Sixers just cancelled showtime

This article was originally published in the Daily News on February 23, 2001.

Pat Croce's parade started four months early. The Sixers marched a third of their team out of town.

They traded four of the guys responsible for the dazzling game of movement that has made this team the only one in the National Boredom Association worth watching on a regular basis. Traded them for a guy who could pass for one of those monoliths on Easter Island.

Dikembe Mutombo is a 7-2 traffic island who collects rebounds by the dozen. He also will turn 35 on June 25, a date Croce, Larry Brown and Billy King hope will find them celebrating an NBA title with a parade down Broad Street.

And if Mutombo sends Croce off to tilt at the next windmill of Croce's fertile mind with a ring on his finger, then yesterday's franchise-rattling deal with the Atlanta Hawks will be worth the massive surgery it required.

My objection to the trade of injured All-Star Theo Ratliff, intermittent underachiever Toni Kukoc and lightly played foot soldiers Nazr Mohammed and Pepe Sanchez for Mutombo and small forward Roshown McLeod is rooted in decidedly subjective reasons.

My interest in the NBA's version of basketball had dwindled to near zero in recent seasons. The world's best athletes seemed caught in the quicksand of "SportsCenter" highlights, slams, treys and thrown punches. Four defenders standing in a quasi-zone defense while the guy with the basketball and his defender play a game of H-O-R-S-E-B-L-E-E-P.

Then Larry Brown put together a team that played like a really good college team. These Sixers played like Final Four veterans, Tar Heels with an MBA in NBA. The name of their game was an in-your-face defense that helped create a furious fastbreak. They mastered a halfcourt offense in which guys actually looked for each other, even superstar Allen Iverson.

The Sixers seemed impervious to injuries that, at one time or another, cost Brown the services of Eric Snow, Matt Geiger, Kukoc, Tyrone Hill and, finally, Ratliff. Why cancel the show after 41 showstopping performances?

What appeared to be a gutsy, thrilling, what-next march to a division title and Eastern Conference best record (still a lock) was less a basketball season than a lovefest. It was impossible to ignore the competitive and emotional similarities between these Sixers and the 1993 Phillies.

Imagine what it would have been like if Lee Thomas had come to midseason and traded Curt Schilling, Darren Daulton and a couple of prospects for Cecil Fielder and a throw-in.

Perhaps my views on the importance of clubhouse and lineup chemistry have been overdeveloped by so many years covering baseball. I discovered the best managers are the ones who have clubhouses that run themselves. The strong guy is not always a star. Dallas Green had John Vukovich, the 25th man on the roster, a .161 hitter who could tell current boss, Larry Bowa, to "zip it up, Pee Wee. " Jim Fregosi had Daulton.

There was enough character in Brown's locker room for a potential crisis to be averted. The players told him that he had been a little unfair after a lopsided home loss to Dallas, that maybe he should back off just a little. Brown gave himself a two-day sabbatical. The Sixers have been nearly unbeatable since that defining air freshener.

So that is the rock-solid team concept put at risk by cleaning out so many lockers.

My other objection involves swapping youth for age.

Go old. . .No gold.

No need to dredge up some of the horrendous trades made by previous Sixers regimes. This is, after all, the lineal descendant of the franchise that traded Wilt Chamberlain in his prime, dumped a still-useful Moses Malone to trigger a nightmare of ineptitude, and failed to achieve detente with Charles Barkley.

Let's be real. . .Theo Ratliff is not a Chamberlain, Malone or Barkley. And Kukoc had played himself onto the bench.

But Mutombo, one of the classiest men ever to grace the NBA, has more tire marks than the Schuylkill Expressway. Can he stand up to two months of playoff pounding? Will he be ready to confront whichever Goliath strides out of the West?

Obviously, Brown, King and Croce think he will. They also regard him as insurance against the Sixers being worn down by a playoff opponent in the East and never getting to the NBA final round.

Five-year plans rarely succeed. When the Phillies began their current five-year plan six years ago, Bill Giles was in charge. The result: five losing seasons, two fired managers, one fired general manager, one traded superstar, no parade.

The death last week of righthander Bob Buhl, two days before Braves roommate Eddie Mathews passed away, awakened memories of the worst youth-for-age trade in local history. Before the 1966 season, Phils GM John Quinn and manager Gene Mauch decided they could win the pennant with two veteran starters to back Jim Bunning and Chris Short.

They bundled three young prospects to the Cubs for elderly righthanders Larry Jackson and Buhl. Two of the prospects, Adolfo Phillips and John Herrnstein, never made it.

The third, a gangly righthander named Ferguson Jenkins, won 284 games and went to Cooperstown.

Go old. . .No gold.