The nomadic Brown did what he always does, and in 2003, he left. The coaching carousel spun around for the next few seasons, but no one was able to connect with Iverson the way Brown and Croce had. When Iverson missed a practice after a night of partying in Manhattan in the late ’90s, Croce played the bad cop and suspended his superstar amid a hail of f-bombs; in 2004, when then-head coach Chris Ford tried to be the disciplinarian by telling Iverson that he would sub in a game, not start, as punishment for missing a practice, A.I. showed up in street clothes and ate nachos on the bench. Ford lasted 30 games.
When Mo Cheeks was hired, Iverson said he was so happy that he could have kissed his new coach on the mouth. But he was enamored for all the wrong reasons. “Iverson didn’t see Mo as his head coach,” says Smith. “He saw him as an assistant coach who would let things go. People who are your friends sometimes take advantage of your friendship when you’re in a position of authority. They think it’s going to be easier when that person is in charge. Mo felt like Allen let him down.”
With his star player spiraling out of control, King was stumbling — badly — in his efforts to build another championship-caliber team, making a series of deals that would prove at best fruitless and at worst devastating: Keith Van Horn ($12 million for one season), first-round draft pick Sam Dalembert ($64 million extension), Glenn Robinson ($22 million for 42 games), Chris Webber ($62 million). ESPN’s Simmons says fault lies less with the players who flopped than with the executives who welcomed them to town and obscenely overpaid them. “I blame the people that ran the team,” he says. “They crippled the team’s cap space with awful contracts from 2001 to 2006, and the team just couldn’t recover.” That’s partly an indictment of Brown, but mostly a shot at King (who didn’t respond to requests for an interview).
King was eventually fired mid-season, in 2007. In came Stefanski to play father figure to a house in disarray. His first big move: signing Elton Brand, followed by an $80 million contract extension for Andre Iguodala, billed as a superstar in the making. (We’re still waiting.) Then came the Eddie Jordan hire. Not since the Vet was demolished had South Philadelphia seen such an epic implosion as the Sixers under Jordan’s ill-fitting Princeton offense. “It was miserable being around the team,” says Daily News basketball writer Phil Jasner. “There were days when Iguodala had what I would describe as empty eyes.” When longtime NBA executive Rod Thorn was hired this past August to serve as Stefanski’s boss, it was an admission that once again, Snider’s blueprint for the Sixers was flawed.
In this town, ownership is held accountable for a team’s woes. Any conversation about the Eagles’ failure to win a Super Bowl will include Jeff Lurie; prior to 2008, the Phillies’ ownership was largely blamed for the team’s championship drought (including by this magazine). But Snider’s passion for the Flyers has afforded him a Teflon sheen that other owners don’t enjoy. “He’s a fantastic owner of the Flyers,” says WIP’s Graham. “But none of that carries over to the Sixers. They’ve become time-fillers on a TV channel.”