This article was originally published in the Inquirer on March 19, 2001.
We have watched Allen Iverson emerge as the league's top candidate for most valuable player. We have witnessed the coaching acumen of Larry Brown. Combine those talents with the character of the 76ers - their ability to hurdle obstacles - and it's safe to assume that the Eastern Conference route to the NBA Finals will roll through Philadelphia.
Obviously, that's fine with the Sixers as well as Philadelphia's fans, who have been starving for a championship by any pro team for nearly two decades.
Now, the question should be: Has anyone considered the ramifications of the Sixers' winning a title?
There has been the trade in which Dikembe Mutombo, the 7-foot-2 center, arrived, and Theo Ratliff departed. Brown is scheduled to visit a doctor today because of "chest and stomach discomfort," and Iverson has been out with an injured left hip and flank. Add Saturday's loss in Milwaukee and Tim Thomas - yet another exiled Sixer - to the equation and something will be awry when the Sixers play Seattle tonight at KeyArena.
Listen to the noise reverberating off the First Union Center's walls before, during, and after every Sixers game. It's difficult to walk three feet without hearing: How's Larry? Is this really Pat Croce's last year? What are the Sixers going to do?
With Brown's health in question - and stress is one of several potential causes, according to Jack McPhilemy, the team physician - is it really far-fetched to believe that Brown could say adios if the Sixers win it all this year? Isn't Croce, the team's president, the man without a contract after this season? Isn't general manager Billy King waiting in the wings to run the whole show?
The questions are legitimate, no matter what the Sixers try to deny.
Consider what took place with Brown and Iverson in the second quarter of Friday night's blowout loss to the Sacramento Kings.
After sitting Iverson on the bench for more minutes than the mercurial star would have preferred, Brown received a venomous stare from the league's leading scorer. Brown paused, then stared back incredulously at Iverson - who played 40 minutes that night - as he was walking to the scorer's table. The coach then looked at his assistants in exasperation - one of his I-give-up moments.
True, times have gotten incredibly better with Iverson. True, he has improved tremendously, and Brown is ecstatic about it. But Iverson is still going to be a maverick. And Brown will never cease being meticulous.
Pacers president Donnie Walsh, Brown's former boss, once told me: "Every player that Brown has ever coached absolutely loves and appreciates the man beyond comprehension. But it is always after Brown is gone. "
But Brown is still here. He is not feeling too well these days. He's stressed. He's annoyed periodically. He is 60 years old and a multimillionaire. More money never hurts, but he will never need a welfare check. On top of that, expectations for the Sixers have not plummeted, they have risen.
No one wants to hear this nonsense about getting through the Eastern Conference. The Sixers have given up Ratliff and Toni Kukoc. They had given up Larry Hughes for Kukoc. They drafted Hughes instead of Boston's Paul Pierce, knowing they needed a shooter. They traded away one in Thomas for Tyrone Hill.
While their moves have been understandable and sensible is most instances, the Sixers still sacrificed their young. If they are now telling us that it was all so they could just get out of the vastly depleted East, we would be fools to accept that notion.
They're going for it all. And the evidence that has piled up the last few weeks may show why.
Brown is human, and he's also getting too old to deal with stressful circumstances. Croce - love him as much as you will - has neither a contract after this season nor the best relationship in the world with Ed Snider, the Comcast-Spectacor minority owner. Moreover, Croce promised to return the Sixers to championship glory in five years, a timetable that will end in three months.
To leave on top means departing on one's own terms. Think about both Brown and Croce.
Would either choose to have it any other way?