Attendance was lagging, the team was struggling, and the relevance was dwindling.

Those are just some of the reasons the 76ers yesterday made a change at the top, introducing local product Ed Stefanski as their new president and general manager before an overflow news conference at the Wachovia Center.

Stefanski replaced Billy King, who had become a lightning rod for criticism.

"There were a bunch of factors," Sixers chairman Ed Snider said in explaining why the 53-year-old Stefanski was named the team's 11th general manager. "Basically, we felt we had to have someone come in and lead us in a different direction."

The direction the team had been going was south, and not just this year during a dispirited 5-12 start.

Since going to the NBA Finals in the 2000-01 season, the Sixers have won just one playoff series. They have failed to qualify for the playoffs the previous two years and three of the last four.

In addition, those empty seats at the Wachovia Center were the fans' way of making a statement. The Sixers are 29th this season in the 30-team NBA in attendance, averaging just 11,960 per game.

So the Sixers brought in Stefanski, who has enjoyed an improbable journey, swiftly moving up in NBA circles.

At the age of 44, Stefanski gave up a successful and lucrative career in the mortgage business to enter the uncertain world of the NBA.

He was hired by his friend and fellow Monsignor Bonner High graduate, John Nash, as a scout for the New Jersey Nets. At the time, Nash was the Nets' general manager.

"He took a major pay cut to come work for us," Nash said.

Stefanski quickly made his imprint with the Nets and by 2004 was elevated to the role of general manager, a position he held until his hiring by the Sixers.

"He is the best talent evaluator I ever met," said Nash, who provides commentary for Comcast SportsNet.

Stefanski's hiring by the Sixers goes well beyond his ability to spot talent.

As president of the team, he will get to put his degree from Penn's Wharton School to good use. Peter Luukko, president and COO of Comcast-Spectacor, the owner of the Sixers, said that Stefanski's business acumen was as impressive as his ability to evaluate players.

"Ed was very, very successful in the mortgage business," Luukko said. "We see him leading our business side and working with our people as we sell tickets, sponsorships and [do] promotions."

Stefanski, who played for the Penn Quakers in the 1970s, grew up a Sixers fan and talked yesterday about watching Wilt Chamberlain play at old Convention Hall.

Of course, there are no Wilt Chamberlains on this team, but Stefanski is known around the NBA as sort of a risk-taker. He'll need to gamble to have the Sixers return to respectability.

In the NBA, turning around a losing franchise is often a laborious task. The Sixers are expected to be well under the salary cap after the season, and they hope to sign a veteran free agent power forward with the extra dollars.

They will probably also have another high draft choice, and with Stefanski's reputation as a gambler probably won't be shy about making a trade.

"The draft, free agency, trades, we will look at every option available," Stefanski said. "And I'm not averse [to] making change."

Teams make changes all the time in the NBA. They have to be productive moves. If not, the Sixers could remain in that sub-.500 terrain for some time.

Since 2000, Stefanski has worked under Nets president Rod Thorn, the man who drafted Michael Jordan when he was general manager of the Bulls.

"Rod has been a mentor to me," Stefanski said. "Being with him on a daily basis, I feel more than ready to be the caretaker for the 76ers."

Thorn said yesterday in a phone interview that he hated to see Stefanski leave, but he realized that it was a great opportunity to run the show for his hometown team.

"I can't say enough good things about him," Thorn said. "He was very instrumental in the success we had."

That success included two appearances in the NBA Finals and playoff appearances the last six years.

Stefanski said he would have an open mind heading into his new job. When asked about the job security of coach Maurice Cheeks, who is in the final year of his contract, Stefanski wasn't about to tip his hand.

"I am evaluating from top to bottom," he said. "I'm going to go in and talk to everyone and make evaluations as I go forward."

It pained Snider to part with King, whom he truly admired. Originally Snider had hoped that King would lead the team through a three-year plan that began with last December's trade of Allen Iverson.

"I hated seeing the beating he was taking, and it was getting worse, and that is a very hard way to do your job," Snider said.

Snider informed King before Monday's 88-79 loss at the Wachovia Center to the Atlanta Hawks.

"I lost sleep before telling him," Snider said.

King, telling Snider he didn't want to be a distraction, stayed the entire game. In fact, many of the players didn't find out until yesterday.

King is expected to hold a news conference today, but he lay low yesterday.

"I'm really not going to talk," King replied in an e-mail. "Will look to speak" today.

Snider and Luukko first met with Stefanski over the weekend after the Nets gave them permission to talk to him.

Most of the Sixers had the same reaction to King's firing.

"It was really tough," guard Willie Green said. "This was definitely unexpected."

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