Alas, the euphoria didn’t last long. In the weeks following the Sixers’ loss in the finals to the Lakers, Croce made his boldest play yet, telling Snider he wanted a new challenge: specifically, to be named CEO of Comcast-Spectacor and Snider’s heir apparent. Over the course of two tense meetings at the Rittenhouse Hotel that July, Snider made it clear he wasn’t planning to step down or hand over control of his hockey team, his arenas, or Comcast-SportsNet to anybody. But Croce took his plan public, breaking the rule that Snider lived by — what’s discussed in the locker room or boardroom stays there. A source close to the Sixers says Comcast CEO Brian Roberts lobbied to keep Croce on board, but the only title Croce wanted was that of Snider’s explicit successor. And the chairman wasn’t about to let the pirate hijack his ship.
To this day, both Snider and Croce disagree on exactly what was discussed. (Croce says Snider was “dangling the keys” to his kingdom; the boss says that never happened.) It’s interesting to ponder what might have been if Croce had managed to keep his ambitions in check, or if Snider could have found a workable way to expand Croce’s role. Instead, Croce left the team for good that July. To convince the fan base their good-luck charm hadn’t completely walked away, Snider appointed him to the team’s advisory board, a gesture Croce calls “baloney. I have no idea what happened with the team the next year. There was no board. I was gone.”
Snider wished Croce well — then hired Brian Tierney to help frame his departure as unavoidable. But even Tierney’s spin-doctoring couldn’t hide how ill-prepared the chairman was to run the Sixers without Croce’s particular brand of over-caffeinated cheerleading. “[Croce] really had an infectious attitude about how great we could be as a team,” says former Sixer Todd MacCulloch. “He built me up and made me feel I could be a better player. When it comes from the top, it’s gonna directly affect the guys. He was a big part of the team’s success. I think the team lost some of its identity when he was gone.”
It also lost the one guy who could keep both Larry Brown and his superstar, Allen Iverson, in check. Brown had a soft spot for former center Derrick Coleman, whom Croce had called a “cancer” and blamed for setting a bad example for Iverson, then a young, impressionable rookie. But no sooner was Croce gone than Brown brought Coleman back from Charlotte. While King could have vetoed the move, by then there was no doubt the Sixers were Brown’s team, not King’s. “Everybody knew, no disrespect to Billy, that he didn’t have any experience,” says former Inquirer columnist Stephen A. Smith. “Everything he had was because of what Larry Brown gave him.”