The City, Not the Team, Gets Desperate

NEWSDAY

As the game ended, Section 118 at First Union Center was no longer fit for family. It had gone to the goons. About a half-dozen men began landing punches and sent women and children running for their lives. One poor guy made the mistake of collapsing to the floor, where a couple of brutes did a Riverdance on his head and sent blood oozing down the stairs.

Yep, Philly wants a title real bad.

The 76ers lost Game 3 and their grip on the NBA Finals on Sunday night, and you had to wonder if it directly caused the postgame mayhem. After all, this city hasn't won a championship of any kind in 18 years.

There's a lot of pent-up frustration around here. The Liberty Bell couldn't take it anymore and finally cracked. With the 76ers down 2-1, will millions of long-suffering sports nuts be next? Philadelphians need a reason to celebrate, and they're gambling their fragile emotions on the 76ers. It's their latest and best chance to claim something the Yankees get every October. So Philly is united and fully behind Allen Iverson and the rest, who hold the city's mental state in their hands.

"The passion for the Sixers spreads across all walks of life: race, gender, age," said Pat Croce, the Sixers' hyperactive president.

"The whole area is going crazy because, since 1983, they've been craving the opportunity to be proud of a team, any team. It just so happens it's the Sixers right now."

They're desperate. Outside the arena before Game 3, a 50ish woman wearing boxing gloves, leather shorts and a strange halter top ran through the parking lot and around the entrance yelling something incoherent. She called herself "Normal Nan." Stores can't keep Iverson jerseys on the shelves. Funny, but one of the last guys you'd want your daughter to bring home suddenly finds himself in big demand.

"Everyone loves him," an 18-year-old woman told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "All the girls want him to be their baby's father."

The city's notoriously ruthless all-sports radio station, WIP, does nothing but purr about the 76ers day and night. All you see and hear about is the 76ers' heart and guts and courage, as though they were enlisted men. Based on the local sentiment, Iverson is the greatest player who ever lived, although he's shooting below 40% in the playoffs, and Dikembe Mutombo defends better than the Pentagon, even though Shaquille O'Neal is averaging 32 points, 17 rebounds and four blocked shots against him.

The cover headline on Monday's Daily News, after the Lakers' Game 3 win, said: "Lakers Grab Series Lead . . . But Just Barely." Well, what do you expect from a place that knows mostly misery? The last parade was held for the '83 76ers, who marched to the NBA title with a 12-1 record to the sound of Moses Malone's victory cry: "Fo', fo', fo'."

Maurice Cheeks was the star point guard then, and after retiring, he returned to the organization as an assistant coach.

"It's really in the frenzy right now, partly because we have a chance to win but also because Philly hasn't had much to cheer for in a long time," Cheeks said. "I think we're due for one. Everyone feels that way."

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