If God is in the details, then the Philadelphia 76ers began
their disastrous 1972-73 season with an atheist, the blustery
Roy Rubin, as their coach. Hired in June '72 after 11 successful
years at Division I Long Island University, Rubin came to
training camp unfamiliar with the NBA and unacquainted with many
players in the league, including some of his own. "It was a
joke, like letting a teenager run a big corporation," says Fred
Carter, the team's leading scorer (20.0 points per game) and now
an analyst for ESPN. "We had Hal Greer [a Hall of Fame guard] on
that team, and Rubin had no idea who he was. After we went 4-4
in the preseason, Rubin said, 'I don't think Boston will be so
tough.' We just looked at each other and laughed."
What followed, of course, was a season in which Philly went
9-73, setting a Beamonesque mark for futility. Yet as bad as the
Sixers were, the lore surrounding the team is
championship-caliber. The lowlights:
0-15: By the time the Sixers lost their 15th straight game to
open the season, "it was clear we were the league's universal
health spa," says Carter. "If teams had any ills, they got
healthy when they played us." The Sixers didn't get off the
schneid until Nov. 11, when they beat the Houston Rockets 114-112.
3-31: An otherwise forgettable loss to the Detroit Pistons was
made memorable when Rubin attempted to substitute for forward
John Q. Trapp. Although Rubin denies it, legend has it that
Trapp refused to come out and then instructed Rubin to look
behind the bench. When the coach turned around, one of Trapp's
consorts supposedly opened his jacket and showed Rubin his
handgun. With Trapp still in the game, the Sixers lost 141-113.
4-47: At the All-Star break Philadelphia axed Rubin and named
Kevin Loughery as player-coach. Rubin, his coaching reputation
forever besmirched, moved to Florida and bought an International
House of Pancakes franchise. "I don't hold any grudges, but the
day I came in, Billy Cunningham, the team's best player, jumped
to the ABA and things went downhill from there," says Rubin, who
now works with at-risk kids in Miami. "All the losing really
eats you up, and it took me awhile to get over that season."
Incidentally, after Loughery's elevation, one of the team's
first roster moves was to release John Q. Trapp.
4-54: Credit the law of averages, but the Sixers played
respectably on occasion. At Boston Garden, Philly held a 97-85
lead entering the fourth quarter against the Celtics, a team
that would finish a mere 59 games ahead of them. ("No one wanted
to lose to us," says Rubin. "The opposition probably played
harder against us than against better teams.") Boston came back
to win 123-115.
9-60: Philadelphia beat the Baltimore Bullets 102-96 to win for
the fifth time in seven games. "When we played up to our
potential, we actually weren't that bad," says center Dale
Schlueter, now a businessman in Portland. "A lot of games were
close, and we just couldn't get over the hump."
9-73: Fittingly the Sixers closed the season by dropping their
final 13 games, the last of which was a 115-96 loss to Detroit
before 1,937 fans in Pittsburgh.
Today, with a quarter century's worth of detachment, the players
on that team don't look upon the milestone as a millstone. They
reflect on it with far more self-deprecatory humor than
embarrassment. "We were all sent to Hades for that year, but how
dare Denver, or anyone else, try to break our record," says
Carter. "We earned that mark, and I hope it stands." But even if
the Nuggets fail to supplant Philly, they can take some solace
from the fact that the basketball fates can change in a hurry.
Only four years after the 1972-73 debacle, the 76ers were
playing in the NBA Finals.
--L. JON WERTHEIM