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Sixers step up and score big

It isn't hard to calculate how long the 76ers had gone since making a move as aggressive and promising as yesterday's signing of power forward Elton Brand.

It isn't hard to calculate how long the 76ers had gone since making a move as aggressive and promising as yesterday's signing of power forward Elton Brand.

Take the most aggravating number in Philadelphia sports - 25, the years since the city's last major sports championship - and add one. You get 26, the number of years since the Sixers acquired Moses Malone.

This is not coincidental. The deal for Malone in the summer of 1982 led directly to the parade down Broad Street in the spring of 1983. This is the franchise's boldest stroke since then.

There is a catch. In Philadelphia, there is always a catch.

Malone was brought in to complete a team that included Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones, and a point guard by the name of Maurice Cheeks. Without Moses, the Sixers were contenders. With him, they instantly became the best team in the NBA.

The 6-foot-8 Brand can't complete this puzzle because it's still being assembled. But he does give the Sixers a fantastic centerpiece to build around.

"It could be - not could be, it's going to be - very exciting," Ed Stefanski, the team's president and general manager, said during the downright giddy news conference introducing Brand. "I like to think we compete with whatever team we have out there, but I feel a lot better having Elton Brand behind me. "

This was a grand slam for the Sixers. They went into this free-agency period with carefully created space under the salary cap. That money had to be burning a hole in Stefanski's pocket. He brought Josh Smith, Atlanta's restricted free agent, in for a visit. That would have been a very good pickup, too, but Atlanta's right to match any offer made it riskier.

When the Los Angeles Clippers managed to insult and alienate Brand - their best player during this entire decade - there was an opportunity. Stefanski, who showered credit among the Sixers' personnel and business people, was smart, aggressive, and just a little bit lucky, too.

Brand wanted to come East. He wanted to play for a team he believed he could help become a contender. And, to be sure, he wanted a big pile of money. But the first two considerations led him to pass on an even bigger pile of money offered by the Golden State Warriors - who had a bit more cap room.

You had to like Brand's reasoning there.

"The Sixers gave everything they could," Brand said. "Another team, that I passed on, didn't come close to that. The team that gave everything they could - even though it's less - those were the kind of people I want to work for and work with. "

OK, it's not as if Brand agreed to a vow of poverty to come here. He took $82 million when he could have gotten $90 million. He, his wife, and the baby they're expecting in September will be able to scrape by on that. But Brand still left $8 million on the table.

That is not a small thing. Neither is leaving sunny Southern California, home of Brand's second passion, the movie business, for the gritty Northeast corridor.

"I'm better at playing basketball than at making movies," Brand said, quickly plugging the DVD edition of Rescue Dawn, the first major film he helped produce.

Sixers fans will root for Brand to win a mantel full of Oscars if he can just add a Larry O'Brien Trophy to the city's dusty collection of sporting hardware.

If he does, he will surpass Malone, since he'll be joining a less well-established team.

The fear, of course, is that he turns out more like another brazen-but-doomed Sixers off-season move. Brand missed most of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. That's a painful and debilitating injury for an elite athlete. So there is the chance that this isn't Moses Malone but is Jeff Ruland (in 1986), a good player who just didn't happen to have any cartilage in his knee.

If Brand winds up being less effective because of the injury, it won't be because the Sixers didn't do their due diligence. This isn't Freddy Garcia, the pitcher the Phillies acquired in a trade without checking on the condition of his shoulder. That mistake cost the Phillies a handful of losses and $10 million in salary, plus what it cost to pay Kyle Lohse to replace Garcia.

"I can't say much," Stefanski said, citing health-care privacy laws. "We had more than just our own medical people check him out. "

They were confident enough to invest $82 million. The Sixers got the kind of superstar player required to contend in the NBA. Players like Brand give you a chance to win championships.

Happily for Sixers fans, so do front offices bold enough to sign him.