ED STEFANSKI has been here for 18 months, but he has also been here forever. The Sixers' president knows all about the target being drawn on his back because, well, just because. Even though he can't see it, he knows the target is getting bigger, too. The man has an exquisite bull's-eye detector.

"Of course," he said, laughing, on the day that the hiring of coach Eddie Jordan was made official.

"I don't think I ever got a honeymoon," Stefanski said. "It's funny - when I came in here, I traded one of the favorite players in Kyle [Korver]. If I wanted a honeymoon, I wouldn't have traded Kyle Korver. Now, people forget. Why did I trade Kyle? Well, we got Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams on the court. Sometimes you have to do that.

"People forget that when I came in here, we changed the style of play, and we weren't as good a basketball team but we made the playoffs. We've made the playoffs 2 years in a row. Now, obviously, it's not good enough for me, either. We've got to get to the next step.

"But as said, I'm born and raised here," he said. "I understand it. I tried to explain to every applicant. As Eddie said, 'You can make it here, you can make it anywhere.' "

The hiring of Jordan has been met with shrugs, or worse, by some. It is less a reflection of the man than of the perception that the Sixers are stuck in the NBA's version of the upper middle class - pretty good but not likely good enough to be great. And that is mostly a reflection of the NBA's arcane salary rules, which make it so hard to take that next step.

But that is Stefanski's job, to make it work. So far, in those 18 months, he has had three coaches and two playoff appearances. He has seen his star acquisition, Elton Brand, essentially miss the season with a shoulder injury. He has seen his roster continue to lack a shooter and continue to be stuffed with slashing small forwards. People cannot see the next step forward.

That is what the reaction to Jordan has been about - and this: the notion that this hiring has been in the bag since Jordan and Stefanski worked together with the New Jersey Nets.

(Or maybe longer? The date was Dec. 11, 1975. The place was Madison Square Garden. Rutgers beat Penn that night in the second game of a doubleheader, 95-80. Jordan scored two points for the Scarlet Knights, Stefanski no points for the Quakers. "None?" Stefanski said, wincing and then laughing. "What can I say? We were point guards.")

Anyway, people think the fix was in. The rest of the interviews were a sham - right, Ed?

"Six years, I never saw the guy once personally," Stefanski said. "It was a process. I told him, with Sacramento, if there's an opportunity, don't wait on me. I know what I did and I feel good about the process . . .

"I'm never going to convince people of anything, but I told him, 'If there's an opportunity, don't wait on me - go.' So if he was my guy, this is a great conspiracy theory and we should make this a movie."

One more bit of housekeeping. Some people say that Jordan was a good fit because Washington is essentially paying part of his salary this season because it still owes him money, that finances limited the field of potential candidates. Stefanski says no.

"Never," he said. "[Sixers chairman] Ed Snider said, 'If you find a coach you want, we will do whatever it takes.' He said the same thing, basically, when we got Elton Brand. The money was never a factor."

Stefanski says he likes Jordan's motion offense, likes his enthusiasm, thinks his players will fit the system. He says he cannot make wholesale changes on the roster, that all the collective bargaining agreement allows for is "tweak, tweak, tweak." He also says he continues to look for shooters.

"Is this the final product? No way," he says.

Because it is about the players most of all, and Stefanski knows it. Asked at one point if Jordan was the kind of coach who could get the Sixers over the hump, Stefanski said, "Well, I wish Eddie was LeBron James or the monster down in Orlando [Dwight Howard]."

That isn't the coach's problem, though. It is the problem of the guy with the bull's-eye on his back. *

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