The Final Answer

This article was originally published in the Inquirer on June 4, 2001.

More than four minutes remained in the game, but 76ers president Pat Croce was courtside at the First Union Center, hugging friends and high-fiving.

With 2 minutes, 51 seconds to go, the crowd was serenading Allen Iverson, chanting MVP . . . MVP. When 1:21 remained, Aaron McKie was shadowboxing with Iverson, center Dikembe Mutombo was signaling for the fans to get off their feet and raise the roof.

And to accentuate the moment, the sellout crowd of 21,046 frenzied followers began roaring Beat L.A.. . . Beat L.A.

The Los Angeles Lakers are next for the Sixers, who are heading to the NBA Finals for the first time in nearly two decades.

After years of agony, frustration and ineptitude, the Sixers have returned to the glory days. Because Iverson scored a game-high 44 points, because Mutombo chipped in with 23 points, 19 rebounds and 7 blocked shots, and because a guy named Raja Bell came off the bench to give the team a huge lift - the Sixers beat the Milwaukee Bucks, 108-91, last night to win the Eastern Conference finals.

They are heading to the Finals for the first time since 1983.

The Sixers captured the series, four games to three, taking full advantage of the home-court edge they acquired because of a 56-26 regular-season record. They did it by using Iverson's herculean 17-for-33 shooting performance from the field.

The outlook is ominous, at best, as the Sixers head to the Staples Center for Game 1 against the Lakers on Wednesday night.

The Lakers have not lost a game since April Fool's Day, winning 19 in a row. In the postseason, they have swept Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio - three teams considered more potent than the Sixers. Come game time, L.A. will have had 10 days' rest, Shaquille O'Neal's ankle injury will be healed, and Kobe Bryant will be looking to make amends for the thrashing he took from Iverson when the Lakers last played the Sixers in February.

Predictably, the Sixers didn't want to discuss such matters yesterday. They preferred to reflect. From nearly trading Iverson last summer, to coach Larry Brown's taking two days off, to his suffering from acid reflux weeks later, and mounting player injuries that threatened to derail their path toward one common goal, the Sixers finally exhaled last night.

Like graduates with black, red, blue and gold uniforms as their gowns, the Sixers pranced around the First Union Center hugging one another, soaking up the euphoria, realizing that their goal of becoming Eastern Conference champions finally had been accomplished.

"This is special because of everything I went through [last] summer," an emotional Iverson said. "All season long, people were talking about whether me and Coach [Brown] could coexist. Just a bunch of talk. All I thought about was I had the opportunity to change everything around by just doing the little things. Being the first one to practice and the last one to leave - sometimes," he said to laughter.

"Just trying to set a good example. Do other things that I hadn't done before. I never approached this as a business, and that's what it is. So my whole thing was to try and be a professional and take care of that part of it. I felt like if I did all the little things, then I could look in the mirror after the season was over. If we won it or not, I could say that I did all I could, and that's the way I feel right now.

"When you work hard, good things happen. Obviously so. We're going to the Finals. "

Perhaps the first clue of yesterday's outcome occurred in the second quarter, when Bell was sent into the game. Little used and lesser known, the Sixers' 6-foot-4 guard came off the bench and provided an immediate spark. He scored on a flying fastbreak slam with 7:40 left in the half, finished off a 12-0 run with a fastbreak layup. After watching Iverson drill two straight treys to complete an 18-2 run, Bell added a three.

By halftime, the Sixers were up, 56-50. Milwaukee was struggling big-time.

"Raja gave us a huge lift," said Brown, who will make his first trip to the Finals. "I can't say enough about the kid. "

Said Iverson: "I asked Coach at halftime, 'Where did you get this kid from? ' Coach just pointed to his heart, saying that's where Raja plays from. "

Because of six straight points at the end of the third, punctuated by a three from Iverson, the Sixers ended the quarter up, 82-71. Four minutes earlier, Bucks guard Ray Allen - playing like an all-star for most of this series - had gone down with a left-knee injury after a collision with Sixers guard Eric Snow. And when Iverson started the fourth quarter with another three, the Sixers were on a 9-0 run, up by 85-71, pushing the Bucks back on their heels.

From there, it was a catch-up game for the Bucks, something they are not good at. Because they shoot from the perimeter, because of their inability to attack inside, they were no match for the Sixers.

With 7:33 remaining in the game, a jumper by Iverson put the Sixers up, 93-80. Two free throws by Mutombo extended it to 95-80. Two more by Mutombo - whose rebounding ability annihilated any chance of a Milwaukee comeback - pushed the Sixers ahead by 101-83 with 4:38 left.

A celebration was forthcoming.

Years of frustration and hard times had transformed into euphoria for a franchise in desperate need of joy. There were memories of Croce taking over as president, drafting Iverson No. 1 overall in 1996, and bringing aboard Brown.

Croce had promised Comcast-Spectacor minority owner Ed Snider that this franchise would return to glory in a span of five years. Yesterday, one significant goal had been accomplished.

"What has transpired over the last five years proves that dreams really can come true," Croce said. "It proves that all obstacles can be overcome if you truly believe they can. Me, Allen, this organization are all living proof of that. "

So is the latest title earned by the Sixers: Eastern Conference champions.