Monday, June 6, 2011

Absolutely Incredible: The 10-Year Anniversary of the 2001 76ers (and Game 1 of the NBA Finals)

Ten years ago today I, like an entire generation of Philadelphia 76ers fans, experienced the pinnacle of basketball enjoyment in my life to date. On this date a decade ago, June 6, 2001, the Philadelphia 76ers went to Los Angeles and defeated the previously undefeated (in the playoffs) Lakers to win game 1 of the NBA Finals in an overtime thriller. And it was the greatest moment of my basketball viewing life.

Back then, I was a baby-faced high school junior, just 17 years old — born more than a half a year after the last time the Sixers made it to the NBA Finals (and won) in 1983. And I remember every last second of that game and that season like it happened yesterday, even 10 years later as a 27-year-old who has a tough time remembering what I ate for lunch.

It’s no exaggeration when I say I’ve watched game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals dozens upon dozens of times. Not only did I watch the game live from home in suburban Philadelphia at the time, but I taped it at the same time. The next day, I asked my Latin teacher – who did not exactly enjoy having me in her class – if I could bring in the tape and watch it, seeing as it was the end of the year and everyone had checked out. Incredibly, the same teacher who had given me ISS (in-school suspension for you goody-two-shoes who never got in trouble) and two Saturday morning detentions for dropping a few “F” bombs at a girl for saying something to me she shouldn’t have actually, agreed to let me bring in the tape and have the class watch it. You bet your ass I brought it in and the class did just that.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s another person on the planet who’s watched that game more than me. On several occasions over the next year, I popped in the tape when I wasn’t doing anything else and watched every last second of it, yelling and screaming at the refs and plays (especially Rick Fox’s clear travel in overtime, where he slid across the floor with the ball in his possession) like it was live. I brought that tape to college and popped it in my TV/VCR combo anytime I felt down or needed motivation to do some work or when I was skipping class.

To this day, I still have that tape, worn and beat up, and though I don’t watch it much anymore since there’s no VCR in my current house, I’ve been known to sneak it in on occasion when I find a real, live, working VCR.

That might sound insane and unhealthy to a lot of people, but not if you’re a Sixers fan, and certainly not if you lived through the 2000-01 Sixers season.

For those you outside Philadelphia, you have to understand where I’m coming from. For my entire childhood, the Sixers were one of the laughingstocks of the league. I came around in the post-Dr. J era, when the team consisted of Charles Barkley and little else. Hersey Hawkins and Johnny Dawkins were the only respectable players I remember playing with him.

Names like Charles Shackleford, Jeff Malone, Shawn Bradley, Clarence Weatherspoon, Dana Barros and Manute Bol were the biggest names in town, and as you can imagine, the Sixers were terrible. Really terrible. So terrible that I spent nearly as much time watching Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Bulls as I did the Sixers. Though Philadelphia was still my favorite team, the Bulls were more fun to watch, and they were on TV just as much as the Sixers because those were the days of PRISM. Only Sixers road games were televised, while home games were on PRISM, a pay channel we did not have in my home.

Being a Sixers fan was tough. And really, there was never much hope until Jerry Stackhouse was drafted and was a finalist for the Rookie of the Year.

The next year, the excitement grew even greater, as the Sixers won the draft lottery and selected Allen Iverson out of the Georgetown, the consensus No. 1 pick and eventual Rookie of the Year. Finally, there was some buzz around professional basketball in the City of Brotherly Love.

Unfortunately, the Sixers still sucked, and Iverson and Stackhouse really couldn’t find a way to co-exist. So Stackhouse was shipped off to Detroit in exchange for Philadelphia native and former Temple star Aaron McKie and a raw, athletic but pretty much unknown Theo Ratliff.

Little did we know at the time that that trade would set things in motion for this franchise. Seeing the way Iverson dominated the ball and scored as well as anyone, the Sixers began to build a team of role players around A.I. In came Larry Brown, the legendary coach who made is career by turning around moribund franchises and turning them into playoff teams. While Brown and Iverson clashed heads, the Sixers began their steady ascent, making the playoffs year after year with Iverson getting better and better. Yet they could never quite get over the hump, routinely getting bounced by Brown’s former team, the Indiana Pacers.

Then the 2000-01 season happened. Fed up and frustrated with dealing with Iverson, Brown and then-GM Billy King had a deal in place to trade Allen Iverson and Matt Geiger in a four-team deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons. I don’t recall all of the details, but I do remember that Iverson was to end up in Detroit, with Eddie Jones, I believe Glenn Rice and more heading to Philadelphia. But Geiger had a no-trade clause in his contract and vetoed it.

When I heard of the trade, I remember being furious. How could the Sixers even think about trading their best player, the franchise player, one of the best scorers and a guy who laid it on the line every night? Silver fox, Arkansas Fred and I couldn’t fathom it, and Geiger instantly became a savior in our eyes. Had the Sixers traded Iverson in his prime, I’m not sure any of us would have known what to do. All I know is, we were pissed. So was Iverson. And he used that slap in the face from the front office as fuel for the greatest season any little man has ever had in the NBA.

Iverson and the Sixers stormed out of the gate, A.I. determined to prove Brown, King and everyone else that even thinking about trading him was a lethal mistake. They blew out the Knicks in the opener, then topped the Raptors, then the Magic and the Heat. Before you could blink, the Sixers were off to a 10-0 start, with Iverson playing out of his mind and the team playing some of the best defense in the league. Theo Ratliff, who had come into his own under brown, was a defensive force, protecting the rim and erasing shots. Aaron McKie and Eric Snow were incredible on-the-ball defenders. George Lynch a shutout guy on the wing. Tyrone Hill did yeoman’s work, and despite his atrocious offense was playing awesome low-post defense and hauled in every rebound. And the Sixers looked like they might never lose.

Their winning streak did come to an end in game 11, but by the time the all-star game came around, the Sixers had the best record in the NBA and were running away with the East. It looked like nothing could stop them … until Ratliff broke his wrist before the all-star break, this after being voted in as the East’s starter for the all-star game. That’s when the rumors began of a trade for Dikembe Mutombo. And as great as Mutombo was, I couldn’t stand the thought of Philadelphia trading away Theo. Outside of Iverson, Ratliff was my favorite player on the team. His incredible shot-blocking and athleticism drew me in, and I had grown to love him. To this day, I love the guy. And I desperately wanted the Sixers to keep him. After all, they had the best record in the league and were playing the best basketball I’d ever seen the Sixers play, and he was a large reason for that.

As fate would have it, that all-star game turned out to be foreshadowing. With Ratliff out due to the wrist injury, Iverson was the lone Sixer playing in the game. The Western Conference, who had dominated the game for a while, built a commanding lead. But then Iverson, with the help of Stephon Marbury and, yes, Dikembe Mutombo, led the East back. Iverson and Marbury teamed up as a two-man blur, scoring at will in the 4th quarter, and Mutombo got what felt like every single rebound down the stretch. With Iverson winning the MVP, the East won coming from behind 111-110, thanks largely to Iverson and Mutombo.

Not long after, Mutombo would team up with Iverson again. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was working at my after-school job at a gas station, where I sat and watched TV while eating candy and drinking Rosie’s as people paid me for gas and cigarettes. I’m watching Sportscenter as I hear word that the Sixers and Hawks pulled off a trade, with Theo Ratliff, Toni Kukoc and other moving parts going to Atlanta in exchange mainly for Dikembe Mutombo. I let out a loud, emphatic, “Fuck! Fuck shit fuck!” I was infuriated that they traded my man Theo, and immediately declared that if the Sixers did not make the NBA Finals, it was a stupid trade. Of course it wasn’t. Because as good as Theo was, Mutombo was one of the greatest rebounders and defenders in NBA history, a shot-blocking machine and defensive wizard. Still, I was heartbroken and didn’t quite know what to do with myself. The only thing I could do was sit back and watch.

What I and everyone else in Philadelphia and across the country witnessed was continued dominance by the Sixers. Iverson threw his body all over the court on his way to MVP, leading the league in scoring and minutes per game while finishing second in steals. Aaron McKie, the defensive stalwart and big-shot maker, won 6th Man of the Year. Larry Brown, finally able to get through to Iverson and put the right surrounding cast around him, won Coach of the Year. And Mutombo, the man who replaced Ratliff, won Defensive Player of the Year. Coach of the Year, 6th Man of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and MVP all on the same team.

With a such huge lead in the East going down the stretch, Brown decided to rest his weary and beaten players. Ultimately, that cost the Sixers a chance at home court if they made the Finals, but they had home court all sewn up in the conference. They finished 56-26, and night in and night out, the building was packed and everyone tuned in on TV.

It was the most fun regular season of my life, but now came the real test. First round, the Indiana Pacers, the team that had made a habit of bouncing the Sixers year in and year out. But after they lost game 1, it was all Sixers in game 2, and they made quick work of Indiana, winning the series in four games. They had exorcised a demon. After that, I honestly believed this team would overcome everything. And they did.

The rest of the playoffs were a blur. That epic 7-game series with Toronto in which Vince Carter and A.I. exchanged 50-point games. Iverson scoring 50 for a second time just days after Charles Oakley proclaimed Iverson would never score 50 against them again. Vince Carter’s graduation-day controversy. Then his missed last-second shot that seemed to go in slow motion to ensure the Sixers would move on. I watched it all, hanging on to every moment.

Then it was the Bucks, another 7-game battle. Yet it wasn’t game 7 that stands out. Believe it or not, the most memorable game in that series for every Sixers fan alive wasn’t even a game the Sixers won. No, it was game 3. With the series tied 1-1, Milwaukee went home with the news that Iverson was too banged up to play. Everyone in the world expected a blowout victory for the Bucks, with Sam Cassell, Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen providing way more punch than the Iverson-less Sixers.

Yet without A.I., the Sixers battled and battled and battled. They overcame a huge second-half deficit and made it a game. And while the Bucks ultimately won, it showed the true resolve of this team. Not even missing their unquestioned star, the man tasked with the biggest scoring load in the league, could derail their confidence. Jumaine Jones of all people stepped up in Iverson’s absence with 16 big points. McKie led the Sixers with 22. And their defense was incredible yet again.

Even after the Sixers fell behind 2-1 in the series on that night, you just knew Philadelphia would find a way to win the series. And they did just that. Iverson came back with avengeance, putting up 28 in game 4, and the Sixers outlasted Milwaukee in 7, with Dikembe asking, “Who wants to go to L.A. with me?”

Ray Allen and George Karl cried the whole series, with Allen uncharacteristically complaining of a conspiracy because the NBA wanted to see Iverson vs. Shaq. Karl, who proclaimed earlier in the series that Dikembe Mutombo wouldn’t really be a factor, walked out of a press conference after Mutombo had a monster game and a reporter asked him about that comment. It was nothing but sore losers from Milwaukee, and I didn’t give two shits. The Sixers were going to the NBA Finals.

And that’s where the Sixers were headed, to take on the Los Angeles Lakers, who had swept their way to the NBA Finals. No one gave the Sixers a chance. No one. With Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and a slew of championship veterans, the Lakers were the unbeatable juggernaut. It really was a David vs. Goliath story, Iverson vs. Shaq and Kobe.

Then the Sixers went out and shocked the world. Raja Bell with the scoop shot. Eric Snow with the face. Iverson’s 48 points despite Tyronn Lue “holding me the whole time,” as A.I. would say after the game. Dikembe’s remarkable one-on-one defense against Shaq. Rick Fox’s clear travel that wasn’t called in OT, the Lakers storming out in overtime and looking like they buried the Sixers, only to have A.I. go bonkers, cross up Lue, step over him, and give Philadelphia the victory and a 1-0 series lead. Ironically, as former No. 1 overall pick for the Sixers and current Sixers head coach Doug Collins called the game on NBC with Marv Albert. The unbeatable were beaten, and I honestly thought that somehow, some way this band of misfits and its star would continue to shock the world.

We all know that’s not how it played out. As expected, the Lakers came out and won game 2. But when the series shifted back to Philadelphia and the Sixers built a big lead, it looked like they weren’t going anywhere soon. Shaq fouled out. The home crowd was going nuts. But the Sixers still lost. Right then and there, all hopes were dash. If they couldn’t close out a game with eventual Finals MVP Shaq fouled out, this thing was as good as over. Robert Horry did his thing, Shaq and Kobe closed out the Sixers, and Kobe became public enemy No. 1 when the series shifted back to Philly by proclaiming he wanted to rip Philadelphia’s heart out. The hometown hero turned unappreciative traitor. He could have been diplomatic about it, but he chose to cast his hometown aside completely. Philadelphia hasn’t forgiven him since.

And the reason is because this city absolutely loved that team. For one magical regular season, for one incredible playoff run, for one remarkable NBA Finals game, everything was perfect. We had the MVP. We had the Coach of the Year, DOP, 6th Man. And 10 years ago today, they went out and shocked the world, beat the unbeatable Lakers, played the perfect game.

It was a season unlike any other. And although it didn’t culminate in a title, it was, simply put, absolutely incredible.

Check out Kenny's take, along with mine, on game 1 over at Ed the Sports Fan.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the trip down memory lane with today's post. What's even funnier is I still have my tape from that game, too. Ten years, and it still plays on the VCR I've got at the house.