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Croce’s Quest Won’t End Till Title

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pat Croce never stops until he gets what he wants. Right now, he has his sights on a parade down Broad Street.

Croce went from a row house in north Philadelphia to taping ankles for the 76ers and Flyers to owning the basketball team. He overcame a serious motorcycle accident, somehow manages to maintain peace between Larry Brown and Allen Iverson and orchestrated one of the NBA’s greatest turnarounds.

However, his work won’t be finished until he wins a championship and holds the city’s first victory parade since 1983, when the Sixers won the NBA title.

“I have a single-minded focus to make this team great and make the city proud of it,” Croce said. “Until I win a championship, I want to be here.”

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Croce, part-owner of the team he once worked for as a physical therapist, became president of the 76ers on March 19, 1996. He restored pride in the franchise and turned a laughingstock into a championship contender in less than five years.

But Croce doesn’t have a contract to run the team beyond this season. He isn’t worried, of course. He said a handshake agreement with chairman Ed Snider is all he needs.

“My handshake is good,” Croce said.

The Sixers have the best record in the Eastern Conference (20-8), entering Saturday’s game in Sacramento. If point guard Eric Snow returns from an ankle injury and the rest of the key players stay healthy, Philadelphia has a chance to win a championship this season. If that happens, only then would Croce consider moving on.

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“If I left, it would be to take on a different challenge,” he said.

Don’t expect Croce to leave the Sixers to rebuild another team, though. Other clubs have called to ask about his availability and he tells them the same thing.

“I would never leave the city,” Croce said. “This is a Philly thing. I wanted to restore the pride and passion of Philly back into their franchise.”

Croce’s rise from a working-class neighborhood to founder of a chain of sports-therapy centers to ultimately becoming owner of the 76ers is a classic tale.

He tells the story in his best-selling book, “I Feel Great, and you will too,” and encourages others to dream as he did.

“I always knew I’d be the best at what I did,” Croce said. “People can relate to what I preach about because I preach they can do it.”

Croce addresses the team as a group just once before every season. His message is simple.

“I always say, ‘If I can go from a row home in north Philadelphia to standing in front of you in this locker room, we can win a championship,”’ Croce said.

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Croce has brought passion, energy and discipline to a profession filled with laid-back executives. No one can forget the way he excitedly high-fived stunned team owners after winning the NBA draft lottery in 1996. (The Sixers took Iverson with the No. 1 overall pick).

Croce has done everything from helicopter piloting to scuba diving to bungee-jumping. He even rappelled upside down from the roof of the arena during a timeout in a 1999 game, euphoric that the Sixers had made the playoffs for the first time in eight years.

His favorite pastime is riding motorcycles -- a 1947 Harley is parked next to his desk -- even though an accident 1 1/2 years ago nearly cost him his leg.

Croce needed three operations to reattach his foot after a biker in his group crashed into him on a wet road just miles into what was supposed to be a cross-country trip.

After months of grueling rehab -- no less grueling than his usual workouts -- Croce walked onto the court of the First Union Center on Jan. 3 for the first time without crutches or any assistance.

His reaction? “I feel great!”

“People say, ‘It’s easy for you to say I feel great’,” Croce said about his trademark slogan. “‘You’re enthusiastic now, you’re positive now, you’re upbeat now because you have the money, you have the team.’ I say, ‘No, no, no. I got the team because I was enthusiastic, positive, upbeat and I felt great.”’

Croce’s toughest challenge since taking over one of the NBA’s worst teams and turning it into a contender has been mediating the relationship between his coach and franchise player.

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Brown and Iverson have clashed since the coach’s arrival four years ago. At times, Iverson said he should be traded. Other times, Brown has considered resigning.

But both remain with the Sixers, and they share admiration for Croce and a commitment to winning.

“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Pat,” Iverson said.

Brown, who almost had an opportunity last summer to return to coach at his alma mater North Carolina, said, “I couldn’t ask for better ownership.”

Croce couldn’t have asked for a better month than November. He celebrated his 46th birthday, his book became a best seller and the team got off to a franchise-best 10-0 start.

“God is wearing a Sixers jersey,” Croce said.

The only goal left is getting that championship -- and the Broad Street celebration that would go with it.

“A parade is only one moment in one day,” Croce said. “The memories you make along the way are what endure.”


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