The foam-rubber hands kept falling down. They are familiar novelty items across the land—three fingers tucked into the oversized palm, one oversized finger extended to designate that a certain team is No. 1, a fashion statement available for five bucks to the boastful consumer—but these were hands printed in the red, white and blue of the Philadelphia 76ers. We're No. 1? There were no takers at the concession stand in the cast end of the Spectrum.
Susan Dickerman, who has worked the stand since 1969, who has worked when times were flat-out crazy, when championships were won and the noise was unbelievable, would arrange three of the hands in a sort of tripod on the glass counter, and then a group of kids would run past or a gust of wind would appear, and the hands would drop into a foam-rubber pile. She would have to start over again.
"Maybe if I add another hand," she said. "For balance."
Spring had arrived. Outside, the for-sythia were in bloom near the statue of Rocky Balboa, and people still trooped through the doors, but any midwinter sports passions had evaporated long before the last crusty patches of snow had melted. Once again the end of the regular seasons for Philadelphia's two major professional winter sports teams would be the end, period. No playoffs. No excitement when the weather finally turns warm. The basketball Sixers were long gone, clinically dead for a couple of months now, following a zombie path through the final weeks of the schedule. The hockey Flyers were going, going... certain to be gone at any moment.
April 17, 1994
"It's a shame," Dickerman said, picking up the foam-rubber fingers. "Not like the old days at all. The Flyer fans are still good. They'll buy anything. If someone came out with a Flyer toothpick, those fans would line up to buy it. The Sixers...we sell some of the little things. Key chains. Card sets. It's not the same."
For four straight days last week the Spectrum was in use as the Flyers and the Sixers each played twice at home. In other arenas and stadiums across the country, far more important action was taking place. In Philadelphia the newspaper headlines and the talk shows were buzzing about the Phillies, who were opening their season on the road, and about the sale of the Eagles to Jeffrey Lurie (page 62), a movie producer, (JAZZY JEFF the tabloid Daily News blared on the front page, followed by JUST YOUR AVERAGE JEFF on the back.) But this did not mean that nothing happened at the Spectrum.
The song of recent Philadelphia springs was repeated. Once again it was an un-tender ballad....
Thursday, Flyers vs. Florida Panthers
"It's sad, the way teams come in here now," said Dave Leonardi, the publisher and editor of a small ski newspaper in Ewing, N.J. "They used to come in here, and they'd be intimidated. You could see it. Now, nobody's intimidated, and it's been that way for a while."
Leonardi was once part of the intimidation. A year before the Flyers won their first Stanley Cup, in 1974, he bought season tickets behind the east goal. Someone suggested one night that he make a sign, and he did, and everyone liked it. One sign led to another sign and then to more signs, better signs and sign notoriety. Leonardi became the Sign Man, with more than 150 signs. He had signs for every occasion during the glory times.
He still has the seats and still makes the signs—and he did go to a Flyer game on his wedding night 11½ years ago, still in his tuxedo, his wife in her gown—but the wonderful occasions have become infrequent. The Flyers have missed the playoffs for the past four years and now were on the verge of missing for a fifth straight. After a promising 11-3 start to the season, they began a slow drop to a point where they were fighting for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With four games remaining, they were three points behind the eighth-place Panthers and two behind the ninth-place New York Islanders.
Mathematicians and optimists said this game against the Panthers was a grand chance to close ground, but already there was trouble. In their previous game Flyer star Eric Lindros suffered a sprained shoulder. He was almost certainly out for the rest of the regular season. What chance did the Flyers really have?
"You look at it realistically, and even if we made the playoffs, what chance would we have against the New York Rangers in the first round?" Leonardi said. "We still need more pieces. I was thinking today, Bobby Orr didn't win a Cup in his first year in Boston. Mario Lemieux didn't in Pittsburgh. It takes time, and if Lindros is a franchise player, it's going to take time here too."
Leonardi did his best against the Panthers. When Rod Brind'-Amour tied the game for the Flyers 1-1, the Sign Man held up a sign that read ONLY THE BEGINNING. When the Flyers took a 3-2 lead into the third period, he asked for more goals with a sign that said INSERT HERE, bearing an arrow pointing toward the Panther goal. Alas, the eventual insertion was at the other end, a floating 40-foot backhander from the Panthers' Gord Murphy that somehow whiffled past shaky Flyer goalie Tommy Soderstrom. Leonardi was left to hold up a sign behind Florida goalie John Vanbiesbrouck that read YOU'LL CHOKE as the game went into overtime with the score 3-3.
"A tie," writer Les Bowen of the Daily News said in the press box. "Not a tie. Give me a win and a story that the Flyers are alive. Give me a loss and a story that the Flyers are dead. Don't give me a tie and all those quotes about how 'We're still alive, but we need some help.' "
Final score: 3-3.
"We're still alive," Flyer forward Kevin Dineen said. "It's just that we need some things to happen for us. If we'd won, we could have controlled our own destiny."
Friday, Sixers vs. New York Knicks
Half the crowd of 16,916 seemed to be from New York. More than half the crowd. The opening introductions became a celebration of the first-place Knicks. The lights were then dimmed, and the scoreboard rolled through an elaborate Sixer introduction, a cartoon basketball flying above the cartoon city skyline and landing on the Spectrum to announce, "Tim Perry, Eric Leckner, Dana Barros..." and the New York people booed. The noise controlled the building.
"We paid 70 bucks apiece for the package," said Joe Gaddis of Mamaroneck, N.Y., who came with his brothers, Clarence and Clinton, on one of 12 buses filled with invaders. "You got the bus at Madison Square Garden, and there was a buffet on the way down, plus the ticket to the game, plus a tailgate before the game. How can you beat that? We're here from New York, and you have to be humble because we're here from New York and we're rough 'n' tumble."
The Sixers, like the Flyers, had hopes for the playoffs this season. With 7'6" rookie center Shawn Bradley learning and improving with every game, they once had a respectable 20-26 record. Then Bradley dislocated a knee and limped away. Then guard Jeff Hornacek was traded to the Utah Jazz. Then the team went into one of the alltime tailspins, losing 25 of 26 games before outlasting the Milwaukee Bucks 115-114 in the most recent game. Now, the Knicks.
"You just go out and play," Barros said. "Everybody's trying. We go out and try to stay close. We're not a team that can fall behind by 15 and come back, but if we can stay close, get the game into the fourth quarter, we've got a chance."
The chance improved in this game with an announcement before the start that Knick star Patrick Ewing had the flu and would not play. This was instant inspiration in this going-nowhere season, and the young Sixers grabbed at it. Before you could say, "Isn't that comedian Richard Lewis in that long black scarf, gargling out Knick cheers in the front row?" the Sixers had a 21-8 lead and were rolling to a 63-45 advantage at the half.
The rest was a 24-minute holding action. The Knicks, interested now, came back in a fury, finally tying the score at 92-92 with 2:02 left in the fourth. All signs pointed toward a Knick win until Greg Graham hit a pair of free throws to give Philadelphia a three-point lead with 11 seconds left, and the Sixers actually won 100-97. They beat the Knicks and shut up the New York crowd.
"It's the best game we've played since Shawn Bradley went out," Sixer coach Fred Carter said. "For us to be where we were, to beat a team where they are, you have to say that's something special."
Carter was smoking a cigar as he talked, the smoke hanging around his head like a victory wreath. He was asked if this was tradition, smoking a cigar after each win.
"Oh, no," he said. "I smoke a cigar every day, win or lose. If I only smoked a cigar after a victory, I wouldn't be smoking very much, would I? I'd live a long time."
The story of the Sixers' win did not make the front sports page of The Philadelphia Inquirer the next day. The Phils, the Eagles, John Kruk's minor league debut, the Masters and Atlanta Brave pitcher Kent Mercker's no-hitter all did.
Saturday, Sixers vs. Charlotte Hornets
"It's tougher to do the game when the team's losing," Sixer television broadcaster Jon Gurevitch said. "Of course it is. When the team was going to the playoffs every year—and it wasn't that long ago—people would be talking about the team everywhere. This has been tough. Our job is to talk about the Sixers, but what if no one is listening? You start out every game with enthusiasm, but if the team goes down by 20, you sound like an idiot if you keep that same kind of voice."
This crowd, 17,515, again was a visitors' crowd. Although the Hornets were struggling toward the playoffs, four games out, they remain a marketing marvel. The predominant color of shirts and jackets in the stands was teal. "It's all right," said Friday night's star, Graham. "I think everybody kind of likes to be the underdog. It gets you going."
For a long time the lessons of one night seemed to be carried over to the next. The Sixers jumped on the Hornets, too. They were ahead 35-31 at the end of the first quarter, 62-54 at the half, and they still led, 91-89, at the end of the third quarter. But the lead was frittered away, the Hornets in control until the Sixers made an amazing stretch run. Trailing 117-110 with 30 seconds left, the Sixers outscored the Hornets 8-1 to force OT. The final three points were on a heave by Barros from the corner that dropped through the net as the buzzer sounded.
"Those are the kind of shots you live for," the little guard said. "Those are the ones you've made all your life in your imagination."
The Hornets rolled in overtime, 127-122, but what the heck. Gurevitch said he had no problem at all staying excited. Carter smoked another cigar and said, "You can't ask guys to play much harder than that." The Inquirer ran the story of the game on the 11th page of the Sunday sports section.
Sunday, Flyers vs. Boston Bruins.
The playoff chances for the Flyers ended at 3:38 on Sunday afternoon. The home team had lost to the Bruins 4-3 at 3:37, and as the glum crowd of 17,241 was filling the aisles, Lindros jerseys everywhere except on Lindros himself, television sets in the press box played out the last 30 seconds of the Islanders' 5-4 win over the Rangers, which meant mathematical elimination for Philadelphia. The Flyers were finished before their fans hit the street.
"We needed a 90-game season to make the playoffs," Leonardi, the Sign Man, said. "Or maybe we needed a 25-game season. Whatever it was, we needed something different."
The press conference with mild-mannered coach Terry Simpson, who was finishing his first year on the job, resembled the inquisition of a troubled public official. What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? Who was to blame? Were you to blame? Simpson stood in front of a Flyer banner and explained that he had tried to implement a defense-oriented system and that it never really worked. The players never really adopted it as their own.
In the dressing room players came forward, one at a time, to offer their explanations. They seemed like so many schoolboys apologizing for sloppy term papers. Dineen said that maybe the early success had hurt in the long run, that players felt they didn't need the system when they were winning and couldn't adapt when they started losing. Lindros said he didn't know why players wouldn't follow the system. Seven microphones were held in front of his face while he talked. What else could he say? There was no opportunity now to talk about anybody's fate being in anybody's hands. The Flyers' fate had been sealed: a pair of nothing games left to play.
One of those in the room was Joe Watson, a defenseman from the Flyers' Stanley Cup days in '74 and '75 and now advertising director for the team. He talked quietly with a sportswriter as the interviews went on and on. After a while he started to leave, shaking the sportswriter's hand.
"Have a nice summer," the sportswriter said.
"Have a nice summer, yourself," Watson replied.
The Phillies played their home opener on Monday across the street in Veterans Stadium.