In August 1963, when I was a close-minded 13-year-old and America was smothered by conformity, the new name of Philadelphia’s new NBA team seemed both revolutionary and ridiculous.
What were they thinking?
Pro teams bore the names of animals or historical figures, not numbers. The two exceptions – the NFL’s 49ers and baseball’s Colt .45s – at least referenced familiarly used terms. Everyone knew the 49ers were California gold-rushers and Colt .45s six-shooters.
But who had ever called anyone associated with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 a 76er?
The then-unusual moniker bemused Philly’s sports community.
“What if they only play .500 ball?” said Daily News sportswriter Jack Kiser. “Will they call them the 38ers?”
Les Keiter, the broadcaster for their debut season’s 10 TV and 50 radio games, asked, “What do I say if the score is 76-76?”
All these years later, with the 76ers again ensconced in the city’s consciousness, the story of how they got their name seems all-too Philadelphian.
It began after the 1961-62 NBA season, when the Warriors suddenly departed for San Francisco. A year later, following a season without pro basketball, two local businessmen purchased the Syracuse Nationals for $500,000 and moved them here.
That news was met with a civic yawn. Philadelphians knew the Nationals well and disliked them nearly as much as the Celtics.
The Nats whined incessantly to referees and their style was straight out of the 1940s. Several of them still shot with two hands from the field and underhanded from the foul line. Their starters’ average age was 30. Star Dolph Schayes was 35.
Owners Ike Richman and Irv Kosloff knew that to successfully sell their team to Philadelphia, they needed something fresh. So they started with a new name.
“My father wanted people to associate the team with Philadelphia and not be a carry-over of the despised Syracuse franchise,” Richman’s son, Mike, said recently.
A contest was devised. Fans were asked to submit suggested names – plus 25 words explaining why. The winner would get an all-expenses-paid trip to San Francisco to see Philly’s new team play its old one in December.
As a way to ensure newspaper coverage, Richman asked the three beat writers – Kiser, the Inquirer’s John Webster, and the Bulletin’s Jim Heffernan – to pick the winner.
If that looked open and democratic, it wasn’t. Regardless of what the writers decided, the owners were going to make the call.
“We probably only had one or two meetings,” recalled Heffernan, 86, retired and living in Oldsmar, Fla. “The owners were involved in the decision and I know Harvey [Pollack, the team’s longtime publicity director] had something to do with it too.”
The contest didn’t trigger a tsunami of mail. Of the fewer than 4,000 entries received, nine people submitted “76ers.” The most frequent choice was “Colonials,” which somehow, despite the city’s history, had never been affixed to one of its pro teams.
On Aug. 6, 1963, “76ers” was revealed as the winner. If fans were surprised, so was one of the panel’s sportswriters, who termed the selection “an upset.”
Kiser, who died in 1993, wrote the following day that the writers had agreed on “Colonials.”
“At least one of the three sportswriters on the judging committee thought it had been settled,” he wrote, obviously referring to himself. “But he wasn’t around when the others made the final decision.”
Heffernan, later an NFL publicity executive, didn’t recall the process well enough to confirm or deny Kiser’s account.
But it now appears the actual selection was made not in Philadelphia but in a car headed to New York’s Catskill Mountains.
“My father selected the winner from the submissions while I drove him to Kutsher’s for the Maurice Stokes charity basketball game,” Mike Richman recalled.
Once “76ers” was chosen, the writers had to determine which of the nine entrants who’d picked that name would be declared the winner. They settled on Walter Stalberg of West Collingswood, N.J., citing the concise reasoning of his 25-word explanation:
“No athletic team has ever paid tribute to the gallant men who forged this country’s independence and certainly Philadelphia, Shrine of Liberty, should do so,” Stalberg wrote.
The 49-year-old South Jersey resident was a ringer, an inveterate and remarkably successful contest entrant. In 1941, for example, he earned $10 in defense stamps for winning a competition aimed at coming up with “amusing or constructive suggestions” for the Inquirer’s “Mr. Fixit” column.
Then in a 1975 Daily News contest, Stalberg won a pair of tickets to a closed-circuit viewing of the Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manila.” A year later, in that paper’s “Futureworld” challenge, he won a disposable lighter and razor. And before a 1964 Beatles concert here, Stalberg took the $25 prize in a contest that asked Daily News readers for letters cleverly critical of the Fab Four.
A hoops fans who sometimes watched the Nationals play when he visited his daughter, a Syracuse University student, Stalberg was thrilled. His wife? Not so much.
“Maybe I can find a movie to see,” she said of the trip.
Stalberg, who died in 1980, also earned a lifetime pass to 76ers games and the honor of throwing up the ceremonial first ball at the new team’s Philadelphia debut on Oct. 19.
Gradually, Philadelphia got used to “76ers.” And though it took time, a mutation – “Sixers” – emerged.
The first use of “Sixers” I found in a local newspaper came on Dec. 26, 1969, in an un-bylined Inquirer story on a Philadelphia-Baltimore game. In 1971, the shorthand appeared on uniforms.
A month into the 76ers’ initial season, President Kennedy’s assassination ignited change. Hair started to grow a little longer, skirts a bit shorter.
And the mind of at least one teenager, for whom a sports team’s unusual name had not long before seemed a tragedy, grew just a little broader.