"It was the beginning," Pat Croce, the 76ers' exuberant former president, said of the '96 lottery in a recent telephone interview. "It truly was the beginning."
Like this season's 19-63 team, the 1995-96 squad recorded the NBA's second-worst record, a woeful 18-64. But in '96, the Sixers' chances to land the No. 1 pick were much greater, 33.73 percent compared to 19.9 percent tonight. Forgotten over the years is that the expansion Raptors and Grizzlies were not eligible to win the lottery from '96 to '98, gifting the Sixers enhanced - and by far the league's best - odds.
When he arrived in Secaucus, N.J., home of the NBA Entertainment Studios, the ever-confident Croce was merely a couple months into his tenure with the Sixers, making their fifth consecutive lottery appearance. Croce carried with him two good luck charms: a Waterford Crystal basketball he had flown in from Ireland, stationed on the dais in front of him, and a lucky medal belonging to his late father, nestled in his pocket.
Also at the studio, Dave Coskey, then the Sixers' vice president of marketing, toted a propitious item of his own: dirty, white shoelaces that had been worn by Andrew Toney against the Celtics. Laces worn by "The Boston Strangler," Coskey figured, would ensure Philadelphia a better draft pick than its division rival, which ended up with the sixth pick.
Though Croce represented the Sixers during the televised unveiling, Coskey served as the team official to witness the actual drawing of the pingpong balls. There he was, sequestered from the TV set in a locked room with shielded windows, in the company of deputy commissioner Russ Granik, a young Adam Silver and reps from the other 12 lottery teams. No one could see in or out of the room. Once you were in, you couldn't leave.
Coskey learned of the Sixers' lottery victory at least 90 minutes before anyone else in the organization. The drawing was conducted before the eventual-champion Bulls and soon-to-be-swept Magic tipped off at the United Center for Game 1 of that year's Eastern Conference finals. The televised revealing, that year like many others, took place at halftime.
"Literally," Coskey said last week, "you have to sit there, wait for this NBA game to start and watch the first half of it and pretend like you feel bad for everybody else."
Coskey followed all the rules, to a point. Finally, when at halftime the room opened and its occupants filed out, he separated from the group and doubled back. Inside the room was a flip chart on which the draft order was listed, each city's name listed in brown magic marker, first to 13th. Coskey ripped off the list, rolled it up and slipped it up the sleeve of his suit jacket.
"Today," he said, "the flip chart's hanging framed in my office."
But the '96 lottery's most memorable moment came with the cameras rolling. The team reps were given clear instructions to remain seated; an NBA official, they were told, would bring the winner to Bob Costas for an interview. The directions were, as Coskey calls it now, "a waste of breath," when it came to Croce.
"That stuck in my mind," Croce recalled. "Being a very disciplined person and being brought up with nuns in grade school that beat me with those rulers when my ADD would kick in, I tried to be a good boy."
But when the Raptors were revealed as the owners of the No. 2 pick, Croce provided a national audience one of the all-time great draft-lottery reactions. He pumped his fists, slapped hands with the Vancouver rep seated to his left and then stood up and high-fived seemingly everyone else.
"Next thing I know I was looking over my shoulder for the nun to hit me with a ruler," Croce said. "It was just so fabulous. I think I kissed David Stern then when he came up."
It's worth noting that, in reality, the Raptors won the lottery, but the terms of their expansion agreement pushed them to No. 2. "It's like when someone gives you a birthday present and they stole it, hey, it's still a present," Croce was quoted as saying in the next day's Daily News.
Read back that comment all these years later, Croce laughed for close to 10 seconds. "It's true," he said. "It's funny; I don't remember that, but [it's] true. I don't care how we got it. It didn't matter."
The tide had officially begun to turn.
"You're taking over this awful team that had the worst record in the league, only 18 wins out of an 82-game schedule, and I'm telling everyone we're gonna strive for a championship, that we're gonna plan a parade," Croce said. "That [draft lottery] just demonstrated to the whole world, specifically our Philadelphia fans, that, 'Holy, mackerel,' some change might happen for the better for us."
Although he no longer works for the Sixers, Croce often thinks back to that day. Pondering it last week, he realized something he hadn't before revealed. That night, before hopping in the limousine to celebrate all the way back to Philly, he, like Coskey, snatched a souvenir: the red, white and blue 76ers basketball that had been propped in front of his spot on the dais.
Each day he spends in his Villanova office, Croce sees that ball, a frequent reminder of a day that transformed Philadelphia basketball. The current 76ers' leadership surely hopes that 18 years from now it's able to look back on tonight with similar affection.