Thinking About Another Run Two Decades After The Sixers’ Last One
2:43 PM EDT on May 18, 2021
I recently went to my 20-year high school reunion, a fact that makes me feel old, if not nearly as old as the fact that it has actually been 21 years since my high school graduation. The reunion was delayed a year due to COVID-19. Still, it was nice to see some old friends. As the night went on, the conversation turned to a topic we’d talked about a lot those 21 years ago: The Philadelphia 76ers.
A week after the reunion, the Sixers clinched the Atlantic Division title and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time since that 2001 season. That team went to the NBA Finals, stole Game 1 from the Lakers, then lost the next four games. That brief summary hides just how defiant and good and fun the Sixers were that year.
Coming off consecutive second-round exits, the Sixers slaughtered the Knicks by 31 on opening night. They would go on to win their first 10 games. They would lose eventually, but by the end of the year people were talking about these surprise Sixers as a contender in the East. “What we know right now is that the record is 21-8 and that anyone who says they predicted that isn't telling the truth,” Daily News 76ers beat writer Phil Jasner wrote. “What we know is, despite some occasional turmoil, this team has a fiery inner strength and a willingness to play together.”
You may not be surprised to learn that people in Philadelphia were mostly excited about the Eagles at that time; they'd just beaten the Buccaneers for their first playoff win since December 1995. They'd lose to the Super Bowl bound-Giants in the divisional round, at which point the Sixers drumbeat just grew louder. They won games big and small. The game that got them to 21-8 was a win over the Sacramento Kings; Allen Iverson found Aaron McKie with 39 seconds left and he hit a three for the 107-104 margin. Iverson had 46-9-9.
Excitement built as the Sixers charged toward the Eastern Conference's top seed and fans wondered whether they could compete in the Finals with a team from the Western Conference—by any margin the better of the two that year, and for much of the early 2000s—with Theo Ratliff at center. Iverson scored a career high 54 in a 107-104 win over Cleveland. “He was so quick,” the Inquirer’s Stephen A. Smith wrote, “it appeared that there were no double teams. He was so deft at shooting, it appeared that there were no defenders.” (Smith was doing TV work for CNN/SI at the time, and did some well-regarded bits during the 2001 playoffs. This helped him land a gig at Fox Sports next fall, where he ended up doing segments for Best Damn Sports Show Period before departing for ESPN. So, yeah, the 2001 Sixers are partly responsible for Stephen A. Smith getting to showcase his talents to the masses. You’re welcome.)
There was a lot to enjoy. In late January the 76ers trailed the Rockets for most of the game, were down 8 with 6:30 to play, and won in overtime, 85-84. These were the types of overtime thrillers the NBA had in 2001, and it was the team's 12th straight road win. “No way, with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, should the 76ers have won last night at Houston,” Ashley Fox wrote in the Inquirer. “A safer bet was that Ray Lewis would have a controversy-free day in Tampa, Fla., with no questions about that sordid night in Atlanta a year ago.” The Sixers were getting so hot the game recaps were starting to get bizarre.
In early February, Iverson won All-Star Game MVP after he helped the East rally for a 111-110 victory. A game I really loved—which seems to have been basically forgotten already—came a few days later, on February 13. Iverson scored six straight points to give the Sixers a one-point lead in the final minute. After a kicked-ball with 13.1 seconds left, the Sixers played keep-away for 12.8 seconds, using 10 passes to do so. They won, 107-104. The next night, the Sixers routed the Lakers; 76 fans were married at halftime of the game. The same day, Matt Geiger was suspended two games for steroid use. That’s a season subplot even I’d forgotten. It was a busy year.
One thing I remember from that last top-seeded season, vividly, was being really angry when the Sixers traded for Dikembe Mutombo. Looking back, of course, the trade made perfect sense: Theo Ratliff had hurt his wrist and it wasn't clear if he'd be back. Despite that rout of the Lakers without Ratliff—Todd MacCulloch and Nazr Mohammed filled in at center—many thought the Sixers needed a proven big to compete with any of the top Western Conference teams. And so the Sixers traded Ratliff, Toni Kukoc, and Pepe Sanchez to the Hawks for Mutombo. It wasn’t clear if it would work out; 20 years later, I still don’t think the trade was as much of a win as everyone now thinks it was, but maybe it's just because I’m still upset Mutombo couldn’t take advantage of Shaq fouling out in Game 3.
But I’m getting ahead of myself! Mutombo looked like he’d fit in well with the Sixers offense even as he slowed down the team’s pace. A five-game losing streak in mid-March was forgotten about as the Sixers clinched the top seed in the East. And the Sixers actually lost the first game of their opening-round series against the Pacers on a late Reggie Miller three-pointer, but rallied for tight victories in Games 3 and 4 to take the series. “Game 5? MUT POINT!” the Daily News wrote.
This is about when Sixers fandom really started to take over the city. The Sixers trailed again in the second-round series against Toronto, losing games 1 and 3. But the Sixers kept fighting back. Iverson scored 54 in Game 2 before missing the next one. He scored 52 in Game 5 to put the Sixers on the brink of the Eastern Conference Finals. Meanwhile, Vince Carter scored 50 and 39 in Raptors wins. The series came down to a Vince Carter jumper at the buzzer in Game 7; Tyrone Hill did juuuuust enough to alter his shot, and the Sixers moved on. Iverson, who was a dud on offense in the clinching game, still had 16 assists. “For the first time in my life,” Iverson said postgame. "I’m on a team.”
The Sixers were suddenly anything anyone could talk about. Little white kids wore du-rags to imitate Iverson. (The mascot, incidentally, was basically Rabbit Iverson.) Allen Iverson’s mom became a celebrity. The Sixers were such a hot ticket, Donald Trump showed up to a game in the Raptors series with a woman Getty Images identified as “a young lady (apparently the woman who is in the Trump Marina ads) Melania Knauss.” He was booed. My friends and I used to imitate Eric Snow’s celebration face. The Daily News made a cardboard cutout of Iverson and dragged him around the city to pose for photos with fans. Midway through the playoffs the team opened up pop-up merch stands in Center City; the “Iverson Finals jersey with the gold back” is a thing you still might see someone wearing. The Sixers also had a man named Lil G—real name Glenn Foster, a little person who wore number ½—who got his job as a mascot by going up to Sixers president Pat Croce, asking for it and responding in the affirmative when Croce asked him if he was “crazy.” (Foster, a Bucks County native, died in 2019.) Croce, once the Sixers trainer, was a hype-man for the team like no other. He’d stand between escalators and high-five fans exiting the stadium after big wins. People got into it. By the end of the series, it seemed like every vehicle in the Philadelphia area was sporting a Sixers car flag.
I was 18, and about as wild for the Sixers as Lil’ G was. I had just finished my first year at college. It was unsatisfying. Though I had begun working at the school paper and was starting to think writing was one of the things I wanted to do with my life, things were not great. I was doing poorly in school for, really, the first time in my life. I had not made many friends and missed the girlfriend I'd split up with before we went to college. But my mom’s job provided her with a steady stream of tickets that season, and we went a bunch. The Sixers won most of the games we attended. It was keeping me sane. The one thing I could throw myself into that year was the Sixers, perhaps to the detriment of my Calculus grade—if things had worked out in other ways, this story would be about applications of integration in real life. I spent a lot of time watching the Sixers, thinking about the Sixers, and sitting on AIM and chatting about the Sixers.
By the end of May I was back home with my high school friends, and we spent the start of that summer gathering in my basement to watch the 76ers. I actually went to Game 1, with my mom; I have a vivid memory of the fans chanting “Beat! The! Bucks!” as the Sixers held off a Milwaukee rally that got as close as a point before closing it out. They lost Games 2 and 3, the latter without Iverson due to an injury, and it seemed like that might be the end.
But the Sixers, who by that point had been on the front page of the Daily News for a consecutive stretch that broke the record (“record”) previously held by O.J. Simpson, rallied back. Iverson, bloodied by a late Ray Allen elbow, still had key plays down the stretch to even the series in Game 4. That Bucks fans called him a baby for getting upset about being repeatedly elbowed in the face by Milwaukee's players made my friends and I even more driven to cheer on the Sixers, not that our fandom would help them win or anything. The Bucks missing two open shots at a winner in Game 5 and then whining about the refs after the play was much more helpful there, and is a memory I still treasure. The series ended with a Sixers rout in Game 7; we went out and celebrated afterward. I remember swinging a Sixers rally towel out of my car window as people danced in the middle of Academy Road, a major thoroughfare but very much not a place where people usually gathered. It was like that.
And Game 1 of the NBA Finals! The Sixers, heavy underdogs in the series, opened up a big lead in the third quarter. The Lakers rallied to tie the game and send it to OT. Mutombo missed a pair of free throws that would’ve won it in regulation. (In case 18-year-old Dan McQuade is wondering if I will hold FT-miss grudges, even ones that didn’t matter, 20 years later: Yes. I will.)
With the Sixers down five in OT, Raja Bell—who’d played just 30 minutes in the regular season for Philly—pivoted through two Lakers defenders and hit an underhanded scoop shot to cut it to three. Iverson then scored seven in a row. He hit two free throws, then gave the Sixers the lead for good with a transition three-pointer. The next time down the court, in a play you no doubt have seen quite a few times, Iverson hit a jumper and stepped over vanquished defender Tyronn Lue on his way back down the court. Eric Snow clinched the win with a running one-hander on the next possession.
The city went wild. We went out to celebrate again. Some people actually streaked through the city in celebration of a Game 1 win. It’s like we all knew that it wasn’t going to last. Despite the city proclaiming “Sixers Beat Lakers Week,” things did not work out that way. I dyed my hair blue and red for Game 4 of the Finals, but the most memorable part of the game was when we booed Destiny’s Child during the halftime show.
If I were more of a sadsack, I might be inclined to trace all my adulthood's failures to the Sixers’ inability to win it all in 2001. But I'm fine, and the 2001 season remains both a good memory for me and the most fun I’d ever had as a sports fan, even if the Phillies title in 2008 and the Eagles title in 2018 are more fun to look back on. I really think the city has not been hyped for a team as much as it was for the Sixers in 2001. Also, I was 18 in 2001. What memory from my jaded sportswriter adulthood could possibly top one from a time when I still used “we” to refer to the team?
I do not think the Sixers are going to win the NBA Championship this season. I think there are a few teams in the East that could give them fits, and I don’t think they’d beat the Nets in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup. But, yeah, if they beat the Celtics and Knicks on the way there, I will absolutely be all in. I think a lot of other people might be, too. When I got together with high school friends earlier this month, I didn’t share my actual view on all this. This is a nice way to say I lied. I said I thought they’d win it all, and maybe we’d get together to watch a game. Hopefully both of these come true.