Have there ever been higher hopes for a Philadelphia team, before the first pitch, the first dunk, the first punt return, the first hat trick, high apple pie in the sky hopes? You'd have to go back to Moses!
No, dummy, not that Moses, although it felt like Moses Malone was leading the Sixers out of darkness and into the sunshine, out of the slavery of despair and
into milk-and-honey freedom.
In Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and skimpy trophy cases, high hopes often share the baggage carousel with an anvil of negativity, a couple of shackles called fear and doubt, plus the sour smell of recent history.
Check it out. Over the last 50 mostly dismal years, the last time the fans felt this confident, this eager, this giddy, was 1982, the year the Sixers signed Malone to fill that chasm in the lineup.
Said all the right things when he got here. Said it was "Doc's team" and he was just here to help. Asked to explain his amazing rebounding prowess, he said, "Moses just goes to the rack." It was
suggested that if he opened up just a tad he could have the key to the city.
"Moses," he grumbled, "don't want no key to the city."
They finished 65-17 in the regular season. Asked a throwaway question about how he thought the playoffs might go, Malone gave us a classic reply. "Fo', fo', fo'!" is what he said.
They blanked the Knicks, 4-0, beat the Bucks, 4-1, and then zapped the Lakers, 4-0. Malone outrebounded Kareem, 72-30, and outscored him, 103-94, and we had a parade.
There were three other moments in Sixers history where the folks started talking funny. You inhale the helium from the high-hopes balloon and you talk funny. Fast, shrill.
First time came midseason, Jan. 13, 1965, when the San Francisco Warriors swapped Wilt Chamberlain to the Sixers for $150,000 and Connie Dierking, Lee Shaffer and Paul Neumann. It took 2 years and a change of coaches, from
Dolph Schayes to Alex Hannum, before that move paid off.
That '66-67 team won 46 of its first 50 games. Wilt led the league in rebounds, was third in assists. Made 68 percent of his shots. Beat Frisco in the Finals.
The next euphoric moment came when GM Pat Williams persuaded owner Fitz Dixon to spend $6 million to pry Julius Erving from the Nets. Told Dixon that Erving was "the Babe Ruth of basketball," figuring Dixon might know who Ruth was.
It took six seasons and a new owner, Harold Katz, and Malone grabbing those rebounds, before the elegant Doctor J
finally got his ring.
Last time the Sixers had the excitement meter quivering, they got lucky in the 1996 lottery. Pat Croce was out front then and he plucked Allen Iverson with the first pick in the draft.
The Answer? Nah, just part of the riddle. It took Larry Brown four seasons to surround the scrawny but talented Iverson with enough gritty role players to get to the NBA Finals. A.I. stepped over
Tyronn Lue and tumbled down a cliff. Won that first game in Los Angeles and then dropped four in a row.
With the Phillies, anticipation followed relocation. The move out of decrepit
Connie Mack Stadium and into spacious Veterans Stadium, put some air back in the deflated high-hopes balloon.
In the mid-'70s, folks appreciated the farm-system harvest. Liked it, didn't love it. Partly because Michael Jack Schmidt was the greatest third baseman to ever play the game, but he had that aloof demeanor that turned people off. "Captain Cool" was his nickname and neatness was his game. They wanted dirt-stained pants and they got squeaky-clean trousers with a crease sharp enough to slice Velveeta.
They liked Larry Bowa until he called them front-runners. And they liked Greg Luzinski until he didn't catch that ball in leftfield.
It wasn't until the Phils signed Pete Rose in '79 that folks really looked forward to a season. Oops. Lots of injuries and a fourth-place finish. Then came 1980 and Rose somehow transformed Schmidt into an MVP. Dallas Green screeched and bellowed and Tug McGraw patted his chest and Dickie Noles knocked George Brett on his hemorrhoids. Lovely parade followed.
Nobody thought that '93 team would be that good, too many twilight guys, a whole lane of scruffy misfits on Macho Row. Lenny Dykstra smirking about his special vitamins. Mitch Williams tried to sneak a half-fastball past Joe Carter and it wound up in the seats. Another dream shattered. Jim Fregosi, the manager, didn't help the next year, insulting the fans in South Philly for tuning in to WIP radio. It wasn't until the team moved into the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park in 2004 that the city was ready to embrace the Phillies again. The love was rewarded in 2008 with a championship and suddenly hardly anybody thought Charlie Manuel talked
funny, and the ones who did, didn't care.
The Flyers won back-to-back championships in the early '70s and hockey people still haven't forgiven them for the apt nickname, Broad Street Bullies. How else can you
explain why Fred Shero isn't in the hockey Hall of Fame?
Lots of coaching changes through the years. Too many coaches, not enough
Russians. They thought they'd found the
ever-popular Missing Piece when they signed Eric Lindros. Big, strong, swift guy. Trouble was, he had so much glass in his handsome jaw he tinkled when he skated.
And, oh yeah, he arrived with a mama
who wanted to know who his linemates were going to be. Philadelphians bristle at mama's boys, which is something Donovan McNabb discovered years later.
They finally got Peter Forsberg back, but by then he'd had so many X-rays his right foot glowed in the dark. They got to the finals last year and they have a no-nonsense coach and a fistful of scorers and an amazing young
goalie, so maybe this is the year.
The scrappy Eagles won it all in 1960, coming from behind to beat Vince Lombardi and his Green Bay Packers. Hardly anyone thought they could do it again the next year because the coach (Buck Shaw) had retired and the quarterback (Norm Van Brocklin) left in a huff (not Sam), saying the team had reneged on a promise to make him the coach.
Lean years followed. Jerry Wolman bought the team in December 1963 and hired Joe
Kuharich to coach it. Then he compounded that mistake by giving Kuharich a 15-year
contract. Joe said trading quarterbacks was "rare but not unusual" and then swapped
Sonny Jurgensen for Norm Snead.
Wolman's finances crumbled and Leonard Tose bought the team. It struggled some more until he hired Dick Vermeil away from UCLA despite a cupboard bare of top draft choices. Vermeil took the Eagles to the Super Bowl ahead of schedule but they played against Oakland like they'd been on Bourbon Street all night, when they had hardly been out at all.
Tose squandered millions at the blackjack tables and had to sell the club to Norman
Braman. Bottom Line Braman pinched
pennies 'til Lincoln cried. Buddy Ryan called him "the guy in France" which didn't help
his job security. They had the best defensive player in the game in Reggie White and the most exciting quarterback in Randall
Cunningham and they couldn't win a
Bottom Line Braman axed Ryan, let White walk and finally tired of the criticism and the commute from Miami and sold the team to Jeff Lurie for a breathtaking $185 million.
Lurie baffled people by talking about championships (plural) and "the gold standard." He doesn't say as many dumb things these days, because he rarely says anything.
The fans never embraced McNabb (maybe the air guitar got in the way) and they have never wrapped their arms around Andy Reid (insert your own fat joke). He gets the team
into the playoffs most years, but they've only been to the Big Dance once and they stumbled down the stretch. He keeps promising
to do a better job.
Deviated from his buttoned-down persona once, by hiring Terrell Owens. Owens was a swift pain in the butt, but he played gallantly in the Super Bowl, which is more than
McNabb did. They lost a home playoff game to Green Bay this past season, and yep, Reid said he's gotta do a better job.
Philadelphia fans are tough, wary of one more heartbreak. Performance trumps personality. Yo, nobody uses Roy Halladay and barrel of laughs in the same sentence. Work ethic is valued more than wry one-liners, which is why they knew Moses Malone was the answer and Allen Iverson was not.
Cliff Lee wanted to pitch here, which shows you how smart he is and how far we've come in the last 50 years. Which is why the Phillies spent $10 million to improve the scoreboard. Fifty years ago, the entire payroll didn't add up to $10 million. And the scoreboard? Two guys listening to By Saam on the radio and sliding metallic numbers into the slots.
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