YEAR AFTER YEAR, in press rooms from Olean to Morgantown and everyplace in between - but in the Palestra most of all - Ed Stefanski kept the dream alive. It took some doing.
By day, he built a business and raised four sons along with his wife, Karen. At night and on the weekends, he was an itinerant college basketball analyst on television. He did Big 5 games and Atlantic 10 games and all kinds of games, clearly loving it. When he wasn't behind a microphone, he would sometimes join his cohorts in the Penn basketball mafia in their seats in the south stands: Bob Levy, Phillies president David Montgomery, Gov. Rendell and the rest.
He had played at Monsignor Bonner and played at Penn and coached for a while at Bonner and did all of the TV work, but he needed more. The sport pulled at him like a magnet and, 9 years ago, he decided he could no longer resist.
"I dove in at 44 years old," Stefanski said yesterday, on the day when the Sixers announced him as their new president and general manager. "I took a very comfortable living and went to who-knows-what. People thought I was crazy to do it."
So, for people who merely see a Philly guy taking over the Sixers, that is natural enough. He is Ed or Eddie or Eddie The Shot, depending upon whom you ask - but everybody knows him and he knows everybody. When they announced Stefanski yesterday as Billy King's replacement, they unfurled the Philadelphia basketball tapestry for all to see - Fran Dunphy over there, Speedy Morris over there, John Nash over there, and on and on.
But to see him simply as a homeboy-come-home is to miss the essence of the man.
Because the Sixers hired a risk-taker yesterday, first and foremost - calculated risks, certainly, but risks. They hired a decision-maker. They hired a guy who had the guts to reinvent himself in his 40s, someone who sold his business and chased his dream, signing on as a scout to work for Nash and the New Jersey Nets and ending up as their general manager.
"When I dive into it, I don't mind," he said. "I'm a very, very positive person. When I wake up in the morning, I'm very happy I'm on this side of the grass. That's my motto, and I go from there."
He is walking into a disaster of a season that will be followed by an offseason filled with possibilities. Of course, the Sixers have to get from here to there - and when they turn down the music for a second at the Wachovia Center these days, it is so quiet you can hear the franchise value drop. It really is bad.
That the timing of King's firing was curious goes without saying. Dealt a lousy hand when he took the job, King did not play it well - that is true enough. But this season was about excavation and everyone knew it. It is awful, but awful was within the realm of expectations.
So, why now? The answers from team chairman Ed Snider were pretty unsatisfactory, but it is done. Now Stefanski gets to plot the reconstruction.
"I'm an aggressive guy but I'm not going to make a decision that doesn't make sense," he said. "I'm also a business person, so I do the pluses and minuses, the risk/rewards, and I make decisions that way.
"My perception [of the Sixers] is that they're young. My perception is that they're starting over. It's easy to second-guess or Monday-morning quarterback - as an Eagles fan, I do that every Monday to Andy Reid. That's easy. But it's hard, until I get into it, until I talk to everybody, [to know] the reasons behind some of the decisions. But if you look at NBA rosters, every one of them has a bad contract on the roster."
You ask him if he views what is ahead of him as a really hard job. He says this:
"I'm not a cocky guy. Hey, it's a task, it's a challenge - but what an opportunity. I mean, holy smokes. This is pretty good. This is pretty neat to me."
That is Stefanski, in a paragraph.
But this will be different for him. He knows it, too. Around here, he has always been just, well, Eddie. You will search a long time before you find somebody who doesn't like him. He played in this basketball community, he coached in this community, he was the voice and the face on your television for 20 years in this community.
Now he is going to run the Sixers.
People who run the Sixers get booed.
"Hey, I got booed at the Palestra," he said, laughing, recalling his playing days.
"I know the fan here, and I know everybody, and I know how it's going to be. We've got to win. I've got to put the best personnel on the floor. I know that. It's easy to second-guess, but that's it.
"To ask the fans to have patience, that's hard. Nobody wants to have patience. Coaches don't want to have patience - that's why they don't play rookies. I know all of those things. Hopefully we can come to some good decisions. I'm a common-sense type of person. I don't try to reinvent the wheel. I'm a very common-sense kind of guy."
But do not kid yourself: This man, living his dream, willing to dive into a new world 9 years ago to reach it, is defined by that professional risk. Do not forget that when Ed Stefanski starts moving the pieces around the board.