Game 17

Game 17

Monday, January 23, 2012
Game 17: Wells Fargo Center
Sixers 103, Wizards 83

PHILADELPHIA — A few years back before the Phillies had won a championship and became the darlings of the city, I was chatting with a player when suddenly realized it was time to go.

“You guys have a ceremony to get ready for,” I told the player.

“Really? What’s this one for… the 10th anniversary of the 12th anniversary?”

It’s pretty funny when one remembers how the Phillies used to be. The team seemingly had a special event every other weekend to celebrate its handful of trips to the World Series as well as its lone championship. It was a running joke that the Phillies would do anything to celebrate their shitty history without actually acknowledging they were the losingest franchise in the history of North American professional sports.

And here’s Ben Chapman… the man who tried to prevent Jackie Robinson from breaking Major League Baseball’s color line!

The Phillies don’t do much of the rehashing of old times with ceremonies and parades of former players because they have to anymore. The not-so secret is that good teams and good players pack the stands and since the Phillies are winning, they don’t need to bring back Mike Schmidt or Steve Carlton as much anymore.

In Philadelphia, the Flyers are the team that re-lives its history at every chance and like the Phillies, th Flyers are still celebrating a long ago championship that most folks can’t recollect. It’s been 37 years since the Flyers last won a championship and it doesn’t appear as if the team is any closer to winning one anytime soon.

The Sixers, on the other hand, don’t go the sentimental route all that much. Oh sure, the team brought back Allen Iverson to play for a bit when it was clear there was no other way to get fans to the games, but that act got old quickly.

As far as the Sixers go, there was a celebration for the 25th anniversary of the 1983 championship team, a nice ceremony for the last game played in the Spectrum and a retired number fete for Charles Barkley. Otherwise, the Sixers haven’t dipped into that well all too much over the past decade.

Part of that has to do with unresolved grudges between players and former ownership, and another factor is that the Sixers have not been too great for long stretches of time. In fact, the Sixers’ history includes a team that many argue was the greatest ever (1966-67) as well as the team that set NBA record for futility (1972-73).

Regardless, Philadelphia has a strong basketball tradition. When the BAA began in 1947, the Philadelphia Warriors won the championship. The Warriors lost to the Baltimore Bullets in the second year of the league and in 1950, when the league changed its name to the NBA, the Syracuse Nationals (later to become the Philadelphia 76ers) made it to the championship round in their first season.

A team from Philadelphia has been to the NBA Finals nine times in the history of the league. 

Game 15

Game 15

Friday, January 20, 2012
Game 15: Wells Fargo Center
Sixers 90, Hawks 76

PHILADELPHIA — Let’s say, for instance, you are a really good painter. In fact, you’re such a great painter that galleries fight to hang your work and critics can’t get enough of it.

And yet even though you are a terrific painter, people still get on you because you are a lousy sculptor. You’re going to say that doesn’t make sense, right?

Yeah, well, welcome to Andre Iguodala’s world.

When it comes to playing defense in basketball, there are very few people on the planet as good as Andre Iguodala. Truth is, Iguodala is such a good defender that he very well may earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team set to defend its gold medal in London this summer.

“If you would talk to the best scorers in the league that he’s guarded and say who is one of the toughest guys you have to go against, they would say, Andre Iguodala,” Sixers’ coach Doug Collins said.

“From a coaching standpoint, you understand what he brings. I love what Andre does for us.”

Yet for some reason the biggest criticism of Iguodala is that he is an inconsistent offensive player.

How does that make sense?

There is perception and then there is the reality when it comes to Iguodala and his weird relationship with certain segments of the fandom. The problem with that is the perception is usually the part that gets the most fanfare.

Often, Iguodala is criticized because his salary is “excessive,” yet it barely cracks the top 40 of all NBA players. Meanwhile, it seems as if Iguodala’s perceived unpopularity comes from his personality. He’s neither boisterous nor zany. He’s not one to suffer fools as evidenced in the 2006 Dunk Contest where he pulled off the most impressive and nuanced dunk of the show only to lose to Nate Robertson because he’s short and a better story. Rather than grin-and-bear it, Iguodala hasn’t appeared in another competition figuring there are better ways to have one’s time wasted.

Iguodala is all nuance and professionalism. There are all the things we can see like the fact that heading into last year he had missed just six games in six seasons and played in 252 regular-season games in a row. He’s led the league not only in games by playing in all 82 in five of his seven seasons, but also minutes played and average minutes per game. The dude plays the game and he's rare in that he's a ridiculously talented athlete with instatiable hard-nosed/blue-collar chops, too. He's the best of both worlds and he shows up and goes to work.

He earns his pay.

Last year he played the final two months of the season with tendonitis in his knees. Actually, his condition was similar to the injury that forced Phillies second baseman Chase Utley to miss the first two months of last season, yet Iguodala is rarely talked about as a gritty and scrappy player the way Utley is.

Ah, so maybe there’s a personality issue or something.

Iguodala is a bit of a rarity in sports in that he is a truth teller. He’s immune to cliché (well, as much as possible) and actually answers questions. Want an answer? Iguodala has one. And though it could be off the mark like some of his long-range jumpers, he’s always provocative. For instance, last year Iguodala and the team's top draft choice, Evan Turner, clashed a bit. It wasn't anything serious, just two guys from diffrent perspectives trying to figure each ither out. So, when asked about it, Iguodala presented a thoughtful, honest answer.

“Evan and I have had a pretty interesting year together — good and bad,” Iguodala said. “We’ve always tried to lean on each other. Over the past week we really bonded and I was happy to see him be in position to do something good and follow through with it.

“I’ve been saying all year that he’s a confidence guy and when his confidence is high, he plays really well. When his confidence is down, he has a lot of self doubt and he doesn’t believe in himself,” Iguodala explained. “But we all know he can play ball and we’ve had many arguments throughout the year in regard to talents and he’s going to prove a lot of people wrong.

“We had a chance to sit down and we had dinner together and were together for about three hours. We just reflected on the whole year and things that happened and what could have changed and things that made us better people or held us back a little bit. It was a good chat.”

When do athletes ever talk like that? It’s kind of like when asked a simple question about whether he will return to the Sixers next year and instead chooses to discuss the legacy he hopes to build.

“I always think about that, keep climbing the charts with some of the greatest basketball players ever — Dr. J, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Hal Greer, Wilt Chamberlain. The franchise has been here forever. And just for my name to be brought up for the guy with the most steals in team history is something I've always thought about,” Iguodala said. “I want to continue to climb the charts and take the team to the next level.”

No, Iguodala is not like most of the athletes that have come through town. He seems to be a strange mix of Charles Barkley, Donovan McNabb and Scott Rolen. At different times all three of those guys were the most beloved or loathed athletes in town. Iguodala is just different. He's the guy a lot of folks just can't accept for who he is.

Game 10

Game 10

 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Game 10: Madison Square Garden
Knicks 85, Sixers 79

NEW YORK — In 12 years of serious sports writing, I had never been to Madison Square Garden for work. Oh sure, I’d been there plenty of times if you count the basement of the building where Penn Station is located. But as far as working as an accredited member of the sporting press, I had never been to The Garden.

That’s weird because it’s called, “the world’s most famous arena.” It’s quite an ironic title, too, that actually might be a bit of an understatement. See, New Yorkers really like the things they have and often go so far as to tell folks in other cities how much better their stuff is than everyone else’s. Sometimes that idea is correct, but like anything else, consider the source.

Still, I like to rate an stadium or a building on how excited the performers get when they go there. For instance, with baseball players the reviews are mixed on old shrines like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. Though they are fun places to play a game, the amenities are substandard and ancient by anyone’s standards. The underbelly of Wrigley Field makes even the rattiest high school gym look like the Taj Mahal.

But Madison Square Garden is universally viewed as the place to go. No, I’m not going to list all the famous events that went down at The Garden, but just know that most athletes and performers feel as if they have made it when they get to play MSG.

In my first working role at The Garden—or newest new Garden since it is being torn apart and remodeled—I took home no souvenirs. Sure, I lingered on the hardwood and tried to soak up the views, the shimmering lights and the theatrical darkness that shrouds the seating area, while searching out celebrities and for me that was enough.

After all, I already had a souvenir from Madison Square Garden in the form of a scar on my right knee.

In 1991, my friend John and his pals from college decided to drive to NYC from Vermont to see a Grateful Dead show at The Garden. Though not the biggest of Dead fans out there, I usually was up for any type of adventure so when John asked if I wanted to meet him at The Garden, he didn’t have to ask twice.

Truth be told, it was a pretty good show. Branford Marsalis played a few numbers with the band and Bruce Hornsby played the piano for the entire gig that opened with the well-known, “Touch of Grey.” It was pretty cool even though I watched from the right side of the stage with blood streaming down my leg.

What happened was I walked into a utility pole on 34th Street. Actually, it wasn’t too far from the spot where the photo from the media room was snapped. See, while we were waiting for the doors of the arena to open up, John, his friends and I walked around The Garden just checking out the pre-gig festival. We had bought big bottles of water, bananas and sandwiches from a nearby bodega and were just doing our best to have a fun time.

But while eating a sandwich and walking all while imitating Chevy Chase in the movie Vacation when he flirts with Christie Brinkley, my knee banged into a utility pole that I never saw. Worse, it was a utility pole that looked as if it had been severed with a chain saw or a bus accident, leaving behind a gnarled mess of steel with jagged edges.

Even worse than that, the pole was severed at knee level for a 6-foot-1, 20-year-old dude goofing around with a sandwich before a Grateful Dead gig at The Garden.

There was nothing sold at the concessions that could ever last as long as the souvenir I got more than 20 years ago.

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.