One spring day in 1970 Al Henry picked up his telephone in Madison, Wis. and heard a man who introduced himself as Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News say, "Congratulations! The 76ers have picked you 12th in the first round of the NBA draft."
Henry, a 6'9" center who had been the object of no more than cursory scrutiny by most pro clubs while playing for Wisconsin, answered, "Don't you mean I was the first player picked in the 12th round?"
No. Henry was incontestably the 76ers' top choice, although his own assessment of his ability turned out to be much more accurate than that of management. Unfortunately the 76ers neglected to ask Henry's opinion, relying instead on the less perceptive judgments of its scouts, who had fed their reports and statistics into a computer specially hired for the occasion. The machine spit out Henry's name as the man to take, even though Nate Archibald, Calvin Murphy, Jim McMillian, Garfield Heard and Curtis Perry were among the players available when Philly's choice came up. It was a classic example of the programmer's bromide: Garbage In, Garbage Out.
Henry's case points up one of the reasons why the word garbage is frequently used in conjunction with the name 76ers these days. By dint of his own hard work and the concomitant decline of the Sixers during his brief tenure, Henry survived part of one season and all of another in Philadelphia. He had compiled a 4.0 career scoring average when he was finally waived last September, thus avoiding the stigma of membership on the worst pro basketball team of this and perhaps any other year. Henry's scoring feats made him the highest point producer among the 76ers' first draft choices for 1967 through 1971 (see box). Like Henry, the other four top picks are no longer with the Sixers. Or, for that matter, with anybody else. By this December, when he was cut by the Indiana Pacers, Craig Raymond was the only one left in pro ball, but he is 6'11", which might be called an extenuating circumstance. Raymond played for six teams after leaving Philadelphia and was last seen holding down one end of the Pacers' bench. Dana Lewis, the Sixers' '71 pick, never appeared in a Philadelphia game, although he was signed to a big contract and the team still owes him several hundred thousand dollars. "The 76ers need a center in the worst way," Kiser wrote after seeing Lewis work out. "And Dana Lewis is a center in the worst way."
The 76ers' disastrous drafts, their equally wretched trades and their lowly position in the standings make them right at home in a city whose name has long been a handy alliterative for phailure and phaux pas. Indeed, the Sixers are outdoing other hometown phlops. After losses last week to the Hawks and Celtics, their record (3-35) was by far the worst in pro basketball. If they continue at their present pace—and there is no reason to think otherwise—the 76ers will end the year with an unprecedented 7-75.
Until the second half of last season, basketball had been the one consistent exception to Philadelphia's sports malaise. As a charter member of the NBA, the Warriors, as they were then known, won the league's first championship and one of their players, Joe Fulks, took the scoring title. They remained a power throughout the '50s and early '60s with teams that featured scoring champs Paul Arizin, Neil Johnston and Wilt Chamberlain. When the Warriors left for San Francisco in 1962, they were replaced by the Sixers (ne Syracuse Nats), a club that until last season hadn't missed a playoff in 22 years.
Chamberlain returned to Philly in 1965 and the 76ers won the Eastern Division the next three years. In 1966-67 they also won the league championship, posting a then-record 68-13 mark during the regular season. Some experts still consider this the best pro team ever assembled. Starting in the forecourt with Chamberlain were Luke Jackson (since retired because of a knee injury) and Chet Walker, later traded to Chicago where he has continued to star. Wali (ne Wally) Jones, now of the Bucks, played guard alongside Hal Greer. Greer, now a 36-year-old reserve, and Fred Boyd, a rookie backcourtman from Oregon State, are the only current Sixers who came to the team directly from college.
The substitutes from that championship club could easily whip the current 76ers. They included Larry Costello and Dave Gambee along with a superb young sixth man, Bill Cunningham. Farther down the bench were three promising guards—Matt Guokas, Bob Weiss and Billy Melchionni. Guokas was traded and now starts for the Kings. Weiss, who today is widely regarded as the best third guard in the NBA, and Melchionni, the ABA's assists champion last season, were dumped into expansion drafts, and wound up with the Bulls and the Nets. Cunningham was the last of the old champs to leave, departing last spring under court order to honor a contract he signed three years ago with the ABA Cougars. He has since led Carolina to the top of its division, while, ironically, Don DeJardin, who negotiated the Cunningham contract for the Cougars, is the 76ers' general manager.
Although the trading of Chamberlain in 1968 ended the Sixers' reign as division leader, it was the inept drafting and the dissipation of the club's other good personnel through bad trades by DeJardin and his predecessor, Jack Ramsay, that has left the team in its sorry condition. And though the current roster is made up largely of veterans, none of the 76ers save Greer has ever played in an All-Star game and there are no Sixers among the league's leaders in any department. Coach Roy Rubin has attempted to deep-think his way to victory by using 15 different starting combinations, but it is doubtful that his masterminding will gain him any votes for Coach of the Year.
The team's failings have embittered Rubin, a former Long Island University coach who signed a three-year Sixers contract after at least three others had turned the job down. "Why can't someone else take some of the blame?" he moans. "I'm not the one who misses the shots, who throws the ball away, who won't box out. They're killing me. They're trying to take my livelihood away from me."
Rubin's players are just as distressed. Seven Sixers have recently played on championship or near-championship teams and, while players routinely gripe about coaches, the mounting losses have magnified Rubin's deficiencies in their eyes. They criticize him for sloppy practices, lack of discipline and his failure to speak meaningfully during time-outs, at halftime and at postgame meetings. More than his coaching, however, they criticize his personality.
Dave Wohl, a former Sixer who now plays for Buffalo, has called Rubin a "con man." According to a player still with the 76ers, "He comes up to me and tells me I'm great, that I'm going to be his main guy. Then he'll talk to someone else on the team and say I'm no good, that I don't know how to play, that I'm a bad guy." The press has chimed in. RUBIN'S 'CON' GAME DOESN'T WORK headlined The Evening Bulletin. CAN RUBIN SURVIVE? inquired the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In Philadelphia, where attendance is off more than 40%, the fans are not even bothering to come out to boo, but there was plenty of cheering from the 7,408 who watched a 76er "home" game in Pittsburgh against the Hawks last week. Most of the cheers, however, were for Atlanta's Pete Maravich, who was born in nearby Aliquippa, Pa. Maravich and the other Hawks played poorly and still won on a nice piece of luck. The Sixers led 120-119 with five seconds remaining when Pete missed a long jump shot. The rebound flew far out into the lane, where Atlanta's Don May caught it and sank a jumper at the buzzer.
Even with limited talent, an unhappy coach, dissension and bad luck, the worst may still be to come. Hopes of reviving the 76ers rest on the coming draft, in which they have two second-round choices and two firsts, both of which could fall among the initial four picks. Going on past records, it figures to be Philadelphia's worst performance of the year.