It was 1972. The Philadelphia 76ers were holding training camp at Ursinus College, 25 miles outside the city. The team was enduring typical preseason drills when its third-round draft pick, Charlie Tharpe, from Belhaven College, vomited. Into his own hands.
Andy Dolich was a 25-year-old intern to the general manager at the time. These were the pre-Magic, pre-Bird days of the NBA, when front-office staff not only sold tickets but also acted as video coordinators, drivers, promoters and activists. And so Dolich was sitting courtside when he saw Tharpe, with throw-up seeping through his large fingers and onto the wooden floor of the musty college gymnasium, stroll over to Roy Rubin and ask, "Coach, what do I do with this?" At which point assistant coach Paul Lizzo turned to Rubin and proclaimed, "Holy crap, we are screwed. We are totally screwed."
Perhaps the 1972-73 Sixers should have recognized at that exact moment that this would be a season like no other. Though they couldn't discern it at the time, it was a precursor to the worst season in NBA history.
Had they understood the portent, they may have just forfeited the season and not had to endure what it was like to lose 73 of 82 games, an ignominious feat that has never been re-enacted.
Inconceivably, the 2009-2010 New Jersey Nets, with a dizzying 3-37 record, are on pace to eclipse the Sixers' season of despair. In this day and age, that seems virtually impossible. Compared to '72-73, when the league had 17 teams, today's NBA is watered down with 30 teams and so much talent that a sixth man could not even make some of the dynastic teams of that era. There are better travel accommodations. Better hotels. Better medical practices. The coaching is more advanced. The scouting. The amenities. It seems anathema to natural progression that an NBA team 37 years later can be as bad as a team that played three of its regular-season games in Hershey, Pa., where WiltChamberlain once scored 100 points.
And yet, it is happening. And Dolich, a 62-year-old, silver-haired, silver-tongued executive who has been involved in sports management for almost four decades, follows New Jersey's visceral plight on an almost daily basis.
This is not a story about how Sixers players root for New Jersey to lose so their embarrassment can be lost in the obscurity of runner-upsmanship. After all, do you know who the second-worst team in NBA history is? Of course not.
And that is why Dolich checks the box scores in the morning paper and his heart sinks when he sees that Devin Harris and Brook Lopez once again faltered the night before. Dolich desperately wants them to be victorious. He sends them karmic messages channeled through Al Davis: Just win, baby.
"For me, as an inconsequential sports marketer, who at the time was just starting out, it is my Cal Ripken," Dolich said. "I will be the saddest person in the country if they break this record."
Dolich has worked with the Oakland A's, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Golden State Warriors, the Washington Capitals, the Washington Diplomats and, most recently, with the San Francisco 49ers, before he and owner Jed York decided to part ways last week.
But in 1972, he was an intern with the Sixers, living in his parents' basement in south Jersey and commuting to the office each day. He was attending the nation's only sports management program, at Ohio University, and Sixers general manager Don DeJardin decided to hire Dolich and three others from the program, at least in part to help boost ticket sales for an organization that was falling on hard times in the wake of Chamberlain's departure.
Little did Dolich know what he was about to experience. And little did he realize precisely how much it would prepare him for a lifelong career in sports.
"I didn't know it at the time, but chaos, disaster, pestilence, famine is actually where you want to be in sports," Dolich said. "You don't want to be in championship parades because you can't advance that way. You are the third assistant to the executive to the aide to the attaché."
Dolich was classic '70s back then, straight from the Watergate movie, All the President's Men. Pinstriped shirt with a terribly mismatched tie. Flammable suit. Hair parted to the side, longish, over the ears. A young Hal Holbrook.
Now, as he sits in a Mountain View, Calif., coffee shop, a short distance from Google's headquarters, he chuckles as he recalls the unexpected start to his career. And he still can't believe the Nets are capable of stealing his 37 years of fame, mostly because it seems improbable that a team can endure that much losing.
The Sixers suffered through losing streaks of 20, 15, 14 and 13 games that season. Had they not defeated the Seattle SuperSonics 85-82 at the Seattle Center Coliseum on Jan. 7, they would have endured a 35-game losing streak.
"Oh, I remember that game," said Spencer Haywood, Seattle's leading scorer who was two years removed from his "hardship" lawsuit against the NBA. "I was doing everything I could to keep us from losing. Because you don't want to be that team who loses to them.
"But the year before, I had gotten hurt with three games left before the playoffs. Dick Snyder had gotten hurt. And we missed the playoffs by one game. So the next year, the year the Sixers won nine games, we just knew we were going to make the playoffs. And then we were not very good. So we were going through a little bit of turmoil ourselves."
Like Dolich, Haywood says he follows the Nets' travails closely. Nets coach KikiVandeweghe's father, Ernie, was Haywood's first agent. And besides LennyWilkens, current Nets president Rod Thorn was the one person who stood by Haywood during his legal battle with the league.
Haywood also finds it difficult to believe that New Jersey can win fewer than nine games. But here they are, having lost 18 straight to start the season, another 10 in a row before beating their cross-river rivals and now in the midst of an eight-game losing streak as they cruise through the West in search of a victory -- any victory.
"When you are bad, most of the players on your team know you are going to lose," Dolich said. "They are not going to admit it. But if there was some scientific instrument in their heart and their brains, and you interviewed 12 guys, they would all say, 'We are going to lose tonight. I don't know how, but we are going to lose.'
"And that is the Holy Grail of sport that gets billionaires frustrated because there is no E=MC2. There just isn't. When it is happening and you are winning, it is automatic. Just hit the button. And when it is not happening, it seems like it will never happen.
"The Nets seem to be a better basketball team. They don't seem to be a team capable of spiraling so far down that they can supplant one of the more ignominious records in the history of sport. I pray to Eddie Gottlieb every night that they don't."
Dolich recalls accompanying the team to home games in Pittsburgh, where leather-lunged hecklers would abuse the players before crowds that seemed to be in the hundreds. He remembers Rubin breaking down crying in his apartment because of the vitriol being printed by local writers. And he remembers crafting marketing campaigns to sell tickets for a team that had almost no appeal.
Dolich has considered writing a book on the season -- though, he says, it is not easy to find, and persuade to talk, some of the characters involved in the ineptitude. Fred Carter, Philadelphia's leading scorer, has joked that if he could not be the best player on a championship team, he's happy to be the best player on the worst team of all time. But Hal Greer and Bill Bridges and Bob Rule don't seem so enamored of being associated with the misery. Devin Harris and Chris Douglas-Roberts and Courtney Lee may feel the same way one day.
And so as Dolich patiently awaits his next -- and possibly last -- big adventure in professional sports, he looks each day to see how his past may be affected by the present. I suggest he apply for a job with the Nets, thus ensuring a place in infamy regardless of the outcome of their season. He demurs. But, ever the marketer, Dolich departs the coffee shop with a fantastic idea left on the table.
"Think about the geography," he said. "If the Nets had a sense of humor, and if I were a crazy promoter, I'd bring that team down I-95 to play their final game at The Spectrum."
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