PHILADELPHIA — Before his first game as a 76er, during the player introductions, Julius Erving received a package. It was a doctor's bag, delivered to the court by legendary fan Steve Solms. More, it was a message.
Four years earlier, the Sixers had won nine games, losing 73. That was followed by two more losing seasons, then a 46-36 playoff team, then the arrival of Erving, the iconic Dr. J, after the NBA-ABA merger. Four times in the next seven years, the Sixers would reach at least the NBA finals, winning the championship in 1983.
“Different times,” Erving was saying the other night at the Wells Fargo Center. “When I came in, it was already a playoff team. So it wasn't that big a jump to get to 50. When you have to get to 50 from 20, that's a lot.”
Soon enough, the Sixers will attempt to make that leap again, and most likely from much fewer than 20 wins. They will try to wiggle through the lottery and use a stash of draft choices to reprise their late-'70s, early-'80s dominance, certain that is the only way to construct a winning NBA program. They have convinced their fans of that, at least, soothing them with promises, making them ignore the bad defense, the worse defense, the unacceptable defense, like the kind played the other night against Washington, in a 122-103 loss.
That was the night Erving was back to celebrate franchise greatness, helping to welcome Allen Iverson's No. 3 into the constellation of retired franchise jerseys. That was the night they kept introducing former stars in the stands, hoping to distract the capacity crowd from what was happening on the floor, where the Wizards were scoring 41 first-quarter points.
Yet that was also the night that the honored guest himself, Iverson, would say this: “It's hard for me to watch Sixers basketball games. So I don't.”
That was only part of Iverson's message, which was quite more understanding. He did stress that he believed the franchise was destined to win, that the ownership had that commitment, that the basketball minds were clear. Yet with every former star player introduced — Moses Malone, Andrew Toney, Theo Ratliff, Aaron McKie, plenty of others — the contrast between what that franchise was and what it had become was more vivid.
“I want to get out there,” Iverson said, “and help those guys.”
Even if he never practiced, which would be a possibility, he would lend something the Sixers lack — a game-night passion, a competitive burn, the professional dignity to close out on a three-point shooter. That's what the Sixers had in Iverson. That's what they had in Erving, whose aura would change in the fourth quarter, when he would thrust out his chest, demand the ball and win games.
Now, the Sixers give away good players for nothing, defend when they feel like it, hire minor league players on a weekly basis, and consider a trip to the lottery, not to the playoffs, a virtue.
“I think it's been clear,” Erving said. “The Sixers are rebuilding right now. Sometimes you have to go two or three steps backward before you can go forward. I think that's exactly where the Sixers are with the Evan Turner trade, and trading Spencer Hawes. Those are two additional steps on the downward spiral, if you will, before it gets turned around.
“And it will be turned around through the young players coming through, and draft picks, and hopefully being able to get somebody in the free-agent marketplace.”
Erving works for the Sixers as an adviser, so that's one reason he was hesitant to criticize. Another is that he always has been a man of dignity, slam-dunking things only when necessary. It's also possible that he is correct, though that won't be validated for years.
“Oh, yeah, it will,” he said. “There is a plan in place. And it's not something you announce to the world how you do it. You announce to the world that you are doing that. And that's already been announced.”
That's the prescription. And one more demand for a cure.