The conference phone was set atop a table inside a bar inside the Spectrum, and Pat Croce wedged himself between a couple of media members hovering over it, leaned down, and ushered in the Allen Iverson era in Philadelphia by sounding a cry of joy over the city’s rooftops.
This was a night 25 years ago, the night of June 26, 1996, the night of perhaps the best NBA draft in NBA draft history. Three months earlier, when Comcast bought the Sixers, Croce was charged as their president with empowering a new array of basketball minds to improve the team and with generally making everyone feel great about the franchise again. The Sixers had won a league-low 18 games in 1995-96. It was their fifth consecutive losing season. So Croce fired John Lucas, hired a new general manager in Brad Greenberg and a new coach in Johnny Davis, and hoped that having the No. 1 pick in a draft overflowing with talent was a silver-platter situation that even a sad-sack franchise couldn’t screw up.
“Up until then, nothing had changed,” Croce said in a recent phone interview. “It was all talk. It was all talk. Same players were coming back. There was change in the GM, change in the coach, but on the court, which was the only thing that mattered, nothing changed until Philadelphia realized, ‘OK, with this No. 1 pick, we’re picking this guy Allen Iverson.’
“Allen was this revolutionary change that we needed. When we selected him, there was just a sense of relief on one hand that we got him and anticipation of what’s going to unfold on the other hand. Here we go. We’ve made our bed; now we’ve got to sleep in it. Let’s go.”
Iverson was Croce’s first choice, which explains why Croce shouted the kid’s childhood nickname into the phone to greet him just minutes after Iverson shook David Stern’s hand 90 miles north in East Rutherford. But he had wanted his basketball people, not him, to make the call on the pick, and that first round turned out to be full of superstars and players with significant careers. If Daryl Morey doesn’t deal away their first-round pick, the Sixers will pick 28th Thursday night — a draft that promises to be as boring for the franchise as 1996′s was thrilling.
Certain to go in that top five were Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, and Ray Allen. “I wish we’d had 1 and 2 so we could take Ray Allen, too,” Croce said, “because that jump shot was as pretty then as it was when he won it with Boston.” Within the first 15 picks went Steve Nash, Peja Stojakovic, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Kerry Kittles, and Antoine Walker. Derek Fisher went 24th. And there were voices within the Sixers’ war room suggesting that a 17-year-old Wynnewood resident named Kobe Bryant would be the most valuable jewel in the draft, that he, not Iverson, was the right choice at No. 1.
But as wondrous as Bryant had been at Lower Merion, the notion of selecting a high school kid first overall was at the time still regarded as a major gamble, and Bryant’s agent, Arn Tellem, was sending clear signals that the kid’s first choice was to play in Los Angeles for the Lakers. Which, after the Charlotte Hornets drafted him at No. 13 and later traded him for Vlade Divac, is of course exactly where Bryant ended up.
“My focus was on selecting the best player for the Sixers with that No. 1 pick,” Greenberg said in a recent email interview. “The team had roster gaps at guard and center. Allen was the fastest and quickest and perhaps even the toughest player in the draft, and he answered a lot of needs for the club at the time.”
What did the club need most?
“A fearless, unconditioned scorer,” Croce said. “Not someone who was conditioned to do it this way or that way. No. Find a way. He was just a pure scorer. He was fearless with that quarterback mentality. He didn’t care if he was going to get sacked. He was going for the touchdown with every play.
“That was it. That was first and foremost. Yes, he lived a life of hard knocks that Philadelphia would embrace. But that was not primary. Primary was that we needed somebody to take this franchise on their shoulders. Didn’t matter if he was 6-foot, 160. What mattered was that he could score.”
Bryant was the greatest player in that great draft, but one can hardly fault the Sixers for selecting Iverson. The team’s winning percentage increased each season to the next for the subsequent five years, building to adoring sellout crowds at what was then called the Wachovia Center, culminating in his MVP award and the Sixers’ 2001 run to the NBA Finals, his appearance and attitude and unapologetic Allenness turning him into both an icon and a lightning rod.
No, even through the best of his times here, it was never easy with Iverson. From the court dates to the battles with coach Larry Brown and so much in between, he would set fires that Croce had to extinguish, and it’s easily forgotten that sometimes he himself wasn’t the source of a storm of criticism and controversy, just the target. In 2000, for instance, after a Pennsylvania man sent an email to WIP radio host Rhea Hughes in which he threatened Iverson and his family — “It was the most disturbing thing I’ve ever come across,” Hughes said this week — she forwarded the message to the Sixers, who forwarded it to the police, which led to Croce getting a phone call one night from the FBI.
“Did I anticipate that much maintenance? Maybe not,” Croce said, then paused, then resumed his answer. “No. Not at all. It was just things that you would never anticipate that night of the draft. How could you?”
The good. The bad. The highs. The lows. The wild, all of it wild. Nobody could have anticipated any of it that night in the Spectrum a quarter century ago. The night that changed everything for the Sixers, finally. The night Bubba Chuck came to town.
Editor’s note: Mike Sielski’s book The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality will be published in January.