NEGA-DELPHIA—That’s how a former local pro football player turned talk show host refers to this town, which never met a glass filled to the brim without thinking there’s still something missing.
Of course, with one championship from its four major pro sports teams in the last 29 years (the 2008 Phillies), there’s good reason for skepticism. Especially when it comes to pro hoops, where the 76ers have been mired in mediocrity for most of the past two decades – other than one brief Allen Iverson-led ride to the 2001 NBA Finals.
There they met up with Shaquille O’Neal in full force and an emerging superstar named Kobe Bryant who had grown up around these parts, because his daddy, Joe, played for the home team. They lost in five games.
Times have been lean since, though that was supposed to change this season. The trade that rocked the city and had fans turning out by the thousands on a hot August day at the Constitution Center to roar their approval at the prize acquisition, one Andrew Bynum, seemed destined to make the Sixers a major player on the NBA stage once again.
That day the coach squealed with glee talking about the lineup he would be able to throw onto the court. He would have Bynum, coming off an All-Star season, ruling the paint and creating double-teams, surrounded by dynamic point guard Jrue Holiday, 2010 No. 2 pick Evan Turner and an array of lights-out 3-point shooters.
While Collins admitted he had never really coached a team with a true big man – even when he was coaching Michael Jordan – he was truly looking forward to the challenge.
If you had told Collins then what you know now, how that particular day would be as good as it gets, that all those hopes would burst like a giant balloon, chances are he wouldn’t have believed you.
Then again, if anyone should know how fate can conspire against you (see 1972 Olympic gold medal game) and ruin all those best laid plans… if anyone knows how an injury that refuses to heal can sidetrack an All-Star career, Collins would be the man.
Perhaps it was that bitter memory, recalling how a torn ACL and a string of foot injuries had short-circuited his own career more than 35 years ago when he played for the team he now coaches, that fueled the near 20-minute diatribe he delivered Tuesday in the wake of a brutal 98-84 home loss to the Orlando Magic. The sight of his team getting blown out on its own court by a squad that had dropped 10 straight on the road and 28 of their previous 31 games simply sent him over the edge.
Now 22-33 heading into tonight’s TNT special in Chicago – the first of 17 road games remaining on their schedule – it’s abundantly clear this has become a lost season for Collins and the Sixers. Largely because they’ve been waiting for Bynum longer than Samuel Beckett’s characters Vladimir and Estragon waited for Godot, it has systematically unraveled at the seams.