Eighth in a series of 25

 

Setup: It hadn't happened since 1991, when Charles Barkley led the 76ers to their last playoff appearance. After seven seasons and 393 losses, the Sixers, led by a gritty, unworldly talented 6-foot, 165-pound guard and a coach who demanded that his players play the right way, made it back to the postseason - and even made some noise.

 ONE WOULD think that after the longest playoff drought in franchise history, fans in Philadelphia would have seen it coming, would have had expectations for a team on the verge of making the postseason. Didn't happen. The 1998-99 Sixers came out of nowhere, surprising not just the city but their own coach.

Asked before the season if he thought his team had a shot at the playoffs, Larry Brown shook his head, "Too young."

Don't blame Brown for being realistic, because the 1998-99 season was anything but. Because of a lockout that wasn't lifted until Jan. 20, 1999, the season didn't have a 1998. The 76ers began the season on Feb. 5, 1999, and the regular season lasted only 50 games (played in 92 days). If there was a year the Sixers could slip under the radar, this was it. And the catalyst for the success was the diminutive-yet-dominating Allen Iverson.

In only his third year in the league, Iverson led the NBA in scoring, was named first-team All-NBA and was fourth in the voting for league MVP.

"Allen's legit," Wilt Chamberlain told the Daily News' Phil Jasner in May 1999. "He does all the things his team needs him to do. Let's be honest, and no disrespect to anybody, that team would be down with the Clippers [remember, this was 1999] if he wasn't a part of it. I don't know what he would do on other teams, but he pulls that team together. That's a big reason they're in the playoffs."

And in only his second season as Sixers coach, following a 31-51 first season, Brown had the team in the postseason.

"It's almost like you've got to pinch me," team president Pat Croce said at the time. "Sometimes my optimism blunts reality out of my mind. I always want to win and I believe we should be in the playoffs, but now it's coming true."

The success didn't end upon completion of the regular season. The sixth seed in the East, the Sixers drew the third-seeded Orlando Magic. With Iverson scoring at least 30 points in three of the four games, the Sixers upset Orlando before getting swept by Indiana, Brown's former team, in the next round.

The ouster by Indiana did not diminish what the Sixers had accomplished.

After dropping to 4-5, the Sixers ran off six straight wins and wouldn't dip below .500 the rest of the way. They finished 28-22, third in the Atlantic Division.

How did this franchise that was so downtrodden for so long suddenly turn it around? Brown realized from the start that you had to build around Iverson, and that you had to play defense and rebound the basketball. For the 1998-99 season, Brown brought in George Lynch, a tough-as-nails defender; Matt Geiger, a legitimate power forward paired with center Theo Ratliff; and, later in the season, Tyrone Hill, another hard-nosed veteran who could bang the boards. And the presence of defensive stoppers Eric Snow and Aaron McKie and athletic rookie Larry Hughes, himself a decent defender, in the backcourt allowed Iverson to do what he does best - freelance and score.

"Defense is the way I've always coached," Brown said. "I've found that guys who are willing to defend tend to be unselfish. I've always had guys who are willing to sacrifice, in this case that allow Allen to be Allen.

"They know some of what he does might not be orthodox, but it's acceptable to them in this situation. They realize if they let him do what he does, if they concentrate on doing what they do, they all benefit."

The team began to mesh early, In February, the Sixers went 8-5, completing their first winning month since January 1994 and started the season 3-0 for the first time since 1984-85. Iverson was named Player of the Month - the first Sixer so honored since November 1988, when the award went to Charles Barkley - during a month in which he averaged a league-best 28.5 points to go along with 6.0 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 2.31 steals while playing 40.3 minutes.

March was an up-and-down month that included two three-game losing streaks. But on March 11, the Sixers traded former first-round pick Tim Thomas and underachieving, oft-injured Scott Williams to Milwaukee for Hill and little-used Jerald Honeycutt.

In April, the team went 11-6, including 6-1 at the First Union Center, where the Sixers beat nemeses Indiana and Orlando by double figures in front of sellout crowds and on national TV.

In the regular-season finale, down 15 points to Detroit, the Sixers came back to post a 105-100 overtime win behind Iverson's 33 points, clinching his first scoring title.

Iverson, who averaged 26.8 points a game, became the shortest player to lead the NBA in scoring and the first 76er to do so since Chamberlain (1965-66).

Iverson continued his high-level of play against Orlando in the postseason. In Game 1, he debuted with a 30-point effort in a 104-90 win. Erasing any doubt following a 79-68 loss in Game 2 that they were just a flash in the pan, the Sixers, in front of a sellout crowd at the First Union Center, posted a 97-85 win as Iverson dropped 33 points and collected a team postseason-record 10 steals.

In Game 4, the Sixers sent Orlando back to the Magic Kingdom as Iverson went for 37 in a 101-91 victory.

"We accomplished a lot, going to the playoffs for the first time in years," Iverson said after the loss to Indiana. "It was exciting to come this far. We brought a lot of excitement back to Philly."

It was the start of a 3-year run that forever endeared Iverson to the city like no other athlete before or after him.