Day After, Fans Still Loving Those Sixers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rain poured down from the gray skies, and it didn't drench their spirits. The scent of onions permeated Jim's Steaks, so strong you could smell it across the street, and yet they did not cry.

Fans of the Philadelphia 76ers remained proud of their team on Saturday, the day after the Lakers finished them off in the fifth game of the NBA Finals.

"I'm sad that they lost, but they had a good year," Maxine Harley said, in between ringing up customers at Jim's. The famed cheese-steak shop sits amid the fashion boutiques, record stores and piercing shops of South Street (a Melrose with attitude).

"They had a lot of injuries, Harley said. "That's why we couldn't win. If we were all well, we could have won. We're winners in Philly."

At the Jagged Ends barber shop, north of City Hall, Chris Styles was shaving Ty Johnson's beard and trimming his cornrows.

"At least we've been to the finals," Styles said. "That's how most people are looking at it. What we did was a real accomplishment."

Johnson added: "They gave Philly a lot of attention, put us in the national eye."

For the Finals, a Wounded Team

The 76ers limped out of the Eastern Conference playoffs and into the championship round of the playoffs. Aaron McKie had a shoulder injury, and he and Eric Snow had fractures in their feet. Center Dikembe Mutombo had a broken finger. Forward George Lynch missed the first three games of the best-of-seven series and played only sparingly in the final two games because of a broken bone in his foot he suffered in their second-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors.

And Allen Iverson, voted the most valuable player in the league for the 2000-01 season, had injuries, the result of fearlessly flinging his 165-pound frame all over the court and against much larger players.

The 76ers were heavy underdogs to the Lakers. Yet they managed to take the first game of the finals in a dramatic overtime victory, then overcame large deficits to make the Lakers sweat through the final minutes of the second and third games.

Their courage and never-say-die attitude endeared them to this city, even as defeat appeared inevitable. The fans at First Union saluted them with standing ovations at the end of Game 5 and chanted, "Let's go Sixers!" One held a sign that said: "76ers: Win or lose, Thank You."

Why do they love the 76ers so much?

"That's our team, plain and simple," said Earon Waiters, Harley's co-worker at Jim's. "That's like saying, 'Why do you love your kid?' They've got heart, just like this town does. Philly's got heart, and our teams show it, even if they ain't winning."

Philadelphia fans are notoriously tough. They have booed everyone from Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt, one of the best to ever play the position, to singing group Destiny's Child during their performance at halftime of the fourth game of the NBA Finals.

"When we love 'em, we love 'em," said Derrick Hawkins, pausing between fixing cheese steaks. "When we hate 'em, we hate 'em. We're the roughest fans around."

Although the 76ers gave the city its last professional championship in 1983, they were a woeful team by the time McKie arrived from the Detroit Pistons in a trade in 1997.

The fans "would come out to the games just to heckle," McKie said. "I can remember times we were beating a team by 20 points and we'd come down and have two or three bad plays in a row and they'd start booing us. They keep you honest around here."

Pat Croce, a former physical therapist for the team who started a successful chain of sports medical centers, took over as president in 1996. That year he selected Iverson with the No. 1 pick in the draft. A year later he brought in Larry Brown as head coach, and the 76ers were on their way to becoming one of the league's top teams--winning the affection of this town in the process.

McKie, Mutombo Could Go Elsewhere

But love isn't always enough to keep professional sports teams together. McKie and Mutombo are free agents, meaning they can sign with other teams if they choose.

The 61-year-old Brown, recipient of the NBA's Coach of the Year award this season, has said he might want to leave to rest and spend more time with his family.

The energetic Croce, who trekked to the top of the Walt Whitman Bridge to hang a 76ers banner earlier in the week, has hinted he might be ready to seek a new challenge.

"We would hate to lose either person," said Lynch, the 76er forward. "Those two people were instrumental in my decision [to come] here. To lose one of those guys, it would be like losing a teammate."

For now, the city is enjoying this team's effort, pausing to catch its breath after the frenetic ride that lasted 105 games and came up three victories short of its goal.

"We just didn't have enough weapons for the Lakers," Hawkins said. "That's all. But we did our best and never quit. You've got to give them applause for that. They just showed a lot this year. You've got to respect that."

And move ahead with life. He resumed his station behind the counter, fixing cheese steaks.

"For here or to go? How many, sir?"

'When we love 'em, we love 'em. When we hate 'em, we hate 'em. We're the roughest fans around.'

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