Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Think today's 76ers are bad?

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, in a land of elongated adolescents, there performed a professional basketball team that perfected the art of losing . . .

The late Roy Rubin lasted just 51 games in 1972-73, going 4-47 with a 9-73 Sixers team.
The late Roy Rubin lasted just 51 games in 1972-73, going 4-47 with a 9-73 Sixers team.Read moreInquirer File Photo

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, in a land of elongated adolescents, there performed a professional basketball team that perfected the art of losing . . .

. . . on purpose.

The Philadelphia 76ers is their name and surrendering is their game.

In three lamentable and shameful seasons they have managed to make a mockery of the sport by employing a tactic called tanking, named in honor of those athletes (most especially boxers), who swoon over one of those carnival dunking tanks full of water and pocket a fistful of unmarked bills for their thespian labors.

The Surrendering Sixers' strategy is to take advantage of the league rule rewarding teams with the worst records with the best chances for high draft picks. But in order to be good eventually you must first be bad. The Sixers have that bad part down pat. But despite their most determined efforts, you may be surprised to learn, none of the last three Sixers teams, woeful they may be, are holders of the all-time, single-season-record for losses.

From time to time someone will make a run at them but peter out in the stretch. Hey! It's not easy being bad. Witness:


It looks like part of a zip code. Or a phone number. Or a safe combination. Or a formula. Or a measurement. Or a date. It is none of these, of course, rather the Sixers' record for the 1972-73 season.

(It is daunting enough when studied on a piece of paper, but to get the true measure of its impact you have to have lived, and died, with it. Which I did in bits and fragments. I promised our family this would be the last time we would move. "And where we're going there's nothing but winners," I trumpeted. "Yes, sir . . . winners . . . winners . . ." They still haven't forgiven me completely.)

Shoot till you miss

They opened with 15 losses and with absolutely nothing to suggest it would get better. The coach was Roy Rubin, straight from the low minors, Long Island University, a Division III school. From D-3 to the NBA is a quantum leap. Roy knew basketball, but he didn't know pro players. The first time he assembled the team he ordered four straight hours of weights, aerobics, and a two-mile run. More weights in the afternoon, topped by a full-scale 48-minute game, by which time they were running on their tongues.

Roy was a nice man whose logic escaped them, as when he interrupted a fast break to admonish a player who had just missed a lay-up: "If you're not going to make it, then don't shoot it."

Uh-huh, . . . wait, say what?

Roy lasted 51 games. Four and 47. He lost 45 pounds. The night they broke a losing streak he got so worked up he leaped to dispute a call and tore a muscle in his leg. While the rest of them were celebrating in their locker room, their coach was soaking his leg in a bucket of ice.

Years later, as the Sixers were moving in on Win No. 9, Roy admitted he had started rooting against them. "Nothing personal. I don't have any records."

Stick 'em up

His name was John Q. Trapp, and he was large and menacing and the prudent move was a wide berth around Big John. Said Alan Richman, who covered those Sixers: "What a scary fellow. Let me put it this way - I came back from Vietnam a captain with a Bronze Star, and I was scared of John Q. Trapp."

There was cause for that fear, and it became evident during a Sixers-Detroit Pistons game, the 31st loss of the season, and Roy Rubin attempted to substitute for John Q. But John Q. indicated he didn't want to come out, and he indicated to Roy to look behind the bench at a cadre of John Q.'s pals, and one of them opened his coat to flash a gun.

"The guy had a gun," said Al Domenico, the Sixers' longtime trainer. "We all saw it. He opened his coat, showed the gun, put it back, and that was it. John Q. stayed in the game. He was playing well. When you're with a team that bad, you don't know what the hell to do. We were all laughing."

John Q. Part 2

Al Domenico: "When John Q. played for L.A., he told us they had a team rule that if you were late for a team bus or plane, you got fined . . . a stiff one. So John Q. was running late after one of their games and knew he wouldn't make it, and he stopped his car at the airport, walked in, and called the airline and told them there was a bomb on the plane. They searched the plane for an hour. John Q. arrived on time and didn't have to pay the fine, and we're sitting there aghast. He told us the story like he was really proud of it. A lot of crazy things happen when you're losing."

Hello, Neighbor

For much of the wretched season, Leroy Ellis was our next-door neighbor. He was traded to Philadelphia from L.A., which meant he was shipped from the team with the best record to the team with the worst, in the same season. The Lakers finished with 69 wins, which stood as a record for 24 years. Our paths crossed frequently, and Ellis wore that glazed look of a train-wreck survivor. Oh yes . . . another player was included in that deal . . . none other than John Q. Trapp.

Mad Dog

In the midst of all the rubble there stood one bright spot - Freddie Carter. He had the dubious honor of being the best player on the worst team. All you needed to know about how Freddie played the game was his nickname:

Mad Dog.

He averaged 20 points a night and ran the team with exuberance. Alas, most nights he was flogging a dead horse. But what was especially endearing was his forthrightness: "I wasn't good enough to make other guys better, or carry a team. I was good enough to play and score, but not good enough to carry a team."

At season's end, Mad Dog was called up to accept the team's MVP trophy.

He declined.

The long road back

Four years.

That's how long the Sixers went before finally recording a winning season.

Four years.

And after the season's merciful conclusion, Freddie Carter would say: "There were things that could only happen on a 9-and-73 team. We were the universal health spa. . . . We made everybody well."

Bill Lyon is retired Inquirer sports columnist.