All the flash and big personality flying around in today's National Basketball Association kind of robs us of the realization of it, but basketball is more of a true ruffian game than any other sport in the American mainstream. All you need is a ball that gets a good bounce. You don't even need a hoop; just a small spot on a wall would suffice. This is probably a large part of the reason basketball is becoming such a popular global sport. Just like soccer, you need bare minimal equipment to play it, and the rules are deceptively simple. Yet, it takes athleticism and practice to really MASTER it.
We forget about the sport's simplistic origins, and the small-town beginnings of the NBA. For all its neon, monied imagery, basketball is synonymous with the blue-collar hub of Indiana. Also, you wouldn't know it from looking at the current roster of teams in today's NBA, but New York state has a deep, rich history with the league. The New York Knicks (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...he_New_York_Groove.html) are one of the original teams of the Basketball Association of America, one of the forerunners of the NBA. The Sacramento Kings are another one of those original teams, but they began their life in upstate New York as the Rochester Royals. The Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers both started in Buffalo. And in 1946, the National Basketball League was a few years old, and they invited into their fold another upstate New York team, the Syracuse Nationals. Today's story begins with them.
The Syracuse Nationals were a creation of the NBL, and were one of the seven holdovers from the 1949 merger with the BAA, which formed the NBA and made the Nationals one of the original teams in it. The Nats weren't your typical candidate for a holdover; they had spent their time on the NBL mostly nondescriptly, floating around until one of the bigger, better teams called on them for a necessary fattening of its winning percentage. Dolph Schayes led them to their first winning record in 1949, just before the merger, and during the early years of the NBA, it was little Syracuse, New York which ultimately pushed a lot of the bigger teams around. They went to the Finals three times in the earliest years; once in 1950, again in 1954, and one last time in 1955, winning their first title in 1955. But the NBA was still a baby league in 1955, and really, who the hell was gonna give money to a league where the last minutes of a close game involved long-ass games of keep-away? No one, that's who! So in a desperate attempt to rescue the league - and its few fans from boredom - Nats owner Danny Biasone suggested they limit the amount of time a team can take to make a shot. The game sped up, Syracuse won the title that year, and most importantly of all, a mainstay essential of the entire sport was created. For all the rich history of the team, all of the great players who suited up for it, all those conference titles and rivalries, the creation of that shot clock is the most important moment in the history of both the league and the team. NBA fans, you're welcome, and these guys are being given a positive rating for that alone.
In 1958, the Nationals had become a kind of pariah. The league founded for small blue-collar cities was growing up, and after the Fort Wayne Pistons and Syracuse's nearby state rival, the Rochester Royals, respectively leaving their little hamlets for Detroit and Cincinnati, the Syracuse Nationals were the last small town team left in the league. They fell back into obscurity and even though they posted winning seasons on a fairly consistent basis, they were finished doing any real damage. In 1961, the Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles, and of all the NBL teams who survived the merger, the Nationals were now the only one still playing in their original city. Oddly enough, even though the team was a nonentity during the regular season during this period, they were a dangerous playoff opponent that the NBA's best didn't want to see once the regular season was done. They made it to the conference finals pretty often but kept seeing ejection at the hands of the Boston Celtics or the Philadelphia Warriors. In 1962, the Warriors headed to San Francisco, leaving Philadelphia without a team. They immediately began a search for a new team. Once Biasone sold the Nationals to investors Irv Kosloff and Ike Richman, Syracuse didn't stand a chance. In 1963, the Syracuse Nationals made the playoffs again, got ejected by the Cincinnati Royals, and then the inevitable happened as Syracuse basketball turned into a concept lost to a changing history.
The Warriors just happened to have this awesome center named Wilt Chamberlain. Since Chamberlain was a native of Philadelphia, they had drafted him as a territorial pick, having been a high school basketball legend there. He didn't spend a whole lot of time in San Francisco after the Warriors moved out there, though, because they traded him during the 1965 All-Star break to the new incarnation of the Syracuse Nationals - the Philadelphia 76ers. Named for the year America declared its independence, the Sixers made a splash with their new big man. In 1967, Chamberlain took the Sixers on a dream run. They won 68 games that year and became the team that broke up the old Boston Celtics (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...-The_Big_Green_Men.html) dynasty and prevented them from a nine-peat.
As so often happens with the great title teams, they couldn't sustain themselves. The Sixers had their moment, and while they kept going back to the playoffs, they lacked their edge. In serious decline by 1972, they missed the playoffs and went 30-52. In 1973, they hit one of those absolute, all-time lows. They stormed out of the gate, lost their first 15 games of the season, set a then-record 20-game losing streak a few months later, after which their record for the season stood at 4-58. When the season concluded, the Sixers had all of nine wins. The Charlotte Bobcats (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...y_Without_Point_or.html) needed a shortened season to break that record. Six years after setting the wins record, the team had set the losses record, and the 1973 Sixers are still considered the worst team in NBA history. They used two coaches, who won a putrid nine games between them.
Gene Shue was hired as their head coach for the 1974 season, and two years later the Sixers grabbed George McGinnis from the Indiana Pacers of the ABA, and with those two, 1976 finally saw the Sixers return to the playoffs. Unfortunately, the team was still quite sick, as was seen conclusively when they were swept out of the first round by the Buffalo Braves. And the Sixers sought a cure for their ailments the way most people do: They went to a Doctor!
In 1976, the American Basketball Association was on shaky ground, and with a merger around the corner, teams were rabidly applying for admission to the NBA. One of those teams was the two-time champion New York Nets, thanks largely to the efforts of a player named Julius Erving. Unfortunately, giant sports leagues can't stand competition, ironically enough, and so the NBA took special pains to let its four merger survivors know their place was at the back of the line. They needed to pay $3.2 million just for admission to the league, then they had to pay the New York Knicks an additional $4.8 million for use on their "territory." The Nets owner was forced to part with Erving due to his not being able to pay him. So when the Sixers came along with $3 million, the Nets had no real choice but to sell him. It was ill-timed for the Nets, but well-timed for the Sixers, and so Dr. J went on to define the rest of his career in Philadelphia, eventually going to the Hall of Fame. The Sixers returned to the tippy-top, going to the Finals in 1977, 1980, and 1982. Sadly, they lost all three titles.
The final piece of the Championship puzzle was found in 1983 when they picked up Moses Malone. Led by Malone, Dr. J, and Maurice Cheeks, the Sixers became the inevitable Team of Destiny. That was the year of Malone's "fo, fo, fo" boast, which is how Malone responded when asked how the playoffs would play out. It meant four, four, four, which was how many games the Sixers would need to win before taking their title. They damn near made good on it, too. Over the course of their playoff run, they lost all of one game. Along with their 1967 counterparts, the 1983 Sixers are considered one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Unfortunately, that 1983 title was is still their most recent, and it was followed by only one more conference championship.
Everyone knows the story of the 1984 NBA draft. Hakeem Olajuwon was taken first overall, becoming the exact pick the Houston Rockets needed. Sam Bowie was taken by the Portland Trail Blazers second, which was a dastardly crime in the eyes of the third pick, Michael Jordan, or which Jordan spent the following decade and a half making everyone pay after the Chicago Bulls (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/d/UserReview-Ch...atest_Bullfighters.html) took him next. Those first three picks are always the biggest story in the league's history, and it's saying something that no one seems to remember Charles Barkley being taken fifth overall that year. It's a testament to how big a story those first three picks are that anyone could forget that, seeing as how Sir Charles was known as much for his big mouth as his rebounding. Funny, controversial, and aggressive, Barkley anchored the Sixers for the next eight years, even after Dr. J retired in 1987. The team's decision to trade him in 1992 was wildly criticized, and although Barkley's new team, the Phoenix Suns, gave him his best opportunity to win a title, Barkley never went over the top. He retired another victim of Michael and the Jordanaires. But the Sixers did retire his number.
The early 90's saw a Dark Age arrive in Philly, with a carousel of bad coaches and bad free agents. It was one of those instances where the best thing you could say was that the team at least was there. They made a lot of bad draft picks and nabbed a lot of players who were at the ends of their ropes. Starting in the 1991 season, the Sixers saw their win total drop every year until the 1996 season, when they concluded with 18 victories and a lot of painful questions about what the team could do to become competitive again. They turned to the 1996 draft, where, it turned out, an Answer lurked.
Allen Iverson was the first overall pick. In the 1997 season, he won the Rookie of the Year award. The team's improvement was minimal - they won 22 games, as opposed to 18 the year before - but it was there. They also hired Larry Brown as their head coach, who was known for a defense-first approach and turning perennial doormats into winners. Brown had his toughest challenge ever ahead of him (and lest we forget, he once coached the Clippers, and he also tried to sort out the mess known as Isiah Thomas's New York Knicks) in coaching Iverson, with whom he often clashed. But still, the Sixers began to improve. In 1998, they got Eric Snow, a key figure in their return. George Lynch, Matt Geiger, and Tyrone Hill came a year later, and the Sixers began their resurgence in a strike-shortened 1999 season. In 2001, the Sixers were back in the Finals, prepared with a Coach of the Year in Brown, MVP in Iverson, and also a Defensive Player of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year. They couldn't prevent the Los Angeles Lakers from winning the title in five games, though. Larry Brown abruptly resigned as coach in 2003 to take a new job in Detroit. (He tends to do that.)
The team middled for a few years, but in 2006, Iverson got pissed off at the direction the team was headed in. He told them to get some quality players for support or trade his ass. The team, looking to take the cheaper way out, complied by taking the latter option and trading Iverson to the Denver Nuggets in December. The team now belonged to Andre Iguodala, the team's first-round pick from 2004. The team struggled for the next several years, sometimes making the playoffs, sometimes not, but never thinking themselves to be contenders. Finally, in 2010, the team hired Doug Collins as head coach. In 2011, they got a new owner. Collins got them back in the playoffs, and in the 2012 season, they beat the injury-riddled Bulls in the first round before being eliminated in a high-flying, dramatic series against Boston. For the first time in years, the Sixers are stacked and seem to have a real direction to move in again.
Although the Sixers won only two titles in the modern era - since moving to Philadelphia - both teams are mainstays in lists of the greatest teams ever. One was anchored by the most dominant player in history, Wilt Chamberlain, and I probably don't have to mention the fact that the team retired his number. The second featured Moses Malone and Dr. J. Charles Barkley, a great players and an even better character, also graces the all-time roster. The team has eight retired numbers and one retired microphone for Dave Zinkoff, a public address announcer.
The Sixers are kind of the big team from the Eastern Conference that couldn't. They've run a fairly steady ship most of the time - unlike the Knicks - but usually meet an ignominious fate in the playoffs. Even their best teams seem to have trouble pulling through with the season on the line. The Celtics, Bulls, or some other nasty Conference rivals always seem to block their way to greater glory. Their biggest rivals are probably the Celtics and Knicks. Although the Boston rivalry is pretty one-sided historically, it seems to be evening out a little, and with the Sixers getting better while Ray Allen goes and joins the Miami Heat (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...mer_Heat_is_Brutal.html) things look good for the Philadelphia side in that rivalry. They're still going to get creamed by newfound rival Miami, but still, it's a start.
People, look: Wilt Chamberlain was playing for the Philadelphia Warriors when he played his famed 100-point game. The Warriors and Sixers are not the same team. Chamberlain played for both, and the Warriors still exist, but in Oakland.
I have a one-degree connection with the Philadelphia 76ers. My high school had an awesome basketball player named Damone Brown, who led the team to the title in 1997. (I didn't even know him, so don't ask, although our time at the school did overlap.) That year, he was signed by Syracuse University, which here in Buffalo is basically considered professional basketball. In 2002, it was the Sixers who drafted him in the second round. Although I didn't know him, I felt a need to support my fellow Seneca alumni, so I instantly started watching the Sixers for news. Unfortunately, he didn't work out. But it's because of him that the Sixers were my gateway into NBA fandom, and so along with the Knicks and Bulls, I still cheer wholeheartedly for the Philadelphia 76ers. Being a team of so many firsts, it makes sense that they were the first basketball team I ever followed. Even though I picked up two more teams, I'm still with the Sixers, even if my former schoolmate isn't.