Bob Ford | 76ers bank on work ethic, patience

The 76ers greet the first season of the rest of their lives tonight in Toronto and management kindly requests that the team's progress not be judged solely on the pesky accounting of its won-lost record.

In other words, uh-oh.

"We're not going to promise anything to fans, but we're going to play hard and make them proud of how we play on the court," team president Billy King said.

Those are noble aspirations and high ideals, but history suggests they don't often fill seats in the NBA - particularly not at 75 bucks a pop. The Sixers know this, but they haven't got much else to sell. Therefore, the emphasis will be on giving an honest effort and the faint hope that these gawky transition years will somehow produce a swan at the end.

It has worked that way before, when the Sixers stumbled away from the Charles Barkley era and searched in the wilderness for what would become the Allen Iverson era. After Barkley's exit, the team won an average of 23 games for the next five seasons, including Iverson's rookie year, before Larry Brown arrived and provided some traction for the spinning wheels.

Things were so down in Sixerland that despite moving into a new arena and having the No. 1 pick in the draft, attendance decreased in Iverson's first season. A tough trifecta, but they hit it.

So these fallow periods are nothing new and nothing necessarily permanent. They aren't that much fun to watch, though. Maybe this won't be as bad as enduring John Lucas instructing Sharone Wright and Willie Burton, but we'll have to wait and see.

King, for his part, preaches that patience is definitely a good thing. He will soon have a pocket full of salary-cap money to spend on the missing pieces, with this season dedicated to determining which pieces are missing.

And hustle, of course. Did we mention hustle?

"Allen was here the year before we [King and Brown] got here, and he scored a lot of points, but there weren't a lot of people coming," King said. "But as we built a team, Eric Snow developed his own name, and George Lynch and Theo Ratliff. They weren't household names, but people got excited about the way they played."

The implication is that the complementary players are already on the roster now, just waiting for the lead singer to arrive next summer. Seems like a stretch at the moment, but if the current guys are setting picks for each other, playing hard defense, and diving after loose balls, maybe they can prepare the stage. There is no superstar to carry them through the process, although Andre Iguodala is a reasonable facsimile, a Kobe from a copier with the toner light blinking.

"We think Andre is a talented guy, but we're stressing team," King said. Naturally.

The spotlit name that will eventually be placed on the next great era is still undetermined. Following Barkley and Iverson should be a much more difficult task, but neither won a championship, and both left a year or two after the audience began to check the wristwatch and shift in its seat.

King did finally bring about the "culture change" he desired, trading Iverson and releasing Chris Webber last season, moves that would have earned him a lot more praise if he hadn't tolerated the developing nightmare in the first place. Better late than never, however, and the team did perk up late in the season, although some of its wins in a 17-9 stretch that closed the schedule came against teams that were - how to put it? - not entirely motivated.

Still, the Sixers weren't among the quitters, and there is something to be said for that. It is the level to which expectations have sunk in professional sports. If the team tries, it deserves a hug and a break. Things don't always work out that way for long in Philadelphia, but the Sixers are hopeful.

"If you play hard in this league every night, you give yourself a chance to win," King said. "That's what we want to portray this year. It's going to be team play, unselfish play, hard play together."

And then we get cap room.

That's the carrot hidden among the 82 sticks that make up this season's painful exercise. It is the paradise that follows the purgatory. You just have to accept that a dozen 6-foot-7 guys who can't shoot are worth watching in the interim.

"That's the greatest thing about this city," King said. "If you give effort, they'll cheer and get behind you."

The second-greatest thing is that if you are best left in solitude, the fans can work with that, too.


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