The Dark Ages: From 1992 to 1997. Or from when Charles Barkley left to when Pat Croce and Larry Brown arrived.

BEFORE CHARLES Barkley decided it was time to get out of Dodge and forced a trade to the Phoenix Suns, the decline already had begun.

It was obvious Barkley realized that owner Harold Katz was surrounding him with less-than-mediocre talent, expecting Barkley to turn the pumpkins into a gold carriage.

Maybe it began with the trade of Mike Gminski, a Barkley pal, to the Charlotte Hornets for Armon Gilliam. Maybe it started when Johnny Dawkins blew out his knee. Or maybe it came to a head when Barkley thought he was getting Shaq and got Charles Shackelford instead. Remember Shackelford? He was the guy who was working on his left hand so that he could become "amphibious.'' He really said that. You can look it up.

No matter, Barkley knew only bad days lay ahead.

On June 17, 1992, the Sixers traded their franchise player to the Suns and received three starters - Andrew Lang, Tim Perry and Jeff Hornacek - from a team that had won 53 games. And the Sixers had a lottery pick, choosing Clarence Weatherspoon, a supposed Barkley clone, with the ninth pick. Great days should have been ahead. Katz brought in Doug Moe, who had success with the Denver Nuggets, to coach the team and pretty soon the demise, not the ascent, was on the way.

When the Sixers got off to a horrendous start and Moe was sacked after just 56 games (19-37), Barkley, from his perch in Phoenix, wondered how a team can get three starters from a playoff team and a lottery pick and get worse. But it did, winning just 26 games in 1992-93 compared to 35 the previous season. And it was going to get worse. Lang didn't want to be here, Hornacek let it be known that he wanted out, too. And it became apparent that Perry, a former standout at Temple, was much better when he had Kevin Johnson, the Suns' All-Star point guard, getting him the ball.

Meanwhile, out in the desert, Barkley led the 62-win Suns to the Finals and earned the regular-season MVP award.

Nearly every move new general manager Jim Lynam made blew up in his face. The Barkley trade and the drafting of Weatherspoon didn't work out as expected. And with the second pick in the 1993 draft, Lynam and the Sixers selected Shawn Bradley. Some basketball aficionados were saying that the 7-6 Bradley was going to revolutionize the game, being so tall and so athletic. They were wrong. Bradley was a stiff.

Making the pick even worse was the fact that they didn't appear to get in the way of Orlando and Golden State, who switched picks 1 (Chris Webber) and 3 (Penny Hardaway), confident that the Sixers were going to take Bradley. The Sixers probably would have ended up with Bradley anyway, but they could have squeezed some picks from Golden State, who sent a bundle and Hardaway to Orlando for Webber. Another lost opportunity.

One of Lynam's better moves was when he shipped Hersey Hawkins to Charlotte for three players and a draft pick. One of those players was Dana Barros, a terrific shooter who became an All-Star. But he spent just two seasons here before being let go as a free agent.

But until he left as GM in May 1994, Lynam, maybe through the salary constraints imposed by Katz, was putting Band-Aids on gunshot wounds, adding over-the-hill players Orlando Woolridge, Manute Bol, Moses Malone and trading Hornacek for Jeff Malone, who left his jump shot in Utah.

When John Lucas took over as GM-coach, the team continued its downward spiral. Lucas' first move was the draft and he took Sharone Wright with the sixth pick, when he could have chosen Temple's Eddie Jones, who had a 16-year NBA career, or Brian Grant or Jalen Rose. He traded Bradley, signed 20 free agents and, in his last move as GM, traded Wright. He had gone full circle. He did, however, draft Jerry Stackhouse with the third pick in the '95 draft, but the team went from 24 wins to 18. In all, in Lucas' 2 years, he had more players on his roster (43) than he had wins (42).

The signing of free agent Scott Williams, a backup center who had won three NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls, was supposed to be a coup. Before being traded in 1999, Williams had missed 133 games, mostly because of injuries. The backup center proved to be exactly that.

Pat Croce, who took over as team president in the spring of 1996, did not re-sign Lucas, won the lottery for the No. 1 pick, chose Allen Iverson with the pick and the franchise began to see the light.