Game 6

Game 6

Friday, January 6, 2012
Game 6: Wells Fargo Center
Sixers 96, Pistons 73

PHILADELPHIA — Call it a throwback night. Or better yet, a way back night. In opening the home schedule for the 2011-12 season, the brand-new owners of the Philadelphia 76ers decided to call on some of the heroes from the franchise’s best era of extended glory.

More specifically, it was the players from the 1983 NBA Championship team that were summoned to a building that none of them ever played in. Earl Cureton, the bench player whose job was to give the MVP frontline players a break and to grab a few rebounds, was there. So too was Bobby Jones, the reed thin forward who was known for his ability to play defense and fill the lanes on the fast break.

In fact, Jones was so good a defender that he was nicknamed, “The Secretary of Defense.” In the early 1980s, the shoe company Nike put out posters of Jones that depicted him behind a big, oak desk as if he were some sort of military giant. It was an interesting look for Jones, knowing that he was (and is) a devout Christian.

Moses Malone and Julius Erving made it back, too. Frankly, the Sixers can’t reasonably have a reunion of former players without the inclusion of Moses and Doc. What would be the point? Not only were they the catalysts behind the championship team, but unarguably the two most popular players, too.

Certainly there isn’t very much we can add here to further the legends of Moses and Doc.

No, the real legend in the building that night chose not to participate in the public celebration of the championship, though he was shown on the video board above the arena.

Indeed, Andrew Toney had finally returned to the basketball arena in South Philly.

Reportedly back at a Sixers game for the first time since his playing career ended prematurely because of a foot injury, Toney seemingly has buried the decades long grudge against the organization that was spurred on by the poor treatment he reportedly received from former owner Harold Katz.

Toney had it all. He was a shooting guard, but built like a forward. He played with a mean streak and was fearless with the basketball in his hands. It didn’t matter who was guarding him because Toney wasn’t going to back down.

To the folks who were too young to see Toney play, I described him as Allen Iverson with a jumper and the ability to play in a team structure. He could pass it almost as well as he could shoot it…

And boy could he shoot it.

In his first five seasons with the Sixers, Toney averaged more than 20 points per game, made two all-star teams, got to the Eastern Conference Finals three times and the NBA Finals twice. He was rewarded with a big contract (for the time) before his sixth season because it would have been stupid not to keep him in town. Not only was Toney good, but also he was popular. Ask any kid born in the early 1970s who their favorite Sixers player was and undoubtedly the answer would be Andrew Toney.

I know he was my favorite Sixers player ever. Living so close to Franklin & Marshall College where the team held its preseason training camp, I was lucky enough to see Toney play from close up. Better yet, as the resident gym rat of F&M’s Mayser Center, I often rebounded shots for Toney when he remained after practice to shoot jumpers. The farther he went out on the court, the softer the ball seemed to float as it would nestle itself into the net only to be returned and fired up there again.

Truth is I saw Toney’s shooting technique so much from so close that his method became mine. Going up against the competition in the CYO league, my jumper started with a half step of my right foot before rising up to let it fly.

Believe it or not, the result didn’t change all that much from idol to fan.

For those lucky enough to have seen Toney in his prime, they know that he was The Truth. Called the Boston Strangler for the way he wrecked the Celtics during the postseason as well as the Silent Assassin, Toney was on the way to a Hall of Fame career until the injuries came. He was the second-leading scorer on the Sixers the year they won the championship, but the most-feared player on the team.

Larry Bird said Toney was the best clutch player he had ever seen and Charles Barkley claimed he was the best teammate he ever had.

Malone doesn’t disagree, either.

“Andrew was tough, man,” Moses said. “He had a way to get it done. He played with a lot of heart and he loved the game. If you’re like that you’ll be the best.”

But Toney’s career ended abruptly and with controversy that no man should endure. After he got that big contract, Toney appeared in just six games during the 1985-86 season because of stress fractures in his foot. The problem never got much better and Toney played two more abbreviated seasons before he packed it in at age 30.

Before that he was derided and belittled by the owner Katz, who aside from being cheap when it came to running his ballclub, didn’t believe Toney was really injured. Katz forced Toney to take drug tests and questioned his fortitude in public because he couldn’t take the floor. Reportedly, Katz even went so far as to hire private investigators to find out if his well-paid but injured All-Star had a nefarious side.

So when his playing days in Philadelphia ended, Toney never looked back and never stepped foot at another Sixers’ game…

Until Friday night home opener.

Toney did not take part in the brief, pregame ceremony, nor did he show up for the media availability with his old teammates, either. But Toney, who these days works as an elementary school teacher in suburban Atlanta, was introduced to the crowd during the second quarter of the game.

Obviously, the crowd went crazy.

“Andrew finally made his mind that he had to come back and see the fans,” Malone said. “He knows they love him.”

And the elusive great one finally returned, too. If you blinked, though, you missed it…

Kind of like Andrew Toney’s entire career. 

Doing the work

I was probably 12-years old the first time someone told me I wasn’t going to make it to the NBA. At the time the thought of it made me laugh – I was one of the tallest kids on my basketball team, I was relatively coordinated, I could dribble with both hands and I was the best shooter in the league. Plus, I went to basketball camps and worked on my shooting as much as a kid my age could. When games were on TV (not everyone was televised in those days), I watched hoping to pick up some moves from Julius Erving, Larry Bird or Kevin McHale.

Better yet, the Sixers’ pre-season training camp was held in the gym where I practiced after school. I went to every practice session because when the NBA champs were finished using the court, I was going to go through my paces. Sometimes a few players hung around to snag rebounds and offer a few pointers. Dr. J did once, and Leon Wood was very friendly. No one, though, was as helpful as Andrew Toney. It always seemed that Toney was working on his shooting long after his teammates had left the gym to do whatever it was they did in Lancaster, Pa.

So when I was told that I wasn’t going to make it to the NBA it was laughable. How could that be?

Looking back it all makes sense now. I grew up to be 6-foot-1, which is the same size as “Tiny” Archibald. Plus, I soon ventured out of my insular little world and found out that there were players just as good as me who sat on the bench for their teams. Sure, I was an above-average shooter – probably amongst the best two or three in my school – but there is a lot more to the game than just shooting the ball from the outside. On defense, chances were that I was going to allow just as many points as I scored. Occasionally I got in the way and stopped my opponent, but that was usually just dumb luck.

More telling was the fact that I went to the high school regarded as the finest in athletics in the area. The basketball teams have won more league championships than any other school, while the other sports – specifically track and field – were sometimes powerhouses. Yet despite this, my high school has never produced an NBA player. Actually, we’ve had just three Major Leaguers, two NFLers, and just a handful of Division I standouts.

So what’s the point of this? Simple. Mo Vaughn knew by the age of 12 that he was going to be a Major League baseball player. At least that’s what his parents said during a game at Fenway a few years back when asked when they realized their son was going to be a big leaguer.

When Mo was 12, Mr. Vaughn said, he played in a men’s baseball league and, “he dominated.”

It seems like 12 is the magic age to determine a person’s athletic future. Oh sure, there are late bloomers like Ryan Howard who was overlooked even when he was deep into his college career. But one thing is for certain: Ryan Howard was on the path to the big leagues long before that. A diamond in the rough is still a diamond.

But baseball doesn’t last forever. Sure, these days getting a big-league contract is a lot like winning the Powerball. The thing a lot of parents and kids don’t understand is that the odds of getting there are just as slim. Yet even though Mo Vaughn dominated adults before he was a teenager, he was made to prepare for the day when the games ended. Interestingly, these days Vaughn is in real estate development, but he’s not simply putting up high-end McMansions that only other lottery winners can afford. Instead, Vaughn, according to George Vecsey’s story in The New York Times, is building affordable housing for folks with modest incomes.

Baseball, it seems, was nothing more than a tool for Vaughn to put him where he could do really important work. That’s the key – kids should use the games to put them where they need to be. Chances are that’s not going to be in the big leagues.

Ryan Howard seems to believe that, too. According to what he told Bryant Gumble on the latest edition of HBO’s Real Sports that there was no doubt in his mind that he was going to return to school and finish his course work.

Believe it or not, that’s much more important than hitting 60 homers.