PHILADELPHIA --- Before his first game
as a 76er, during the player introductions, Julius Erving received a
package. It was a doctor's bag, delivered to the court by legendary
fan Steve Solms. More, it was a message.
Four years earlier, the Sixers had won
nine games, losing 73. That was followed by two more losing seasons,
then a 46-36 playoff team, then the arrival of Erving, the iconic Dr.
J, after the NBA-ABA merger. Four times in the next seven years, the
Sixers would reach at least the NBA finals, winning the championship
“Different times,” Erving was
saying the other night at the Wells Fargo Center. “When I came in,
it was already a playoff team. So it wasn't that big a jump to get to
50. When you have to get to 50 from 20, that's a lot.”
Soon enough, the Sixers will attempt to
make that leap again, and most likely from much fewer than 20 wins.
They will try to wiggle through the lottery and use a stash of draft
choices to reprise their late-'70s, early-'80s dominance, certain
that is the only way to construct a winning NBA program. They have
convinced their fans of that, at least, soothing them with promises,
making them ignore the bad defense, the worse defense, the
unacceptable defense, like the kind the played the other night
against Washington, in a 122-103 loss.
That was the night Erving was back to
celebrate franchise greatness, helping to welcome Allen Iverson's No.
3 into the constellation of retired franchise jerseys. That was the
night they kept introducing former stars in the stands, hoping to
distract the capacity crowd from what was happening on the floor,
where the Wizards were scoring 41 first-quarter points.
Yet that was also the night that the
honored guest himself, Iverson, would say this: “It’s hard for me
to watch Sixers basketball games. So I don't.”
That was only part of Iverson's
message, which was quite more understanding. He did stress that he
believed the franchise was destined to win, that the ownership had
that commitment, that the basketball minds were clear. Yet with every
former star player introduced --- Moses Malone, Andrew Toney, Theo
Ratliff, Aaron McKie, plenty of others --- the contrast between what
that franchise was and what it had become was more vivid.
“I want to get out there,” Iverson
said, “and help those guys.”
Even if he never practiced, which would
be a possibility, he would lend something the Sixers lack --- a
game-night passion, a competitive burn, the professional dignity to
close out on a three-point shooter. That's what the Sixers had
Iverson. That's what they had in Erving, whose aura would change in
the fourth quarter, when he would thrust out his chest, demand the
ball and win games.
Now, the Sixers give away good players
for nothing, defend when they feel like it, hire minor league players
on a weekly basis, and consider a trip to the lottery, not to the
playoffs, a virtue.
“I think it's been clear,” Erving
said. “The Sixers are rebuilding right now. Sometimes you have to
go two or three steps backward before you can go forward. I think
that's exactly where the Sixers are with the Evan Turner trade, and
trading Spencer Hawes. Those are two additional steps on the downward
spiral, if you will, before it gets turned around.
“And it will be turned around through
the young players coming through, and draft picks, and hopefully
being able to get somebody in the free agent marketplace.”
Erving works for the Sixers as an
adviser, so that's one reason he was hesitant to criticize. Another
is that he always has been a man of dignity, slam dunking things only
when necessary. It's also possible that he is correct, though that
won't be validated for years.
“Oh, yeah, it will,” he said.
“There is a plan in place. And it's not something you announce to
the world how you do it. You announce to the world that you are doing
that. And that's already been announced.”
That's the prescription. And one more
demand for a cure.