Sixth in a series of 25
THE SETUP: The Sixers were coming off a 6-year freefall in which their victory total dropped each season. The franchise was on life support and it needed an infusion of vitality. Enter Pat Croce.
WHEN IT came to being a pro sports franchise president, Pat Croce was a neophyte. Oh sure, he proved that he was one hell of an entrepreneur, turning his physical therapy business into a $40 million pay day. But his strengths were his boyish charm, his charisma and his persistence. He used all of those traits to convince Harold Katz to sell the team to him and the group from Comcast Spectacor.
"I knew [Katz] and I would always, kiddingly, say, 'Harold, if you're ever going to sell [the team], sell to me.' And he'd say, yeah, kid, get outta here.
"One day, though, I called him and he said no about 50 times. And I'd stay on top of him.
"The team was losing, the team was [bad]. It was just perfect timing. It was a dream come true to be able to move from the training room to the board room. It proves to anyone that anything is possible."
Croce instantly brought an energy that the franchise so sorely needed. People were talking about the 76ers again. At the 1996 NBA lottery, Croce won fans' hearts. He was like the ADHD kid with a new toy. Armed with a good-luck crystal basketball that had just arrived from Ireland and a good-luck coin that was once his dad's, Croce left nothing to chance. He was doing what we all would have done in the same situation. He wanted to leave the NBA studios in Secaucus, N.J., with the No. 1 pick in tow. And come away he did. The good-luck charms worked.
When it came time to make the pick in June, history proved that the Sixers made the right choice. Sure, there are those who will point out that Kobe Bryant was also in that draft, but that would be hindsight. Bryant was a 17-year-old wunderkind who went 13th because in 1996, 17-year-old guards were not worth the gamble.
Allen Iverson was a jump-start to the Croce era, but there were some bumps in the road. Croce, much like his new franchise player, made a few rookie mistakes that first year.
He hired Brad Greenberg as his general manager and Johnny Davis was brought in as head coach. Not exactly Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson. Greenberg brought in a few run-of-the-mill players, kept most of the mediocrity that was already in place and limped home with 22 wins, just four better than the year before.
Off the court, Croce was doing his best to change the culture of the franchise. He greeted fans in the concourse of the Center, rode his Harley-Davidson around town telling anyone who would listen that the Sixers winning an NBA championship was a possibility. He talked about putting together a world-class organization.
At his introductory press conference, Croce reiterated, "If a physical therapist-conditioning coach for the 76ers can own a team, I believe the 76ers can win a championship."
It was just talk. The team had to back him up. He needed someone to change the culture on the court.
After all, the Sixers had just moved into the spacious CoreStates Center and there were a lot of seats to fill.
Much to Croce's credit, he was quick to repair his mistakes. He fired both Greenberg and Davis at season's end and set his sights on a make-a-difference coach. He took a run at Rick Pitino and even tried to get Phil Jackson. But the day after Pitino signed a lucrative contract with Boston, Croce wasted no time and made his move. He brought in Larry Brown, who had a reputation of being a tremendous coach who was all about playing the right way. When it came to getting the most out of his players, Brown had no peers. But he had that reputation - and still does - of not staying in one place too long. Just days earlier, Brown had walked away from the Indiana Pacers. But Brown stayed.
After winning just 31 games that first season, Brown had the Sixers in the playoffs in Years 2 and 3 and had them playing in the NBA Finals in Season 4. The culture had been altered.
The Sixers had gone from a franchise that from top to bottom had no direction throughout the '90s to a team that had a focus, a plan and was a pleasure to watch under Brown.