Sam Donnellon: Feels like glory days for Sixers

Posted: January 19, 2012

AT TIMES, Aaron McKie gets that feeling again, the one he carries around in his pocket as if it is his license. Andre Iguodala feathers a pass to Evan Turner in midflight for a slam and the Wells Fargo crowd collectively hits its feet. Elton Brand hits the deck for a loose ball under his own basket. Evan Turner finishes off a tic-tac-toe fastbreak slam. Jrue Holiday goes behind his back on a drive down the lane in traffic, slamming it as punctuation, and the 15,201 hit their feet again.

Noise. Noise. Noise. Nothing like it here since, well, 2001.

"I started to feel that way last year," McKie was saying before the Sixers lost in overtime last night to the Denver Nuggets, another game in their young season with a heart-attack finish. "This group is a little bit more talented than we were. I think we were a little bit more feisty. But we've got a chance to be really good. And, man, it's fun to see our young guys develop."

That was before the game. Before one of their youngest, 21-year-old point guard Jrue Holiday, exemplifying "work in progress," passed the ball to the other guys with a couple of ticks left on the clock, dooming a last chance to win this game or at least send it to a second overtime period. The down side of a team dependent on young legs is that they are attached to young minds. And in a game in which 400-year-old Andre Miller scored most of his 28 points with his noggin, the Sixers' youthful roster generated leads, deficits, comebacks and finally, a fatal last-second mistake.

"What I always tell Jrue," McKie had said beforehand, "is that you want to be a point guard where some day [head coach] Doug [Collins] is sitting over there with his legs crossed because you're out there calling the shots. That's the goal to be a championship team."

They are not that. Not yet. They have won 10 of their 14 games this season, and they try hard, night after night. It is enough to beat the many dysfunctional NBA teams out there and become an increasingly tough out for the well-constructed, star-laden ones. But is there enough here to believe it can ever be any more than that?

Or do you need at least one Sixer to emerge into bona-fide stardom, good enough to become one of those NBA marketing vehicles that commissioner David Stern touted during a supportive visit to the Wells Fargo Center last night? Do you need at least one of them to become a reason to believe that this team is on the precipice not of competitiveness, but a championship?

"I mean, you've got to start somewhere," Collins was saying. "I mean, you don't just wake up and become a championship team unless you get lucky and win the lottery. You have to build. Everybody wants to be a champion. There's only one of those a year. Does that mean people in those 29 other places don't enjoy their teams?"

Clearly there is a building vibe about this team, and for the same reason really that people here have always shunned the pro game for the college one. The Sixers play each game as if their RPI depends on it. They share the ball, defend hard, and thus far at least, accept that their head coach, seasoned by 5 decades of involvement as a player, coach, television analyst and policy maker, knows best.

But the formula for winning NBA championships, at least recently, is hardly about that. It's about constructing from what's out there, not from within. That's why Brand is here, why Chris Webber stopped in, why Miller came and went.

Really, it's how the Sixers of 2001 reached the NBA Finals. Eric Snow, Dikembe Mutombo, even McKie all came from somewhere else.

"Very few teams will sit around and watch their guys develop, play with each other for 4 or 5 years," McKie said. "Sometimes, media creates it. They say, 'There's a need at this position.' You have the knee-jerk reaction. And you do it. And a year later, you look up and you've blown the team up."

"I would like to think that we don't have to be like somebody else," said Collins. "That we can create our own path. Sometimes your team is not laden with super-duper stars. That doesn't mean you don't have really good players. That doesn't mean you can't win a lot of basketball games.

"I'm a big sweat-equity guy. When you put yourself into something and you go through the losing and the heartbreak and you're trying to get better every year and you do it with certain guys, there's a camaraderie that exists over what you've been through together. The feelings you've had when maybe things haven't gone the way you've liked them to."

That was last night. Good play, bad play, smart play, dumb play.

But effort throughout.

"Isn't that what this city is?" said the coach. That's the rep. That's why we like our Big 5, why we like watching wide-eyed kids over sometimes disinterested and often well-paid adults. Mostly, though, we like our championships, or even flirtations with them, and if we even sense that this team is moving us toward them, we will hit the floor for them nightly, too.

"Eventually, I think we can be both," Collins said. "A team that's hard-working and able to win a championship. But it's going to be piece by piece. And you can't get sidetracked. As a coach, I try to make these guys understand that if we come out to play every night, this city is going to embrace you."


Send email to donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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