The Philadelphia 76ers filed into room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis one late February afternoon and walked toward the balcony, past the coffee cups on the table, the cigarette butts in the ashtray, the peach-colored sheets strewn across the bed. The sun, setting over Mulberry Street, poured through the windows. The spiritual Take My Hand, Precious Lord played softly on the stereo. Their tour guide, a 26-year-old history student at Memphis named Ryan Michael Jones, stood before the team, his voice rising and falling in the melody of a Southern minister as he re-created the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life: the coffee that was sipped, the cigarettes that were smoked, the bed that was never made. The Sixers gazed out at the balcony, then down to the cement slab where King fell when he was shot and killed.
This is an article from the April 9, 2012 issue
The field trippers from Egypt Elementary School in Memphis struggled to identify the oversized tourists among them. They whispered their best guesses: LeBron James? Kobe Bryant? Michael Jordan? Finally, a ponytailed girl with a digital camera approached point guard Jrue Holiday and broadened her query: "Are you the NBA?" Holiday shrugged. "Yeah," he said with a half smile. "I guess we are."
In a star-powered sport, bedazzled with Big Threes and Transcendent Twos, the 76ers embody everything the league supposedly lacks. They combine the most oppressive defense (allowing just 42.1% shooting through Sunday) with the most democratic offense (six players scoring nine or more points per game but none as many as 16). They share the limelight (guard Lou Williams, the leading scorer with an average of 15.3 points, comes off the bench) and take care of the ball (11.0 turnovers per game, on pace for the best mark in NBA history). Coach Doug Collins hasn't fined a player in a season and a half. "Oh, no, that's wrong," he corrects himself. "Lou slept in one day." Of course, it was Collins who most likely kept him up the night before, with the endless string of text messages he sends troops after games. "What's happening [in Philadelphia] is almost unheard of," says journeyman center Francisco Elson, who was with the team last month on a pair of 10-day contracts. "You can see it in the way guys act off the court. You go other places, and they play video games all the time. Here, they really talk to each other."
The 76ers' visit to the Lorraine came the day after a game in Minnesota, where they lost on two free throws with 0.1 of a second left, and everybody showed up. In January they held a surprise 28th birthday party for small forward Andre Iguodala at his condo, and everybody came to that as well. "What is Evan Turner doing here?" Iguodala muttered when he spotted a lanky shooting guard in his home. Before the season the Sixers planned a retreat to Los Angeles to play in the renowned pickup games at UCLA, and nine of them made the trip. Some canceled vacations. "A lot of teams said they were going to come," says Adam Mills, the UCLA games' long-time organizer. "Only one did." The 76ers followed their regular substitution patterns and ran sets from their playbook. No way, NBA opponents moaned. Are you guys really rotating out of pick-and-rolls?
Philadelphia is bucking all sorts of NBA stereotypes, but the challenge will be to bust the most relevant one: Teams win games, but stars win championships. The 76ers, 20--9 with a four-game lead in the Atlantic Division on Valentine's Day, slipped to 29--23 at week's end, a game behind the Celtics. Can the equal-opportunity model work or does Philly's lack of a prolific scorer relegate them to the same netherworld as the Pacers and Jazz, Nuggets and Rockets, competitors who aren't contenders? Leading the NBA in defense is usually a predictor of a deep postseason run. But the only time a team won the title with a top scorer averaging fewer than 15.3 points, the league was called the BAA and Kleggie Hermsen was dropping 12.0 per game for the 1947--48 Baltimore Bullets.
Of course the Sixers would love a Kobe or a Derrick. But they make do with what they have, which means molding a team around a player who is anything but your typical headliner.
Andre Iguodala has witnessed the worst of pro sports: five coaches in seven years, trade rumors every winter and a home court often filled with nothing but boos. At 6'6" and 207 pounds, with graphic-novel muscles and Inspector Gadget arms, Iguodala is the best perimeter defender in the NBA and one of the best all-around players not named LeBron. He is a driver-passer-rebounder who doesn't mind that he averages only 12.4 points and who pinches teammates on the leg when they complain about shots. The Eastern Conference coaches chose Iguodala for the All-Star team because there was no better representative of the Sixers' success. Elson's stay in Philly was short, but he was with the team long enough for Iguodala to make an impression. "If I'm open and I get the ball, it's going up," says Elson. "That's how pretty much everybody in this league feels. Andre gives it to somebody more open. He loves team basketball."
Iguodala wakes from his game-day nap thinking of whom he will guard rather than whom he will torch. In Memphis he was roused at the Peabody by visions of Grizzlies swingman Rudy Gay. "He likes to go right," Iguodala says. "He likes to post, jab, sweep through really hard and finish at the basket. And he's added a spin lob." Before the game Memphis guard O.J. Mayo told Gay, "Andre is the guy I hate playing the most." The Grizzlies won 89--76, but Iguodala spent the night doing jumping jacks in front of Gay, and held him to 3-of-10 shooting.
Iguodala grew up in Springfield, Ill., at the height of the Bulls dynasty, and patterned himself after Scottie Pippen. He was not the leading scorer at Lanphier High, where he deferred to a gunner named Richard McBride, or at Arizona, where he averaged 12.9 points and set up sniper Salim Stoudamire. "He likes being the guy who does everything else," says Lawrence Thomas, a coach in Springfield who has worked with Iguodala since ninth grade. His road roommate at Arizona was team manager Jack Murphy, and before Iguodala left after his sophomore year, Murphy gave him a copy of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. "I didn't want him to ever think he went unrecognized," says Murphy, now an assistant at Memphis. Iguodala, who churns through three books at a time, had already read it.
The Sixers drafted him ninth in 2004 as a sidekick for scoring champ Allen Iverson, and when he talks about those freestyling days he sounds like a backup singer who once toured with the Rolling Stones. "It was so fun," Iguodala says. "He'd crack jokes on the plane, draw cartoons, take you to dinner and score 50. I'd laugh, catch some lobs and watch him score 50 again. Ninety percent of the time, there were no problems." The other 10% of the time, though, Iverson was late to something or feuding with someone. In December 2006, he was traded to the Nuggets, and two days later Iguodala scored 31 points in Boston to snap a 12-game losing streak. The Invisible Man was the Man. "We knew he was an all-around player," says former general manager Billy King, now with the Nets, "but a lot of people looked at him as the go-to-guy, the franchise guy."
For decades the 76ers built according to a top-heavy blueprint, winning titles with Wilt Chamberlain, Dr. J and Moses Malone, and reaching the finals with Iverson. They anointed Iguodala another AI and, despite mixed results, showered him with a six-year, $80 million contract in August 2008. Iguodala's numbers skyrocketed but win totals and fan support didn't. "In many instances Dre was put in a position to fail," Collins says. The Sixers plowed through three coaches in three years, swapped point guards and general managers, ended one experiment with Chris Webber at power forward and started another with Elton Brand. They even brought back Iverson for a fruitless two-month cameo. In '09--10, as the Phillies reached their second straight World Series, the Flyers advanced to the Stanley Cup finals and the Eagles went 11--5, Iguodala was the face of a franchise that lost 55 games, ranked 26th in attendance and had a higher winning percentage on the road than at home. It seemed he was the only person in Philadelphia left to boo. "In Philly, it's not about who you are, it's about what you do for us," Iguodala says. "You could be the worst person in the world, but if you score a lot of points or win a championship, you can murder somebody."
Chin raised and chest puffed, Iguodala can come across as aloof to the amateur body-language experts. Sixers officials have even asked him to lighten up on the court. But Iguodala rails against the NBA's "attention whores" who tailor their personalities and games for public consumption. He laments the lack of recognition paid to well-placed passes and slap-down steals. "We have a lot of players in this league who make max dollars and think, All I have to do is score and I don't care if we win or lose," Iguodala says. "But I believe in karma, and if you're a good teammate who spreads the ball and plays defense, it will turn."
Collins coached the Bulls when they acquired Pippen in '87, but he bonded with Iguodala over a different historical footnote. "I played in Philadelphia for eight years and was never booed," Collins says. "I told Dre, 'If you keep laying it out there and we start winning, the rewards will come.'" Collins dismissed the old model and called fewer sets for Iguodala, returning him to the comfort zone he occupied before Iverson left. "It's like he was free to be himself again," says Young. Last season Iguodala averaged a career-best 6.3 assists, and through Sunday he was pulling down 6.3 rebounds (which equals his career high), stuffing every column in the box score. "I still feel like I'm the Man on our team," Iguodala says. "It's just in a different way than people have seen before."
Like the 76ers as a whole, Iguodala cannot be fully appreciated without a raft of advanced defensive statistics. According to 82games.com, he was holding opposing small forwards to an efficiency rating of 8.8 at week's end, stunning when you consider Kobe Bryant is on the all-defensive team and was holding his counterparts at shooting guard to an efficiency rating of 12.2. "I learned from being a go-to guy what I didn't like," Iguodala says. "Coaches tell you, 'Get to the hole. Don't settle for jump shots.' So when I guard somebody, I want them to settle for jumpers—outside the paint but inside the three-point line—and then use my length to contest late." Iguodala memorizes where opponents hold the ball before they raise it up. Bryant is the toughest to strip because he cradles the ball by his hip; Lakers forward Metta World Peace might appear to be the easiest, because he puts it in front of his body, but he is trying to draw cheap fouls. "It makes no sense to me why so many good scorers can't defend," Iguodala says. "Like Lou Williams. He's one of the toughest guys to guard in the league, but he can't guard anybody. I don't get that."
Iguodala has long been the 76ers' best player, but only now are they his team. During President Obama's State of the Union address in January, Iguodala tweeted center Spencer Hawes: "dear mr president, I understand the struggles of trying to clean up the leader b4 you." Iguodala looked up to Iverson, but he noted his shortcomings and is still trying to fill the gaps. "For one thing, I try to show up early," Iguodala says with a laugh. "And stay late." He worries about his young teammates, stewing over their places on a crowded roster, and sparks the skull sessions that help them vent. "I like those deep conversations because you don't want them taking their work home," Iguodala says. "That's when guys start to drink." Iguodala has been wary of alcohol since college, when he convinced himself that it would lower his vertical leap.
Iguodala exemplifies all the areas in which the 76ers excel, and the one crucial area in which they falter, which could likely be their undoing in the postseason. Late in the fourth quarter, when they need a closer to take a tough jumper or draw a cheap foul, they often end up passing to each other. They are still looking for the Man on offense, and unless they can reprise the '48 Bullets, the search will continue into summer. "We're in the middle of the road here," says Collins, "but something really good is going to happen, and [players are] going to want to play in Philadelphia."
Who wouldn't? On most nights the Wells Fargo Center is close to full and the hecklers are occupied with either the opponents or the Eagles. The home team shares the ball and protects it. No one gets fined. The new owners recently dusted off the theme song from the 1970s, Here Come the Sixers, which blares over the loudspeaker. The chorus—"1-2-3-4-5-Sixers ... 10-9-8-76ers"—is so bizarrely catchy that players hum it in the showers. No one really knows what the verse means, but somehow it fits this group, endearing from one through 10.