Although the 76ers' path to relevance remains uphill, there is now a man to follow, a star player to be hopeful of, and a season to anticipate instead of dread.

A week ago, none of that existed.

A week ago, there were more than a half-dozen coaching candidates, a seemingly never-ending tunnel of mediocrity, and a general manager whose status was like a jump ball: up in the air.

Now there is Doug Collins as coach; the No. 2 pick in the 2010 NBA draft - a.k.a. Evan Turner - as potential star player, and Ed Stefanski as the decision-maker with a newfound sense of security.

How did this happen?

It started Dec. 13, 2008.

On that Saturday morning, hours before the Sixers defeated the Washington Wizards at the Wachovia Center, Stefanski fired coach Maurice Cheeks. Soon after, Stefanski received a call from Collins' longtime agent, John Langel.

The conversation was simple: I represent Doug, and if at any time you're interested in Doug, you know how to reach me.

A return call never came.

Instead, the phone call went to Eddie Jordan, who then stumbled through a disastrous 27-55 season and (if you're willing to offer a smidge of mercy, as most Sixers fans are this week) delivered the franchise enough Ping-Pong balls to upgrade to the No. 2 pick in last week's draft lottery.

Stefanski, who had unanimous support for Jordan's ill-fated hiring, fired Jordan on April 15, about 14 hours after Jordan coached the season's final game in Orlando, Fla.

Two days later, Stefanski called Langel - it was the first phone call of Stefanski's second coaching search in as many years.

This conversation also was simple: Would Doug still be interested?

Langel phoned his client, relaying Stefanski's question.

Yes, Collins remained interested.

There were really only two teams Collins wanted to coach: the 76ers or the Chicago Bulls. He had played his entire NBA career with the Sixers, and he'd grown up in Illinois. Since 2003, his most recent NBA coaching gig, Collins received more than one coaching offer. And between his jobs with the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, a period spanning three years, Collins had offers as well.

Collins had said "no" in the past.

But this time, he wanted the Sixers' job. People in the franchise said his desire for the job, his enthusiasm became contagious. Considering that a few months earlier, the Sixers - both players and coach - looked as if they'd rather be stuck in traffic than playing basketball, the hiring of someone who feels grateful for the gig is revitalizing.

On April 21, Stefanski received permission from Sixers ownership to schedule a meeting with Collins. Stefanski and Collins scheduled a meeting for May 1 at Collins' home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The Sixers' contingent of Stefanski, assistant general manager Tony DiLeo, and team consultant Gene Shue stayed overnight in Arizona on April 30 and arrived at Collins' home the next morning, staying five hours, and talking basketball and strategy over lunch.

The topics included: How to rejuvenate power forward Elton Brand; the possibility of turning Andre Iguodala into an all-NBA defender; how to use Thaddeus Young as both a small forward and power forward to stretch defenses with his versatility and smoothness; and what to do with center Samuel Dalembert, whose aloofness has become as commonplace as his blocked shots.

But, before any of those, the topic was defense and returning an athletic team to its trademark of creating turnovers and transitioning.

"Extreme knowledge of our team" was how those inside the Sixers described Collins.

When it was over, Collins told Langel that it was a great meeting and that he hoped the Sixers felt the same.

Langel said Collins was not concerned with Stefanski's job status, which in early May looked precarious. In fact, Collins said he hoped Stefanski would remain in his position.

Because of the Jordan debacle - a "bad pick" by all involved, according to those responsible - the Sixers believed that they had little room for creativity this time around. That's why initial reports indicated the franchise was poised to reach out to former coach Larry Brown. When those reports became circus-like, with talks of a full-blown takeover by Brown, the team was dissuaded from contacting him.

During late April, the Sixers were reminded of what life with Brown could be like.

Interviews were granted to up-and-coming NBA assistant coaches Monty Williams, Dan Majerle, Elston Turner, and Bill Laimbeer, but the organization felt pressured to hire a veteran coach. Sure, uncovering a No. 2 assistant who becomes the league's next brilliant head coach would be a coup, but if that No. 2 proved to be a dud as the leading man, the team would spiral further downward.

For those at the top, the risk was too great. There were too many fired coaches already on the payroll.

Immediately after the meeting in Scottsdale, Collins had only one request of Stefanski: If at any point in the process you lose interest, just let me know.

The opposite happened.

Stefanski called Langel two days after the interview, May 3, and suggested that the two sides stay in touch. Every other day - through six more interviews - Stefanski kept returning to Collins.

Last weekend, when Stefanski went to management to recommend Collins, the decision was unanimous among Stefanski, DiLeo, and Shue - Collins was the person they wanted.

On Monday, while Collins was preparing as a TNT analyst for the Western Conference finals, Stefanski called Langel to say he had been granted permission to make an offer. The same day, the Sixers put out word that they were preparing to offer a second round of interviews to Collins, Avery Johnson, and Sam Mitchell.

There were reasons for the secrecy. If the Collins negotiation broke down, the Sixers didn't want the next candidate to feel like the runner-up choice. Collins, working on TV for TNT, didn't want to become the story. And Comcast-Spectacor likely wanted to avoid answering questions about its financial dedication to the Sixers if a deal wasn't worked out.

After each TNT telecast, Langel said Collins would call him, thankful his own negotiation hadn't become the story.

The Sixers' initial offer needed work, but both sides were "playing in the same arena," according to a source.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, negotiations bounced between the two sides at the same time those Ping-Pong balls were bouncing in the Sixers' favor.

Langel said that even before that stroke of lottery-day luck, Collins knew Philadelphia was the right place for him, the right team for him to coach.

The No. 2 pick was just the icing on the cake, or the high-flying slam at the end of a well-played fastbreak.

On Thursday, the deal was done: Doug Collins would become the 23d head coach in franchise history.

There are plenty of potholes still to be filled, but heading into the 2010-11 season, a few issues have been resolved. There will be a head coach with a strong resumé. There almost certainly will be a talented rookie who belongs on the team's marquee. And there likely will be Stefanski, still at the helm.

A week ago, you couldn't say any of that.

Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at 856-779-3844 or kfagan@phillynews.com.