The year was 2001, months before the 76ers would galvanize a city with a rare combination of heart and tenacity, propelling the team to heights unseen since its halcyon days nearly two decades earlier. Inside Gustine Lake, a dilapidated gymnasium, never to be associated with affluence, was a potpourri of Philadelphia stars in attendance looking to hone its skills, determined to make itself better - and leaning on John Hardnett, who left us last week.

Aaron McKie was there one minute. Some no-name the next. Then there was Eddie Jones or Doug Overton, followed by another no-name. On more than a few occasions, Allen Iverson showed up, too. On time and ready!

"And do whatever we asked him to do," Hardnett always told me. "This is a game, but this ain't no joke. You show up here to get better. To be better. To do anything else is to waste my time. Worse, it wastes the time of guys here trying to better themselves. And that ain't happening. Plain and simple."

It's easy to remember that quote, like so many others, because John Hardnett, 56, was not a man to be forgotten. And as these words are being written - with a heavy, aching heart - just days after he was found dead in his apartment, the only solace that exists right now is knowing that I am not alone.

Philadelphia lost someone special last week, and it isn't just a linchpin figure within this city's basketball community. It lost a dear friend to some, a big brother to many. And while it's true that Hardnett was gifted and knowledgeable about the hardwood, he was so much more significant to so many others.

His departure is difficult to comprehend.

"I don't know if people will ever realize how special John was," said Delaware coach Monte Ross, former assistant under Phil Martelli at St. Joseph's University. "You can't just think about the lives he's touched, you've got to think about the impact he had.

"I didn't just play for him, I became a coach because of him. So did Doug Overton, Bruiser Flint. Aaron McKie. Geoff Arnold. He taught us the game. He taught us about life. He taught us how to impact others coming up, to convince them to want to do more than just play the game. In fact, he demanded that we extend ourselves and give back in any way that we could. He asked us, 'What are you really?' if you choose not to do that."

As year after year went by, seemingly everything changed. The players. The coaches. The commitment that came with it. But Hardnett, never shy about who he was or what he wanted to be, never changed.

You could always count on seeing Hardnett at Gustine Lake or the old McGonigle Hall. For more than 25 years, he was affiliated with the Sonny Hill league, first as a coach, then as a coordinator for the all-star game, then the Commissioner of the Hank Gathers' College League.

"John Hardnett is another severe loss for our league," Philadelphia's own Sonny Hill explained. "Whenever we lose someone of that magnitude, you lose a big void in your program. I'm a down-home boy. When you lost somebody in the past, there was always someone who stepped in and filled that void. In today's time, when you lose someone of his magnitude, you don't fill that void, because it's not just about the game of basketball. It's about the game of life. John was special in so many ways. We'll all miss him, dearly."

Absolutely.

Hardnett's contributions will be missed. So will his friendship. His guidance. His candor. His realness. And there's no doubt those points will be made this week when his life is celebrated by Philadelphia's own basketball dignitaries.

Don't be surprised to see anyone who matters in attendance. From Martelli to Jay Wright to Larry Brown himself. How can any of them avoid paying their final respects.

"I'll be there. I have to be. It's not about what he meant to the Sixers or any other team or program in Philadelphia. It's about what he meant to the game of basketball," former Sixers coach Larry Brown said. "John was incredible. He was a selfless guy. He loved the game. He loved our kids. He loved the sport, and he displayed just that every moment I was blessed to be around him. The game has suffered a tremendous loss."

Amen.

Contact columnist Stephen A. Smith at 215-854-5846 or sasmith@phillynews.com.