This article was originally published in the Daily News on January 26, 2001.
Pat Croce, sitting 20 rows up in the Compaq Center, blew a kiss to Ann Iverson in the second row as the clock clicked to zero and the 76ers stole out of Houston with one more improbable, seemingly unlikely victory.
The Sixers' president and Allen Iverson's passionate mom threw up their arms in exultation Wednesday night, having just seen what had begun as one of the ugliest games in memory transform itself into one more portrait.
This time, the Sixers set a franchise record with their 12th straight road victory, surviving an awful shooting performance but still tightening the screws defensively, still digging in when they seemed to be the only ones who believed they could.
Believe it? Me, I'll believe anything. I've been saying that for weeks. I'll believe sweeping nine sets of back-to-backs, already three more sweeps than all last season. I'll believe Iverson, a tiny dynamo with a bottomless pool of energy, having his finest season. I'll believe Aaron McKie climbing out of a sick bed to play 39 minutes. I'll believe Tyrone Hill, still feeling the effects of a form of vertigo, taking 19 rebounds. I'll believe Theo Ratliff playing with a sprained right wrist that made it difficult to shoot jumpers and free throws.
I'll believe they will all be there again tonight to face the visiting Detroit Pistons, telling anyone willing to listen that they're anything but overachievers. I'll also believe that a couple of stormy player/coach meetings earlier in the season somehow seem to have strengthened the fabric of all parties.
I'll believe Iverson is as worthy a Most Valuable Player candidate as Sacramento's Chris Webber, Portland's Rasheed Wallace or anyone else you want to include. And I'll believe the Sixers' Larry Brown is as viable a candidate for coach of the year as the Kings' Rick Adelman, Dallas' Don/Donn Nelson or anyone else.
But I'll also believe Brown is absolutely correct when he insists that, unless the Sixers play to their strengths in every facet, they are as capable of losing to any opponent as they are of beating any. They were more than capable of losing to the Rockets, of getting worn down by the athleticism of Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley. Instead, they all but invented a way to win.
Imperfect? Sure. But if you want to criticize Brown for playing six men through the last 29 minutes of Sunday's loss to Toronto - and I got flooded with e-mail about that - feel just as free to compliment him for conjuring up offensive sets and defensive schemes to help his team fight through injury and illness to beat the Rockets in OT. If you want to question the coach for having difficulty finding a consistent role for Toni Kukoc, give him credit for winning without Eric Snow, Speedy Claxton and Matt Geiger.
Give him credit for winning with McKie at the point - hardly his natural, or best, position. Give him credit for driving Ratliff to become the NBA leader in blocks, for resurrecting the career of Hill, seemingly lost and disconsolate in Milwaukee. No player has Brown in his ear more than George Lynch, but Lynch has responded like a warrior.
And finally, accept the fact that Brown and Iverson might never truly be on the same page in terms of lifestyle or interests, but they've found a path of coexistence. Give Iverson credit for buying into the coach's program, and give the coach credit for accepting that they really are from different worlds.
And one last thing:
I'm not predicting - I won't predict - a championship. But that's not the point. The real point is, they're on the road to the top, on a fascinating journey. When you buy your tickets, when you pick up your Daily News, when you pay your cable bill, when you gather around the water cooler or the coffee pot, that's all you can really ask.
So far - and I don't want to hear any of you yelp that you predicted a 32-10 start, a 12-game road winning streak and nine back-to-back sweeps - you've gotten way more than you had any right to hope for.