This article was originally published in the Daily News on May 21, 2001.
The genesis of the most significant victory in the Allen Iverson/Larry Brown/Pat Croce era stretches all the way back to last season, when the 76ers scrambled, battled and began to discover the elements of being a team.
"Aaron [McKie] and I would talk with Allen a lot, telling him it's not the same on every team," Sixers guard Eric Snow recalled, savoring the memory. "He would always say he had never been around a group of guys like this. Aaron and I had been on other teams. He's only been here.
"We'd say, 'Talk to the guys who have left here,' see what they say. We made a trade in February of this season, and a little later Nazr Mohammed called from Atlanta and said, 'Now I understand what you were talking about. ' "
Iverson, already the NBA's scoring champion and Most Valuable Player, has a better grasp than ever of that concept after last night's heart-stopping, 88-87, Game 7 victory over the Toronto Raptors that propelled them into the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1984-85.
That was why, every chance he got, Iverson said, "I feel for the first time in my career that I'm really on a team. "
That was equally why Brown - the professorial coach - momentarily lowered his guard and fired back at Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who had said it was an insult that his center, Shaquille O'Neal, had been just third in the MVP balloting.
"In spite of what Phil Jackson may think, Shaq would be no more valuable to this team than this little kid," Brown said. "He had to overcome so much. Statements like that in defense of his player really tick me off. But when you win all those championships, I guess you can say what the hell you want. "
This was history being etched across the First Union Center, as the Sixers won a best-of-seven series for the first time since 1984-85, as they won a Game 7 in Philadelphia for the first time since 1980-81, as they won a best-of-seven series for the first time in their last seven attempts.
This was the day the Raptors' Vince Carter got his diploma in a morning graduation ceremony at the University of North Carolina, then got taken to school by a Sixers team that has survived on grit, determination and a philosophy that Brown has worked overtime to infuse.
Each time this team has appeared to go as far as it possibly could, it has found a way to go farther.
That the Sixers will be opening the series against the Bucks tomorrow night at home is a marvelous testament to Snow's characterization of their makeup.
They got a remarkable career-high 16 assists from Iverson, who discovered an area in which to excel as he was shooting just 8-for-27 from the floor. They got 17 rebounds from Dikembe Mutombo, including nine off the offensive glass, one more than the entire Raptors roster. They got 16 points from Jumaine Jones, who was making the third-ever start of his two-year career. They had McKie lead the way with 22 points, just the second time in 11 postseason games that Iverson wasn't the team's high scorer.
With it all, they grew wings on the errant flight of the final shot of the day, from the left baseline by Carter with less than two seconds left. And as bedlam erupted on the court and spilled into the locker room, Snow couldn't help but recall all of those conversations, all the way back to last season.
"There's a camaraderie here, a caring," Snow said after contributing 13 points, blocking out the discomfort of tendinitis in his right foot that leaves him limping late in games.
"There's no jealousy. Everybody supports each other. Everybody thinks about one thing, and that's winning. Winning together. It starts with coach Brown and [president] Pat Croce, guys who work hard, who do things the right way. And now we have the best player thinking the same way. When that happens, everybody else just follows suit. "
Follow the leader. Iverson, who scored 54 and 52 points in two earlier games in this taut series, struggled mightily with his shot and landed hard on his already-sore tailbone early in the third quarter. He stared into a firestorm of double teams and scanned the floor for open teammates, "not just an open man, a guy open for a shot that he could make. "
"I feel so good about this win because I know, I really, really know and believe inside I have a team for the first time in my life," he said. "I have a team I feel we really can win a championship with. I really feel like we've got an opportunity. "
From there, Iverson's mind flashed to other words, from another source. "Sonny Hill [a senior adviser to the team] always jokes about our games being ugly," he said. "Yeah, it was an ugly game because of the way I shot. Yeah, it's ugly when we shoot [42.7] percent, but the results are pretty. "
The sheer chance of reaching the NBA's equivalent of the Final Four was what nudged Iverson back on the floor after he hurt his tailbone.
"The first time I went to the bench it was hurting so bad, I said to myself, 'After all this time, all year getting hurt, I'm getting hurt in Game 7,' " Iverson said. "I was thinking about sitting out, it hurt so bad, worse than the last time I fell on it. [Then] I just looked in [his teammates'] faces, and it was bothering me, bothering me. . .
"As soon as I heard the horn, I just got up and walked toward the table to go back into the game. I never thought about it again 'til right now. "
Brown thinks incessantly about the growth of this improbable team. "I've had a lot of terrific years in terms of dealing with kids who have made sacrifices," Brown said, "but this team has overcome more than any team I've ever been involved with. "
You could make the argument that, on the day Carter got his diploma, the Sixers graduated.