Team with big heart gives new meaning to 'City of Brotherly Love'
This article was originally published in the Daily News on June 6, 2001.
EVEN IF the IMPOSSIBLE happens - and the 76ers do not win another game - we still owe them a debt of gratitude.
Not because they beat teams from Indiana, Toronto and Milwaukee to become Eastern Conference champions of the NBA. But because for several years now, they've fearlessly and enthusiastically taken on the toughest opponent anyone can face.
And thanks to an improbable and glorious playoff run to the NBA Finals, they've done what no politician, no empowerment zone, no Sunday walkathon could ever do.
They've brought us together.
Out in Los Angeles, there still echoes the plea of the famous freeway motorist Rodney King.
"Can't we all get along? "
But Broad Street - that great, wide artery that runs through the heart of what is best and worst in this city - has been transfused with goodwill.
And it is flowing to every branch of the metropolis - crossing racial, gender, ethnic and class divides.
"We are famous as a city for our divides," said Judith Sills, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia and an expert on relationships.
"But we're inspired by things we can share - a commonality that is something more than Billy Penn's hat. We're looking to be on the same side. . .At this moment in time, all our hearts are in the same place. "
Indeed the whole city is playing its own version of coach Larry Brown's basketball - team-oriented. Everyone's staying out of foul trouble.
People with nothing in common now have something nice to say to one another. And toddlers who can barely say anything point at the TV and say "Mutombo. "
The seat on the crowded bus opens up. And no one gets road rage when the Buick with fluttering Sixers flags runs the red light in Wynnefield.
In Grays Ferry, a hotbed of racial discord for years, the only black and white that matters on the Vare Recreation courts is the out-of-bounds line.
The Rev. Ralph Chieffo, of St. Mary Magdalen Church, in Media, attributes the change to the spirit of the 76ers.
"This week is the feast of the Holy Trinity," explained the Catholic priest, who spent nine years as pastor of King of Peace church in the heart of Grays Ferry, presiding over a racially mixed congregation.
"If we're created in the likeness of God, I see Larry Brown as the father who coached Allen Iverson, the son, and out of reverence and respect, the rest of the team caught the spirit.
"They've also converted a community long divided among racial and cultural lines, and helped us see that if we have a sense of discipline and play as a team, we can aspire the best out of everyone. "
Even newcomers to this country are drawn to the team.
Kalonji Jones hung his replica Iverson jersey on the open door of his Rosa Photos van outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service office on Callowhill Street the other day, and was deluged with business.
"Everyone was talking about the Sixers - Jamaican guys, then some Puerto Ricans came and then even some Korean guys," he said, shaking his head. "There was a lot of communicating going on. "
Dr. Diana Corao didn't know a thing about Philadelphia or basketball when she came to this country from Venezuela two years ago for medical residency at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Then this year, she and her husband, Dr. Jorge Uribe, went to a game.
"It was wonderful," said Corao, 28. "It was the first time we're in a city where the team was winning. I thought, 'This was my team, in my city. ' It brought us a little bit together. "
The approval the team has generated among Philadelphians started well before this year's storied run to the finals.
"One of the first things we talked about, four or five years ago, was how we could reach out to people who previously felt they were not a part of pro basketball in Philadelphia," said basketball legend Sonny Hill, an executive assistant to Sixers president Pat Croce.
The team sponsored clinics throughout the region and supported community organizations in the city. The results are on the playgrounds, populated with Iverson jerseys and kids cutting off the ends of their socks to imitate The Answer's arm support. And they're in the First Union Center and in the living rooms of the region every time the team plays.
"You see it very visually when you come to the game," said Hill. "The diverse people who support the team - light-hued, dark-hued, high economics, low economics, both genders and all religions. You don't see that at any other NBA arena. "
Philadelphians identify with the team, said Hill, because they're like us.
"They unite as a family, fight through adversity. The odds are against them, but they beat the odds. The odds are against people every day," Hill continued. "This team gives them hope, gives them the chance to say 'I can do it. ' "
To be fair, Philadelphia was making strides toward unity before the Sixers gelled as a team. Former Mayor Ed Rendell restored economic stability and tirelessly built our self-image by putting our best face in the national spotlight.
And Mayor Street has made genuine efforts to build the city's esteem with ambitious plans to improve city services in neighborhoods and attack blight and failing schools.
But the Sixers have given the city something that government cannot - a lift.
"It's something everybody can rally around - a wonderful way to bring honor to the city," said Temple University sports psychologist Michael Sachs.
And also a wonderful way to introduce Philadelphians to each other.
"What I've enjoyed is the opportunity to learn something from people who would ordinarily not tell me much," said psychologist Sills, who calls herself a "playoff slut" in characterizing her sudden interest in the team.
"Because we are such a sectored city, it was hard for me, a middle-aged Jewish person, to just start up a conversation with a black bodybuilder who is 28 years old. But last week, he and I sat for 20 minutes and discussed Mutombo. Now we share this. "
The expectations are not as high as they were in 1983 - the date of the last Philly championship - when Billy Cunningham led a team of stars to the world title. But like the rest of the city, Cunningham will enjoy the view from the sidelines, knowing that it's hard for anyone in the People's Court to be disappointed in this team.
"You always know what effort you're going to get," he said. "They're not going to back down. That's what Philadelphia stands for."