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Pivotal Decision The 76ers gained a dominant presence in the middle by trading for Dikembe Mutombo, but will the deal help or hurt a team that was already flourishing?

It was approaching 2 a.m. last Saturday when the Philadelphia
76ers' bus pulled up to the Hyatt in Charlotte. Despite the hour,
a cluster of bleary-eyed autograph hounds stood outside the hotel
to greet the team. Practitioner of good, clean living that he is,
Allen Iverson scolded the fans for keeping such late hours before
obliging them with his signature. A moment later center Dikembe
Mutombo stepped off the bus. He was about to skirt the pack when
he noticed a young fan playfully wagging a finger at him,
mimicking Mutombo's trademark on-court gesture. Mutombo stopped
in his tracks, laughed and then signed. "So," he said to his
fellow Sixers upon joining them in the lobby, "I guess this is
normal for a top team."

This, on the other hand, is not normal for a top team: to break
up the nucleus in the middle of an amazingly successful season by
trading one All-Star center for another, seven years his senior,
who will become a free agent on July 1. Yet that's precisely what
Philadelphia did last Thursday, 5 1/2 hours before the NBA trading
deadline, when it sent center Theo Ratliff, along with forwards
Toni Kukoc, center Nazr Mohammed and rookie guard Pepe Sanchez,
to the woebegone Atlanta Hawks for Mutombo and forward Roshown
McLeod. It was the biggest midseason deal ever made by a team
with the league's best record. Whether it was a bold stroke of
genius or an epic depression of the panic button is debatable. "I
don't get it at all, and I don't like it," said Charlotte Hornets
forward P.J. Brown last weekend. "They were going good with Theo.
I always thought you weren't supposed to mess with success." His
coach, Paul Silas, disagreed: "This could put them over the top."

The Sixers contend that the chance to acquire the 34-year-old
Mutombo, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, was simply
too good to pass up. Though the 6'10" Ratliff is the league's
leading shot blocker, he's a power forward masquerading as a
center. Mutombo, the NBA's top rebounder, is a 7'2", 261-pound
pilaster whose mere presence induces reflexive pump-fakes. More
important, unlike Ratliff, who may be out for the rest of the
season after suffering a broken right wrist on Jan. 23, Mutombo
will be available to help Philadelphia maintain home court
advantage throughout the playoffs. "If Theo is healthy, we don't
make this move," says general manager Billy King, who suffered an
injury identical to Ratliff's while playing for Duke in 1986-87
and needed more than three months to fully recover. "While he's
healing, we have Dikembe out there."

"Theo was great for us," says 76ers president Pat Croce, "but we
had an opportunity and we had to carpe Dikembe."

The Seized One drew mixed reviews in his first three games.
Having had three hours' sleep the previous night, he arrived in
Detroit last Friday evening to find that his name was misspelled
MOTOMBO on his jersey, and it wasn't known until 30 minutes
before tip-off that he had cleared his physical exam.
Nevertheless, in a 99-78 romp over the Pistons, he scored 17
points, grabbed 13 boards and blocked five shots in 36 minutes,
and his fierce denial of a Jerry Stackhouse dunk attempt had
Philadelphia coach Larry Brown winking at his assistants. Mutombo
was less of a presence the next night in Charlotte, failing to
reach double figures in scoring or rebounding as the Hornets
ended the Sixers' six-game winning streak, 86-85.

"Considering he hasn't even had a practice, he looked pretty
good," Brown said after the loss. "We're asking him to rebound
and play defense, which he's been doing his entire career, so I
don't foresee any problems." Mutombo did his part against the
Bucks on Monday in Philadelphia, pouring in 21 points and
snatching 16 boards. But Milwaukee, the second-best team in the
East, shot 51.2% to hand the 76ers a 98-91 loss.

Brown had been coveting a bona fide center for months, but his
interest in Mutombo was piqued during the All-Star Game. While
coaching the Eastern Conference to a dramatic 111-110 win, Brown
watched as Iverson scored 25 points to earn MVP honors and
Mutombo pulled down 22 rebounds in 27 minutes. Brown was nearly
beside himself envisioning the league's leading scorer playing
alongside its best rebounder and interior defender. Knowing that
Mutombo wanted out of Atlanta, Brown asked him, "Why don't you
come play for us?" Mutombo's response: "I like a warm climate."

The day after the All-Star Game, Brown and King worked to
structure a deal for Mutombo that didn't include Ratliff. Three
days before the trading deadline, as Ratliff and his wife
shopped for a house in the Philadelphia suburbs, Hawks president
Stan Kasten called Croce. Honoring a gentleman's agreement
they'd made weeks earlier, Kasten warned Croce that the New York
Knicks--potentially the Sixers' biggest challenger in the
East--had made an offer for Mutombo that included center Marcus
Camby and forward Glen Rice. Galvanized, Brown and King agreed
to dangle Ratliff.

The day before the trade deadline, while Ratliff underwent
surgery to insert a pin in his wrist, the 76ers still hadn't
consummated the deal. When they took the court that night for a
home game against the Vancouver Grizzlies, the fans chanted, "No
trade, Larry!" Any cold feet, however, got toasty in a hurry when
Philadelphia's only other significant inside presence, power
forward Tyrone Hill, twisted his right ankle and limped off for
X-rays--which proved negative. "I saw that and I'm thinking, You
can't take anything for granted in this league," says Brown.
"That was a sign." The next afternoon the swap was made.

Though the Sixers have every intention of signing Mutombo to a
multiyear deal in the off-season, the trade sent a conspicuous
message: Philly believes that its best chance to win a
championship is now. Mutombo should help neutralize the mastodons
in the Western Conference--the Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille
O'Neal, the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan and David Robinson, and
the Portland Trail Blazers' Arvydas Sabonis and Rasheed
Wallace--if the 76ers reach the Finals. "If Alonzo Mourning and
Grant Hill come back healthy or if the Knicks sign Chris Webber,
who knows what happens next year," says one Eastern Conference
executive. "I think Philadelphia wants to strike while the iron
is hot."

Likewise, there's no telling how long the detente between Brown
and Iverson will last. Only two months ago Iverson excoriated the
coach in front of the other Sixers, causing Brown to take a
two-day leave of absence. With the two coexisting peacefully,
there's no reason to wait. "Right now," the 60-year-old Brown
says of the state of the union, "things have never been better."

The same goes for Iverson's play. Simply put, he has been
breathtaking of late. Through Monday he was leading the league in
points (31.0 per game), minutes (42.6) and steals (2.39). Iverson
had left Webber flat-footed in the MVP race by scoring at least
40 points in five of Philadelphia's eight games since the
All-Star break. What's more, he had been playing with a
competitive resolve unseen since--dare we say it?--Michael Jordan.
The 6-foot, 160-pound Iverson attacks the basket relentlessly,
mocks defenders of all shapes and sizes with a stupefyingly quick
crossover and has no fear of planting himself in the lane to take
charges from players like 240-pound Hornets forward Jamal
Mashburn. Half a dozen times a game Iverson gets slammed to the
deck, only to pop right back up like a Whack-A-Mole. "He's just
an incredible basketball player," said Mutombo after Iverson
scored 47 of Philadelphia's 85 points against Charlotte. "You see
him on television, but [his quickness] is much more shocking when
you see it with your own eyes."

Even Iverson can't do it alone, however. Philadelphia's 42-16
record through Monday had also been forged by a corps of
selfless, defensive-minded players like Tyrone Hill, George
Lynch, Aaron McKie and Eric Snow. None are close to spectacular,
but all have bought into Brown's philosophy and play with
unmistakable pride, elevating their games when a teammate goes
down with an injury. As long as they continue to hear that they
are "glorified role players" or "overachievers" or that "Brown
is coaching with smoke and mirrors," they will stay plenty
hungry. "At some point you have to admit it's more than luck,"
says Lynch. "We play hard, we play right, and people should
respect us for playing better basketball than every other team
in the league."

What will come of this one-for-all consciousness in the wake of
the trade? There were few tears shed over the departure of
Kukoc--who was never accused of having an outsized heart--but
Ratliff was an exponent of the Sixers' proletarian mentality.
Last weekend four players independently used the word hurt to
describe their sentiments about the trade, while Ratliff wondered
to the Philadelphia Daily News if the 76ers didn't rush his
surgery to facilitate dealing him. Iverson expressed approval of
the move, but even he conceded that if Brown and King's chemistry
experiment combusts, "it's on them."

Mutombo knows that to some extent, it's on him as well. "It's up
to me to adjust to them, to embrace them with open arms and be
part of the family, not the other way around," he says. On the
court, that's not likely to be a problem. Mutombo is the rare
star center who doesn't demand the ball and whose performance is
best judged by the output of the opposing center.

Socially, too, the early signs are that he'll be all right.
Though he declined an invitation to join a high-stakes card game
on his first team flight, it didn't take him long to become one
of the guys. By his second game he was being ribbed for wearing
an inside-out Hawks T-shirt to breakfast. He also knew enough to
take it as a term of endearment when he arrived in Detroit and
Iverson greeted him by saying, "Now that you're here, get your
big-ass feet on the court so we can get it on." Says Mutombo,
"It's easier [to fit in] when everyone wants the same things. In
this case, it's to stay on the path to the championship."

If for some reason that path gets blocked? Rest assured that
Philly fans will point to last week's audacious trade and then,
in the manner of the Sixers' new center, wag a forefinger

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO PHIL-IN With All-Star Ratliff injured, the Sixers felt Mutombo gave them their best shot at a title.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO UNBENDING FORCE The risky trade did little to disrupt Iverson, who averaged 38.7 points in the three games after Mutombo's arrival.

"They were going good with Theo," said the Hornets' Brown.
"I thought you weren't supposed to mess with success."