to get another win. So what you do is compromise yourself."
King also says he would not have accepted the team presidency in May 2003. Having to do it over again, he would have just continued on as a general manager, the position he had been appointed to in May 1998. Says King, "It is truly impossible to do both jobs."
A hard part of losing his job was being cut off from acquaintances that had formed over a decade. While he stays in contact with Sixers coach Tony DiLeo, he has only been back to the Wachovia Center twice. He went to see his alma mater Duke play Temple and went to see Villanova in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He keeps up with the Sixers on television, but not with the same frequency that he did last year in the wake of his firing. "There was more of a connection with that team because I had gone to training camp with them," says King, who adds that he was proud of how the Sixers turned it around last year and ended up in the playoffs.
"Gov. Rendell saw me during the playoffs and said, 'This is almost like a public eulogy,' " King says. "But I was happy with the shape I left the organization in. They had cap room and some young players to build on - Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams. I feel I left the team with flexibility."
But it was good to "get off the treadmill." Running a pro team in any city is a challenge and nowhere is that truer than in Philadelphia, where King says he "dove right in" and called the radio shows to explain his point of view. Getting away from the game has allowed him to bond with his young children and has given him some perspective on the toll the job takes. He remembers having lunch with his wife Melanie and Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry last year during the playoffs.
"He was there with us physically but not mentally," King says of his former Duke teammate. "He was talking to us but he was somewhere else. I asked my wife later: 'Was that how I was?' And she said yep."
King chuckles and adds, "But I look forward to getting back in it. Once you are in it, it is hard to get it out of your blood." *