Nine years after he sped away from Pattison Avenue in his black BMW X5 and into Sixers lore, Pat Croce has found a new outlet for his seemingly endless energy — his pirate museum in St. Augustine. He doesn’t talk much anymore about the Sixers, or the ugly way his now-mythic tenure with them ended. “I don’t watch them a lot, but I watch them,” he says. “It sickens me to see a lousy team. Who wants to watch crap? Especially when you know where we were.”
Where we were in 1996, when Croce first arrived on the scene with Comcast’s takeover of the Sixers, was as bad as where we are today. But as the team’s new president, Croce set out with two goals — to improve the team, and, perhaps more important, to transform its spirit. The Sixers needed not just to win games, he believed, but also to win the affection — and disposable income — of Philadelphia’s fans. “I wanted all of the city’s teams to do well,” Croce says, “but not as well as the Sixers.”
A native son, Croce understood that basketball in Philadelphia is summer leagues and school gyms, a heritage founded on steamy summer streets and inside rec centers. The city had a long history upon which to draw — the Philadelphia Warriors and Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, Big Five battles at the Palestra, Sonny Hill’s Baker League. Croce knew hoops meant something here. His challenge was to remind fans of that.
His status as the smiling, public face of the team was cemented on February 20, 1997, during a meeting with season ticket-holders in the lower-level seats of the then-First Union Center. Croce’s first season had been a 22-60 nightmare. As a gag, he borrowed Ron Hextall’s goalie mask for his opening remarks to the hundred or so fans who came to vent. Good thing, too. “The focus group turned into a terrorist group,” Croce says of the hour-long pummeling that ensued. “We were last in ticket sales. Last in attendance. No one wore that logo. But I think it was the turning point, because we listened.”
Croce left the basketball decisions to the experts — his coach, Larry Brown, and general manager King. He concentrated on what he did best, which was making everyone around him feel as giddy about the Sixers as he did. He commissioned a new logo. He recruited a pep band and a dance team. There were big stunts that drew national headlines, like Croce rappelling from the roof of the arena and scaling the Walt Whitman Bridge, along with smaller gestures, like Croce shaking hands with people streaming into the arena before games.
In 2001, the Sixers made their first NBA Finals appearance in nearly two decades. Croce was the perfect ambassador — a self-made millionaire who enjoyed a $100 bottle of Far Niente cabernet sauvignon, but who was also brash and loud and had swagger, who was authentic in a Philly way. “Croce was the kind of guy that when he walked into the room, you sat up straighter and worked harder,” says WIP radio host and former Sixers season ticket-holder Big Daddy Graham.