Croce Tries but Doesn't Help 76ers Bridge Gap

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once again, Pat Croce, president of the Philadelphia 76ers, has pushed himself to the top of "Behind the Scenes."

Actually the words "Croce" and "behind the scenes" should never be used in the same sentence.

Although he only owns around 2 1/2% of the team, the former physical therapist has gotten as much camera time in the NBA Finals as Allen Iverson.

Sunday, Croce emphatically refused to give up any valued seats in his luxury suite to accommodate President Clinton.

Wednesday morning, Croce was back in the spotlight, the center of attention as he climbed to the top of the Walt Whitman Bridge, the two-mile-long structure spanning the Delaware River to connect Pennsylvania and New Jersey. His mission was to unfurl a banner reading, "Go Sixers, Beat L.A."

Publicity?

Naah, Croce insists, he did it for the team.

"I want to make sure the spirit continues even though we are down, 2-1," he said before his team headed into Game 4. "We can climb to even greater heights. It was great being above and seeing the spirit emanating from the city."

This was his second public ascent of the postseason. Last month, he climbed a water tower on the Schuylkill River to put up a team banner.

This time, Croce, without so much as a training session, walked along a cable 30 inches wide for a distance of about 640 feet up the steep incline, reaching a height of 374 feet at the top. With five news helicopters hovering and a crowd watching from below, he made the climb in about 10 minutes. He was accompanied by seven experienced climbers, including several from the Delaware River Port Authority.

Asked if he has any climbing experience, he said: "No. I'm a Philly guy. We don't have any mountains to climb. The only thing I ever climbed out of was a sewer as a kid when my ball went down there."

If the 76ers should win the series, Croce has a new goal--the statue of William Penn atop City Hall.

"We are going to put a 76er jersey on Willie Penn's body," Croce said.

But first, he has a challenge for Laker owner Jerry Buss.

"Come on, Jerry," Croce said after Wednesday's ascent, "you've got some buildings in L.A. you can climb. We've got Shaq [O'Neal] versus [Dikembe] Mutombo and Kobe [Bryant] versus Allen. Now let's have Croce versus Buss."

Don't hold your breath.

Not this time: The woman clutched the small bottle tightly in her hands as she walked from chair to chair, dabbing each with a few drops of the liquid from that bottle.

It was a half hour before the tipoff of Game 4, before those chairs would be occupied by the 76ers.

The woman was Ann Iverson, mother of the star Philadelphia guard.

The liquid, she said, was holy oil.

"This was blessed by a pastor," Ann said. "It's going to help us win. I've been doing this for five years and it works."

It didn't work Wednesday, but Ann will be back Friday for Game 5 with her bottle and her prayers.

High Steaks: For 30 years, Valley Forge has been home to the Kobe Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar.

Not this week.

The restaurant is still open for business, but, for the NBA Finals, the name was changed to The Answer Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar.

Former 76er Joe Bryant has said that he and his wife Pam, regular patrons of the restaurant, liked the name Kobe so much that they gave it to their only son.

Now that son has come back to haunt the city as a Laker.

The owners of Kobe, the restaurant, in order to avoid any hint of loyalty to Kobe, the player, have temporarily renamed their place with Iverson's nickname.

"We just couldn't have Kobe's name on it," said Eric Davies, general manager of the Hilton Valley Forge, site of the restaurant. "Once we win the championship, we will go back to the Kobe name. This place is a fixture in the community. But, as a local business, we want to support the team."

So this week, the name at the restaurant's entrance has a thick red line through it.

Tough Crowd: It was thought Philadelphia fans had come up with every imaginable excuse in the Finals.

But a caller to a local radio talk show Tuesday offered a new one. The 76ers, the caller claimed, lost Game 3 because they were distracted by Clinton's presence at First Union Center.

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