I was in Boulder, Colorado on Sept. 11, 2001.
What follows below are a few personal accounts from 76ers’ personnel about that day, the 10-year anniversary of which – as we all know – is Sunday. Much of the team’s current coaching staff was beginning its first year with the Washington Wizards. Current general manager Ed Stefanski was working for the New Jersey Nets. Comcast-Spectacor’s Peter Luukko was involved with both the Flyers and the Sixers. It’s not particularly important where I was, except it’s somewhat therapeutic to recall the tiny details of a moment that touched as all.
I was a junior at the University of Colorado. On Monday night, Sept. 10, I stayed up late to watch the season-opening game of Monday Night Football: the New York Giants vs. the Denver Broncos. At first, I thought I’d remember this game because Denver wide receiver Ed McCaffrey (a local favorite in Denver and a former New York Giant!) suffered a broken leg in what was a horrific collision going across the middle. The next morning, we had a 6 a.m. agility workout – that year we had early workouts every day of the week. I had the agility workout followed directly by an individual workout, which I didn’t mind because that meant by 8 a.m. I was done with that day’s workouts. After the first workout, which would be about 7 a.m. mountain time, 9 a.m. eastern, one of my assistant coaches mentioned that a plane had inadvertently crashed into the World Trade Center. We were tying our sneakers and taking some shots before the basketball drills started. A few minutes later – I’m not sure if she was looking at her smart phone, I don’t remember the extent of the technology then – this same coach upgraded the situation in New York.
“OK, it seems like a second plane has now crashed into the towers,” she said.
And I actually do remember this verbatim. Although most of my teammates were from flyover states – Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado – I was particularly interested in what she was telling me because I’d grown up in New York (upstate, yes, but halfway across the country it all just felt like New York to me).
We stared at her, wondering if she’d cancel the workout, wondering if she had more information, wondering what she might say next. She kind of shrugged and said, “Put on your dribble goggles.”
Dribble goggles were these awful contraptions you strapped to your head so you couldn’t look down while you dribbled.
I’ll remember these juxtaposed sentences for the rest of my life: “So it seems like a second plane has now crashed into the towers … Put on your dribble goggles.”
My coaches said thousands of things during my time playing at Colorado, but none are burned into my memory as clearly as those.
I know we all have similar stories about that day. Here are a few, transcribed word for word.
Ed Stefanski (now Sixers’ general manager, then with New Jersey Nets): “I was up in New Jersey with the Nets and of course we were right across the river from the issue in New York. I was with Henry Hines, a former Olympian track star. We brought him in to work with the young guys, running. We were sitting there and we heard that a plane went in. We were very curious because there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was a beautiful blue sky. And we said, ‘That’s weird that a plane would go in. Maybe the guy had a heart attack or something like that.’ Then we sat there and watched and saw the next plane and that’s when everything happened. The eerie part was the jets buzzing over our buildings where we were in East Rutherford. And then going home, going down that turnpike, everybody was leaving and seeing the smoke. It was incredible. The big thing for me was coming up in the other days I had to come up to New Jersey. I always knew I was close to the office when I saw the towers. I said, ‘OK, I’m only a few exits away.’ When I didn’t see those towers; that was eerie for me. Everyday in that landscape you saw those towers and then all of a sudden they weren’t there.
Everyone in the country put things in perspective. Obviously you want to win and you’re a competitor, but it put things in perspective. Especially in the New York area, I’m sure in D.C. the same thing. When you’re out on the West Coast you’re not as affected as much. But the people in that tri-state area of New York, it really hit home. And people had loved ones they’d lost.”
Tony DiLeo (now and then, working in Sixers’ front office): “I was driving to work and usually I always have the news and traffic and weather on, but that day I was listening to music. I had basically no idea until I got to work what happened. We had workouts that day. Guys were playing and I was watching the workouts, but really I wasn’t really watching the workouts because I knew what was going on. Kept going into the back room and watching the TV and try to figure out what was going on. The first thing I heard was the reporter said it was air traffic control must have made a mistake and sent a plane in another pattern and hit the building. Obviously that was wrong. It was surreal; it was such a sad time.
Guys were just working out. We had a lot of guys in there playing like we always do: our guys and other guys from other teams and local guys in there playing. They were playing. I’m not sure how much they realized what was going on because they were out there playing. For me, it was just unreal. I was watching our guys play, but really not concentrating on what they were doing. Going back and forth trying to get updates. It really didn’t sink in until afterwards. When you realized what really happened, that’s when it really sank in. I watched constantly because I knew people, not directly, but I knew people in the financial world who had friends who were up there. I was watching throughout the night. I couldn’t believe that something like had happened. And I couldn’t believe how simple of an idea that was. That they could pull that off because it wasn’t really … it was simple. Using planes as bombs and attacking our buildings. It was confusing to me: that we couldn’t stop it and how it happened. It wasn’t some super sophisticated idea. It was an elementary idea.”
Peter Luukko (now and then, with Comcast-Spectacor): “We have a shower at our offices, and I’d been working out. I came out of the shower, walked into my office, and my assistant was watching CNN and said there were reports that a small plane hit the World Trade Center. So we were watching the coverage and as we were watching this, we literally saw the second plane hit right on live TV. I just remember saying that something is really wrong here. This isn’t a coincidence. Then we stopped to think about what else is going on and immediately called our security people to see what kind of information we could get, what we could do with the building. As the day developed and we let people go who wanted to go get their kids, there was that fear of the unknown, like, “What is really going on here? And how is that going to affect everything?” We were very scared.
“Shortly after, a day or two after 9/11, we had an exhibition game against the New York Rangers and we made the decision to stop the game and show President Bush’s address to the nation. We did that – we had basically a sold-out preseason game – and the crowd was chanting, ‘USA,’ which was very moving. The President’s address went on for 45 minutes and it was between the second and third periods of the exhibition game. And we made the decision that the address had gone on so long, and it was so emotional, that we ended the game. We had both teams shake hands. And the crowd went absolutely crazy, clapping. We got national attention for what we had done: stopping the game and airing the President’s address. And never got one complaint that we cut the game short. It was a very rousing, patriotic moment, to literally be watching the President’s address with 19,000 people … that was, in a strange sense, the beginning of our rebuilding and getting moving after the situation. The smart thing wasn’t to cancel games, but to move forward. But from that time on it changed our whole look at security: how we look at bags, the way we look at supplies coming into the building, the way we set up planters around the building so somebody couldn’t drive into the building. Basically everything changed.”
Brian James (now, assistant coach with Sixers, then, assistant coach with Wizards): “We were right in the middle of all of it. I remember, in fact, my first day on the job, it was our first year in Washington with a brand new staff. Doug and I, Johnny Bach, and Patrick Ewing, we all had moved to D.C. that week. I think we moved to D.C. on Sept. 7, so I’d only been in D.C. a few days and gone apartment hunting one day and believe it or not the apartment that I did not take, it came down to the final two, the one I did not take would have been where I could have seen where the third plane went down into the Pentagon. That’s how close we were to everything. But I remember walking in the MCI Center, which is now the Verizon Center, with Doug Collins. We’d already gotten our coffee, we were walking into the arena, and we’re standing at the security desk and the TV is on and they are saying, ‘Look at this.’ To the best of my recollection we are watching live and the first plane had just gone in the building. I think that was about 8:45, I don’t know exactly to the minute, but then we were watching in awe and watched the second plane on ‘The Today Show’ with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer and we watched the second plane go in the building on TV. Our mouths dropped, we were flabbergasted. What happened was, we said the safest place for us to go was to our offices. Which were in the basement of the MCI Center, below ground, that’s where they told us to go. Immediately, Doug said we needed to call our families and let them know we’re OK. My family lived in Michigan at the time. I immediately told my wife to turn on ‘The Today Show.’ We called our families and then reconvened in Doug’s office and we were literally glued to the TV until 10 o’clock and they told us to stay put, our security people, because they knew that there were some other planes that were unaccounted for. Obviously everybody knew that the third plane was rumored to be headed either for the White House or for the Pentagon and we were only six blocks away from the White House. A couple of different times we asked if we should go ahead and start talking basketball. But nobody could. And Doug goes, I do remember Doug saying, ‘I just have this sick feeling in my stomach.’ We couldn’t even mention the word basketball. Now the time frame was that the third plane, about an hour later, goes into the Pentagon. And we know that there’s a fourth plane that had just crashed in Pennsylvania some time. I think it was about 1 or 1:30 they told us to leave the building, to go home if you lived walking distance to the arena. Doug and I, we only lived a couple of blocks because we were in temporary housing until we got an apartment or a house. We went there. For the next month, I have never seen more military people with guns drawn, tanks out then I did at that time in D.C. in my 40 years combined.”
Doug Collins (now, head coach of the Sixers, then, head coach of the Wizards): “I’d just accepted the job with the Washington Wizards. It was going to be my first year there in Washington. Kathy and I were actually supposed to close on our home that day. I was sitting in my office and I had ‘The Today Show’ on, and it was almost surreal. Then I was sitting there and they were doing a report and it was the guy who reported from the Pentagon. He was doing a report from the Pentagon and he said, ‘I think the Pentagon has been hit; I think we’ve been hit.’ All of a sudden the sirens starting coming on, the alarms started coming on in our building like get out of there and get home. We got out of there. We found out the Pentagon had been hit by a plane, which was just up the street. It was a very, very surreal time sort of comprehending all that was going on with our country. Especially being in Washington, D.C. and hearing all of the reports: they thought there was a plane heading to crash into the White House. It was really an amazing time just to be there in Washington and living that experience of that time.
“I think about it a lot of different times, but every time I check into an airport, I think about traveling before 9/11. You would arrive at the airport, you would rush in, you would get on your plane, be only about 10 minutes early. If you would travel overseas, you would get there three hours early, go through the security and be like, ‘What a pain in the butt all of this security is.’ Every time I go through an airport today, I think about how lax our security was at that time. I’m going, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe something didn’t happen a long time ago.’
“Also, too, I think I lived through the first act of terrorism ever at a sporting event in Munich. I was in Munich, went to have some breakfast [with a teammate], and we saw the terrorists hanging out of the second floor. With the hostages and the machine guns and the hand grenades. I lived through that act of terrorism in Munich in ’72 and the devastation that went with that, the heartache. But, I think I’m really reminded of [9/11] when I go through an airport. I’ve got two artificial hips and a knee and I go through all of the security and all and I think how things can change so dramatically for a country in terms of security and what we have to do to make sure we’re safe everyday.”