WHEN HAROLD KATZ sold the 76ers in 1996, they were an organization that was struggling mightily to find wins and fans to fill the seats.

In came Comcast-Spectacor, chairman Ed Snider, president Pat Croce and marketing and business guru Dave Coskey. Five years later, the Sixers were battling the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Could the Sixers be looking at a similar resurgence with the impending sale of the team to a group led by Joshua Harris, a Wharton graduate reportedly worth $1.5 billion?

They still are struggling to fill the seats, but are coming off a season marked by the enthusiasm brought by new coach Doug Collins, a 14-game improvement to 41-41, and a return to the playoffs. The Sixers have won only one playoff series since that run to the 2001 Finals.

"This is a great time to be taking over that franchise, a perfect time," said Croce, who stepped down from his presidency following the 2001 season after being denied a bigger part of the company. "I think if you get bought by a passionate owner, who is into it 100 percent, I think it's great. Ed Snider has his personal choice and that is the Flyers. You want that owner who is dedicated, who has leadership, who will bleed red, white and blue . . .

"With Doug Collins as coach, you can smell the success. You can't beat the city of Philadelphia or the fans."

The expected sale to Harris, 46, a co-founder of New York-based Apollo Global Management, and partners David Blitzer, an executive in the London office of private investment giant the Blackstone Group, and former player agent and Sacramento Kings executive Jason Levien comes at a time when the franchise is moving back toward Collins' oft-stated goal of being relevant.

"Doug Collins has energized the organization this past year and now you might get new owners," Coskey said. "It could be the best of both worlds. You have the best-operated building in the country in the Wells Fargo Center and now new people and a new outlook."

It is expected the sale will be completed within 2 weeks. With the team staying in the same city and continuing to play in the same building, it would appear to be an easier transaction than if multiple cities or arenas were involved. After the lawyers for both sides iron out all the details, the sale would have to be voted on by the NBA's Board of Governors with approval from three-quarters of the 30 teams in the league required.

The structure and price of the deal is not known, but a source said Snider will retain about a 10 percent financial stake with no management responsibilities. It is unclear how much of a stake, if any, Comcast will retain.

In January, Forbes valued the Sixers at $330 million, 17th in the league. That was a drop of 4 percent from the previous year.

ESPN.com first reported details of the sale yesterday morning.

Comcast-Spectacor president Peter Luukko released a statement yesterday that did not acknowledge a potential sale, but referenced "discussions about the future of the team."

"These discussions are confidential and we cannot talk about the details," he said in the statement. "At some point, we may have something more to say about these discussions, but we will not be making any comments at this point."

The franchise has appeared to have a "For Sale" sign hung around it for quite some time, with widespread speculation that Snider was looking to sell.

In March, when approached by the Daily News about a potential sale, Luukko said in a statement that "we emphasize that we have not received any offer to purchase the 76ers and no decision has been made to sell the team."

After the Flyers and Sixers were eliminated in the postseason, Snider was asked by Daily News columnist Sam Donnellon to confirm the speculation. "You've got a reporter on it," he said coyly. "Let me know what he finds out."

Dating back to 2006, when the Sixers were being pursued by multiple groups, the team said it sent all suitors to Galatioto Sports Partners, a New York-based sports investment firm. Sal Galatioto, the company president, said he could not comment when reached yesterday.

On the basketball side, Sixers president Rod Thorn said it was business as usual for the team for now and added: "I'm not involved. When and if something happens, I'm sure I'll be aware."

Of course, a new owner with a different vision could change things, both on and off the court.

"I think new ownership can always be one of those positive moments," said Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative. "It can have the impact of new excitement, new spending and a new plan."

Any plans could potentially be put on hold by a possible lockout in the NBA. The collective bargaining agreement expires June 30 and commissioner David Stern has said he doubts that a deal could happen before then, although the sides have been negotiating during the NBA Finals.

According to the league, 22 teams are expected to lose money, and Stern has said the league could lose $300 million this season. The Sixers are among those teams.

But both Coskey and Croce think the future could be bright for a new era of Sixers' success.

"I think the world of Comcast-Spectacor as a company," said Coskey. "I've been a fan since I worked there and continue to be one. One interesting thing that might come out is that any time there's folks bringing new enthusiasm, not that those who are there now don't have enthusiasm, but it also brings excitement.

"I know what it was like in 1996 - the sky was the limit."

Added Croce: "I think it's great. The new owners will know that the fans are out there. They may be a little dormant now, but they are out there."

Daily News staff writer Bill Bender contributed to this report.