TO BE BLUNT, the Sixers stink. “We’ve hit the floor,” admits Peter Luukko, Comcast–Spectacor’s president and the right-hand man to legendary chairman Ed Snider. “It’s terrible on the way there. It’s devastating. But once you’re there and looking up, you begin to build back up.”
“I’m trying to erase some of those memories,” Stefanski adds, referring to last year. “It was the hardest season I’ve ever gone through, no doubt about it.”
Losing isn’t new for us, across any of our sports franchises. The Flyers were horrible as recently as 2007, when they had their worst season ever and owner Snider confessed he was losing sleep over it. “I’m miserable,” he told the Inquirer. “But we will correct that before the next season, I can assure you.” And they did. That same year, the Phillies were swept in the playoffs; the following season, they came back and won the World Series. Even the maddening Eagles surprised us this year with a feisty start under Michael Vick (at least until his ribs got in the way). But somehow there’s little faith the Sixers can pull off anything close. Philadelphia fans have a national reputation as cynics — too quick to rain down boos, too critical, too cranky. But when it comes to their basketball team, their skepticism isn’t misplaced.
In the world of sports-talk radio, blame for the Sixers’ sorry state has, for the most part, been laid (understandably) at the feet of Stefanski and former GM Billy King, whom ESPN’s Simmons calls “one of the five worst GMs of last decade.” Figuring out how the Sixers dug themselves into this hole — and, more important, how they’re going to dig out — isn’t a simple exercise.
Compare the Sixers and the Celtics. Just three years ago, Boston finished behind the Sixers and missed the playoffs. Ownership shed salaries and allowed the team to get as lousy as a Southie on a happy-hour bender; with the resulting salary-cap space to sign top free agents, plus some shrewd draft moves, the Celtics quickly turned around to become the team to beat in the East. By contrast, Sixers brass can never seem to bring themselves to push the self-destruct button. “Our organization is never the type to say, ‘Let’s just lose this year,’” says Luukko. “For one, you’re never guaranteed that things are going to get better. But it’s not in the makeup of our culture. So our fighting to maintain maybe actually hurt us a bit.”
Or maybe a lot. To figure out how much, you need to track a soap opera that began in the Comcast-Spectacor executive offices, wound its way up to Manhattan, where Allen Iverson partied into the wee hours, and now snakes all the way down I-95 to the northeastern coast of Florida, where the man who may have been the Sixers’ best hope sits and shakes his head, wondering what happened to his legacy.