Man of the moment

This article was originally published on February 23, 2001.

Pat Croce vaulted to the Sixers forefront nearly five years ago and said that he would be looking for a championship parade by this June.

Larry Brown arrived nearly four years ago, promising to do his best to deliver the goods.

Judging by what took place yesterday, it appears as if Brown and Billy King believe that they can do just that.

With Dikembe Mutombo. Without Theo Ratliff. This season. No excuses given. None allowed.

So expect your parade, folks! Think about now. Because while the immediate future looks pleasant, what lies beyond doesn't figure to be nearly as pretty.

Let the 76ers' hierarchy of team president Croce, coach Brown and general manager King sugercoat matters for you any way they want to. Let them tell you that they weren't sure about Theo Ratliff's knee or wrist, that Ratliff is undersized and incapable of rebounding against or fending off the big boys.

But after 50 games, the Sixers were an NBA-best 36-14 despite all their injuries, and the "Swatmeister," as Croce so eloquently referred to Ratliff, was en route to his first all-star appearance. And now the team is 41-16.

What yesterday's six-player deal comes down to is this: The Sixers were afraid that they wouldn't get past Miami - or possibly New York - in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and they wanted to ensure themselves of a trip to the NBA Finals.

What the deal should result in is this: David Stern handing Croce and Brown the NBA championship trophy.

Anything less would be unacceptable.

In getting Mutombo, who will become a free agent after this season, the Sixers acquired one of the league's true gentle giants (albeit one generously tagged as being only 34 years old). To acquire him, they let go of a player seven years his junior, clearly with a bigger upside on both ends of the court, completely capable of the kind of defensive dominance Mutombo has exhibited for years.

Now Ratliff is gone. So, barring a significant sign-and-trade deal, the Sixers have mortgaged their future.

Forget about all the talk that the malaria Mutombo contracted last off-season is why his numbers have dipped. He will be every bit the formidable defensive force the Sixers expect him to be. He will rebound. He will block shots. But if those things don't translate into championship glory, then the trade simply wasn't worth it.

Ratliff was averaging a league-leading 3.7 blocks per game. He had established himself as a primary defensive force. If you need proof, get a tape of the Sixers playing Miami, New York or anyone else in the East and watch how often players pump-faked every time Ratliff was in the vicinity.

Getting through the East in the playoffs would not have been easy with the team constructed as it was, but the Eastern title still was the Sixers' for the taking, especially with the home-court advantage (and they have nine more victories than second-place Milwaukee with 27 games to play). Panic supplanted common sense.


Is Croce eager to go somewhere so quickly that he needs a title now? Is minority owner Ed Snider holding Croce's five-year promise over his head, ready to push his effervescent team president out the door?

And what about Brown, who signed a five-year contract extension with the Sixers last spring? Five years from now, are the Sixers going to be better with Mutombo than they would have been with Ratliff? Will Brown be around to find out?

"We felt this could be our time," Brown said.

Well, it better be. The pressure is on. But none of it should be because of the trading of Toni Kukoc.

Kukoc, who signed a hefty contract in the off-season, underachieved miserably in Philadelphia. Once training camp ended in October, after George Lynch had bullied Kukoc around in practices, it didn't matter, anyway. His teammates thought that he was overpaid and suffered from Tin Man syndrome (no heart). They didn't care whether he stayed or left.

But Ratliff was another story. Yes, his durability was questionable. He played fewer than 60 games in each of the last two regular seasons and might not have played that many this season. But he performed. He ran from no one. He anchored the Sixers' defense.

Mutombo will do the same. But would his presence be enough to beat a deep Portland squad? Or can he be the difference in a series against San Antonio? Would he improve the Sixers' chances against Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers (who might not be able to beat the Sixers anyway, because of all the childishness going on involving Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal)? Brown's center-by-committee scheme would have been no less effective.

In January, Brown - a coaching genius who, if there is a way to win, will usually find it - had said of the possibility of trading Ratliff: "That's the future. I couldn't give up the future for Mutombo. "

Yesterday, King said that Brown had changed his mind.

Because of that decision, winning now is mandatory. Tomorrow no longer matters.

It's not about a conference crown anymore. It's about the whole enchilada.

Winning, said Vince Lombardi, isn't everything. It's the only thing.

Will Larry Brown, with the pressure he has brought on himself, think the same in June.