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This Croce Doesn’t Have a Hit Record on His Hands

Impetuous youth, high finance, careers in conflict . . . let’s call it the Philadelphia Story!

The 76ers have a new owner who’s a breath of fresh air, a spectacular rookie, a new 21,000-seat arena and a 3-26 record in December and January.

Pat Croce, the owner, must be wondering if this is what they call rebuilding and if he’ll live through it. Early in the season, he bounded around the CoreStates Center, yelling, “I feel great!” Now, he has lost that loving feeling.

Said Croce after the 76ers lost 10 in a row, won one, then dropped 13 more: “I’ve never been through anything like this.”

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It has been a tough ‘90s in Philly. Where once walked Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving, a runaway diet maven named Harold Katz overrode his general managers, won fewer games each of his last six seasons, holed up in Florida to escape the wrath of his fellow Philadelphians and finally sold when the 76ers hit 18 last spring.

After 15 years of Katz, Croce could have arrived in a litter, borne down Broad Street by mummers. Another success story--he rose from Flyer conditioning coach to owner of a string of physical therapy clinics--he lived every Philadelphia kid’s dream, buying one of the local teams and firing everybody in sight.

Croce, goateed with tinted granny glasses, so hyper you wonder if he eats electricity, reached into the communities, especially black Philadelphia. He did a tarantella on TV when he drew the No. 1 pick. When Allen Iverson’s Virginia homies followed him north, Croce told one not to get Allen in trouble or he’d burn his house down.

The 76ers started 7-8 but then came the 10-game losing streak. When it ended in Denver, a jubilant Croce bought drinks for everyone back at the hotel, pouring them himself when he couldn’t find the bartender.

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The barkeep came back, Croce said, with an attitude and hung on to it. The rest is Croce’s own account:

Croce: “If we were in Philly, I’d rip your head off and shove it. . . .”

Bartender: “Is that a threat?”

Croce: “No. I said if we were in Philly. We’re in Denver.”

Unconvinced, the bartender got the manager, who cooled everyone out. Seeing as how they lost their next 13, that was the happiest night the 76ers had for six weeks.

With Iverson, Jerry Stackhouse, Derrick Coleman and Clarence Weatherspoon, they’re loaded for a team under .250. On the other hand, they have an unproven coach, Johnny Davis, they’re last in defense, and nothing fits.

The forwards are upset about the guards shooting all the time. Weatherspoon has asked to be traded. Coleman is Coleman.

Last week, Coleman hitched a ride home to Detroit with the team but missed the game and the return flight. The 76ers fined him $1,000--as Coleman would say, cash or check?--and docked him a game’s pay, $82,185, which got his attention.

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“It’s an injustice,” Coleman said. “I can’t believe they would treat me this way.

“I didn’t know what was going on. I got off the plane [on his return to Philadelphia] and saw the television lights and thought I was being traded.”

That would require a taker. Meanwhile, the powers are unhappy. Croce is only a minority owner and a small minority at that. The muscle is Ed Snider, the cold-hearted Flyer owner who doesn’t know much about basketball except those guys sure make a lot of money and act weird.

When Iverson was late for a game, Snider convened a meeting to explain the Flyer Way to the new 76er brass: Anyone can and will be traded, all rules will be followed to the letter. Coleman was on the injured list and going home to see his mom, but sentimentality is in short supply and they dropped the hammer on him.

Coleman says he’ll file a grievance. So much for that honeymoon.

The guards could be doing better. Iverson may take years to chill, and veterans around the league can’t wait that long.

“When you’re 19 and you average 20 points a game, two assists and 10 turnovers and they call you rookie of the year already, I guess you could get your head a little bloated,” Charles Barkley said recently.

“I don’t understand why he’s so confident. If I’d lost 16 out of 17 I’d think, ‘Damn, maybe I’m not that good.’ ”

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The 76ers aren’t confident about anything any more. Worried that a post-up guard like Stackhouse doesn’t complement a driver like Iverson, they’re thinking of moving Stackhouse to forward, or another city. Having just announced he wants to stay when his contract runs out, Stackhouse now finds they may not want him. He says he’s “trying to stay strong.”

It’s not the new era Croce had in mind, but, as he would tell you, everyone has to start somewhere.

“Oh, I knew what I was buying,” he said recently. “I was buying a winning tradition here in Philadelphia. I was buying something that Philadelphia was always proud of, that got a little tarnished over the past five years. I was buying a Philadelphia jewel.

“And, yes, they lost last year, they’ve been losing for the last five years consecutively, but all I see is wins and a parade.”

At least they’ll have plenty of time to get that parade together. The hard thing about young teams these days, they’re young, indeed, and by the time they develop, you’re a lot older than you used to be.

NAMES AND NUMBERS

He’s learning! He’s learning! Magic Johnson worked out with the Miami Heat. In his honor, Pat Riley arranged an especially hard drill and afterward marveled when Johnson made a string of three-point baskets. However, with Miami writers eager to know what it meant, Johnson, who always used to get coy in such moments, said unequivocally he isn’t coming back. . . . He’s learning? Former punk extraordinaire Christian Laettner, showing signs of humility, said his all-star selection was due to the Hawks’ success. “When I was at Duke,” Laettner said, “I was a good player who gave the appearance of being a great player because I was surrounded by Grant Hill, Thomas Hill, Bobby Hurley, Tony Lang, Brian Davis, Cherokee Parks.” . . . He’s still not learning: Chris Webber, whose numbers are better than Laettner’s but whose Washington Bullets are eight games back, was stunned by missing out, though, for once, managed not to complain. Admirers wonder about a conspiracy among the coaches, who remember the job Webber did on Don Nelson’s career, but look at it this way: Last season Laettner played center without complaint, even battling Shaquille O’Neal in the playoffs. Because of Webber’s insistence he isn’t a center, the Bullets start a backup, Gheorghe Muresan, at center; a power forward, Juwan Howard, at small forward, and a small forward, Calbert Cheaney, at guard. . . . New Jersey’s Jayson Williams on Jack Haley, just brought up from the Continental Basketball Assn.: “I wonder what color he’s going to make my hair.”

M.L. Carr, irritated at New York Knick officials’ sneers, used the occasion of a close loss (who knows if he’ll be there the next time the Celtics win?) to sneer back. “I’m just sick and tired of hearing where they are and where we are,” Carr said. “At the end of the year, we’re both going to be congratulating the world champions.” . . . Referee Joey Crawford, after Phoenix Sun Coach Danny Ainge protested one of his calls: “You can see that good? You couldn’t see a curveball!” Ainge once played major league baseball. Crawford’s father, Shag, was a National League umpire and his brother, Jerry, is still working in the NL. . . . In a surprise, Damon Stoudamire says there are point guards he respects, notably Terrell Brandon (“I don’t care what anybody says, that’s not a good club. Terrell is getting 20 every night and nobody else is doing anything.”), Gary Payton and Rod Strickland. In recent weeks, Stoudamire ripped Iverson and Tim Hardaway and was then outplayed by both. . . . Latest unhappy Maverick: Chris Gatling, whose points per minute (19.1 in 26.4 minutes a game) are second only to Michael Jordan’s, who got upset when Jamal Mashburn cut into his time, walked out of a practice and was suspended for one game ($37,158). Gatling, not Mashburn or Jim Jackson, is the player most general managers ask for but, unlike Jason Kidd, Dallas isn’t expected to trade him as a consequence. . . . Knick Coach Jeff Van Gundy, who ripped Jordan for “conning” players by being nice, asked about his nods to his ex-boss, Riley: “It’s not like we talk all the time during the season. Maybe only once or twice. I’m not talking in the professional sense. I’m talking in the personal sense.”


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