Marks: Finally Victorious, Sixers Happy to Only Own a Piece of Rock Bottom

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Bj8Yi39IgAA3cNTPHILADELPHIA— Jimmy Fallon, sportscasters throughout the country and op-ed columnists can stop making them the butt of jokes and wisecracks now.

The Philadelphia 76ers will only share a piece of the record book, rather than having it all to themselves.

By scoring 70 first-half points on their way to a 123-98 blowout of the totally disinterested Detroit Pistons here last night, the Sixers avoided the ignominy of owning professional sports’ all-time losing streak. Never will a team be so willing and grateful to only own a piece of rock bottom: 26 games … but finally no longer counting.

At 9:48 P.M. civic pride was officially restored to a town still reeling from the Eagles stunning decision to jettison star receiver DeSean Jackson. While the P.A. system blared that old favorite from better days gone by “Clap your hands, everybody for Philadelphia 76ers,’’ and the message board flashed “Sixers Win’’ in bold bright letters, the players gathered at center court, almost unsure what to do.

After all, when you’ve gone 59 days between victories, it has to seem strange to celebrate rather than commiserate when the buzzer goes off.

Larry Brown, Still Going Strong at 73, Had Iverson Lecture SMU Team

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LarryBrownPHILADELPHIA—Did you hear the one about Allen Iverson extolling the virtues of “practice” on a recent trip to SMU?

Probably not. And we are unsure if Iverson actually did extol those virtues, although he was brought in to give a pep talk to the team.

Why?

Because Iverson and Larry Brown still have a bond, and the in-person tutorial was Brown’s idea. And the pep talk helped fuel the team’s rise to a 20-6 record.

To fully comprehend the strength of the relationship between these two men who are now out of the NBA, you have to go back to the 2001 All-Star Game in Washington. The Eastern Conference had just come from 19 points down in the fourth quarter to edge the West, 111-110, with Iverson scoring 25 points to earn MVP honors. But as Commissioner David Stern handed him the trophy,  ”The Answer’” had a question.

“Where’s my coach?’’ he wondered, inquiring about the man who had made it all possible despite his franchise player’s aversion to practice. “Where’s Coach Brown?’” 

Iverson-BEsiktasThat was 13 years ago, a season in which Iverson, Larry Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers would go on to the NBA Finals before losing to Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the powerhouse Los Angeles Lakers in five games. Much has transpired over those 13 years, most recently Iverson’s retirement, coming nearly four years since he last played.

As for Brown, well, he is going strong as ever at 73, still teaching his players how to make the extra pass, how to work hard and always “play the right way.’’ Only not in the pros, as he did for two ABA teams and nine NBA teams.

Instead, Brown has gone back to school, taking over a virtually dormant program at SMU and turning the Mustangs into winners in less than two seasons. With two familiar faces from that 2001 Sixers squad by his side – point guard Eric Snow and defensive-minded forward George Lynch – he has transformed the Mustangs (20-6) seemingly overnight.

At least until he brought them to his old stomping grounds Sunday, where then-No. 23 SMU – with its first ranking since 1985 – came up with a clunker and was upset 71-64 by Temple (7-17). Brown’s team dropped out of everyone’s Top 25 shortly thereafter.

Afterward, Brown typically took the heat for the subpar performance.

“I’m not very proud of myself today,’’ Brown said after his team shot itself in the foot by missing seven straight free throws down the stretch while being outrebounded, 38-25. “We got outcoached.”

That’s what this Hall of Famer would have you believe. But anyone who has been around Brown – especially during the six seasons he called Philadelphia home – knows better.

Maybe that’s why so many of them turned out Sunday to welcome him back. Besides Snow and Lynch – two players who made the most of their abilities and now are trying to learn from the master as coaches – former Brown players Aaron McKie and Malik Rose were on hand. So were Tony DiLeo, Courtney Witte and Sonny Hill, all part of Brown’s inner sanctum with the Sixers.

They already know what the young Mustangs are learning now. If you let him, Larry Brown will make you better.

“I know his passion,’’ said McKie, the Sixth Man Award winner in 2001. “He enjoys teaching, developing players and watching kids grow. I just knew he believed in me and trusted me.

“It’s unbelievable what he’s done there. But if you look at all the places he’s stopped at, he’s turned them around. He has done more with less than any coach.” 

That’s not to say the Mustangs bought in right away.

“They were reluctant,’’ recalled Lynch, officially SMU’s strength and conditioning coach but really much more. “But once the wins started coming, they could see it and accept it. It’s great to watch coach Brown out there working with them, to see him take on the challenge of rebuilding SMU and to see it come to light so fast.”

Even the players were caught off guard.

“I had no expectations when I heard he was coming,’’ said senior Nik Russell, whose team ranks second nationally in field-goal percentage defense and 8th in points allowed. “But I didn’t think it would be like it is now. I’m so surprised, so blessed to be in this situation with him. I had no expectations of him coming in and changing this program around.

“But he’s done a great job and we’re learning from him every day.”

Brown says he’s learning, too, having taken over a college program for the first time since he led “Danny and the Juniors” – the term affectionately applied to Danny Manning and the 1989 Kansas Jayhawks – to the NCAA title.

OldLBThe nomadic Brown then left for San Antonio. Through the years and all the teams that would follow – the Clippers, Pacers, Sixers, Pistons, Knicks and Bobcats – he seemed inclined to stay in the NBA for good.

The lone exception would have been had Brown’s alma mater of North Carolina come calling. It never did, instead choosing Roy Williams, which had to secretly crush him. He never let on, though, continuing to make bad teams better with the rare exception of his hometown Knicks.

Now, three years after Michael Jordan unceremoniously dumped him in Charlotte when the Bobcats started 9-19 after their first and only playoff trip – and working on his third coach since – Brown is working wonders again at SMU.

And enjoying it as much as ever.

“I’m seeing him in a different light,” said Snow, the glue to that 2001 Sixers squad which captivated this city. “We had a great relationship as a player and coach. Now it’s more confidant and friend. I see him laugh a little more. He enjoys being a teacher and a coach. He tries to put guys in a position to succeed.”

Now he is doing it at SMU, just as he did with Snow, McKie, Lynch, Dikembe Mutombo, Tyrone Hill and, of course, Iverson.

“Thirteen years,” reflected Snow. “It just shows how those moments don’t happen as often as they may seem, how rare those chances are. Some people don’t get them. Hopefully the Sixers can get back to that point.’’

LBandAI

That’s a story for another time, most likely at least a few years away. Brown was extolling the virtues of Philadelphia following Sunday’s loss, saying how much he loved it here and how he has come to grips in the years that have passed with how he and Iverson were meant to be together.

“A lot of people thought we banged heads and stuff like that, but I know God put me here to coach him,” said Brown, who regrets being unable to attend Iverson’s jersey retirement ceremony on March 1. “He might not think that, but I feel that way. “The more I’m away from it and the more I meet young people, I realize the impact he had on our game.”

In fact, Brown even brought in Iverson to address his team a few months ago, which Lynch said was a turning point in the Mustangs’ development. Yes, they’ve traveled different paths since that memorable day in Washington with the star player urging his teacher to come forward and share in the accolades.

But one thing hasn’t changed about teacher Larry Brown and pupil Allen Iverson through the years: They’re both still one of a kind.

Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writer’s Association and North Jersey Press Club.  His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.

 

Marks: Where Will E.T. Call Home?

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Evan TurnerPHILADELPHIA — Evan Turner is in the top 20 in the NBA in scoring – No. 20, to be exact – and still feels unloved.

Turner is still paying the price for not being what was expected three years ago as the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft – even though he is starting to do it now. He’s still being judged by what he considers unreasonable standards, as if he was supposed to be a flawless stone rather than a diamond in the rough when he arrived.

And while others in his draft class have already been rewarded with lavish contract extensions, Turner is still waiting and wondering where his hoops path will eventually lead.

Instead of sulking, Turner is doing the smart thing: tuning it all out and trusting those he believe have his best interests in mind. He will simply worry about now and let the future take care of itself.

Marks: Boooo-num Returns — And Philly Shows its, ahem, Love

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photo (2)PHILADELPHIA –They came to bury Andrew Bynum when the man who was supposed to be the 2013 Philadelphia 76ers’ savior—if only he could’ve played– came back to town last night.

He wasn’t impressed with the frosty reception.

“I thought it was a little weak, honestly,’’ Bynum said after a less-than-triumphant return to the city that once came out in droves to shower affection on him one sun-drenched August day in 2012. That now seems like light years ago.

“I thought it would be much worse—and it wasn’t,” he added. “I just went out and played. It was just another game to me. I wasn’t hyped by the crowd doing what they did. It was kind of funny. I was smiling the entire time.’’

Maybe not at the end. The Sixers pounded Bynum’s Cavaliers into submission, 94-79.

And if Bynum was smiling, he was about the only one wearing Cleveland maroon and white who was. After the Cavs raced to a 28-14 first period lead, they were outscored 63-33 over the next two periods, so annoying coach Mike Brown that he left his starters on the floor to the bitter end.

Marks: No Tanks — Sixers Stun Heat

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phi-miaPHILADELPHIA—When they wake up and pinch themselves this morning – to the surprise of everyone but themselves – Brett Brown, Michael Carter-Williams and the rest of the Philadelphia 76ers will discover no, this was not a dream.

They really did just beat LeBron James and the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, 114-110, at a raucous Wells Fargo Center where many had come to celebrate this franchise’s past but instead wound up cheering on one of the most improbable victories we may see all season.

Rookie point guard Carter-Williams really did have an NBA debut that won’t soon be topped, coming within a steal and three rebounds of a quadruple-double.

They really did make their first 11 shots while surging to 19-0 and 26-4 leads in the first six minutes, only to watch in awe while the Heat erased it by erupting for 80 points in the second and third periods, knocking down a franchise-record 10 3-pointers during a 45-point third quarter.

And finally, just when defeat seemed inevitable, down 104-95 with 4 ½ minutes left, they really did proceed to go on a 13-1 run while the champs missed 10 straight shots down the stretch to make this a night to remember.

tankSo for all you cynics and prophets of doom proclaiming them the worst team in the league and saying this season will be an exercise in futility, for at least one night.

Tank This!

That put the cap on a memorable day in town, where one former icon, Allen Iverson, officially announced his retirement during an hour-long confessional press conference, followed by a number of others being on hand during the game to commemorate the career of a 50-year team employee. That honor roll included “The Doctor,’’ Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, Bobby Jones and the last coach to take them to a championship in 1983, Billy Cunningham.

Meanwhile, last year’s coach, Doug Collins, sat in the stands with his grandchildren, while celebrities ranging from current Eagles DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy to pop superstar Patti LaBelle were scattered throughout the arena.

They were mainly there for the occasion, probably never expecting a competitive game to actually break out. One more reminder why no matter how great a mismatch it seems, you always still play the games.

“It helps when you put in the work– and every team will say the same thing,’’ said Brown, who never could have imagined his long-awaited NBA coaching debut would go like this. “To get a win like this it justifies the effort.

“It feels like they enjoy playing with each other. If feels like they’ll take a hit and get back up. It’s early days and we have this in perspective, but it’s obviously exciting. To go down against a team like Miami and find some chemistry, camaraderie and toughness and get back in it is a fantastic sign.’’

The cynics are bound to wonder if this was simply an aberration (which of course it was). They will point to the fact the Heat was coming off an emotional night where they received their rings, then toyed with the Bulls, 107-96, and didn’t arrive in town until 3:45 Wednesday morning. Plus the braintrust decided to sit Dwyane Wade on this second night of a back-to-back, even though Wade said he could have played if they really needed him.

The inference was clear. And if it wasn’t, somebody asked James before the game his thoughts about Friday night’s game in Brooklyn vs. the revamped Nets. “I’m not worried about that right now,’’ James said, moments before the Heat went out and missed their first seven shots while Philly couldn’t miss. “I’m worried about tonight’s game.

“We’ve just got to be focused.’’

Clearly, they weren’t, from the time Carter-Williams (22 points, seven rebounds, 12 assists, nine steals and just one turnover in 36 minutes) swiped Roger Mason’s pass and went in for a dunk on the first possession, through Tony Wroten’s 3-pointer just over six minutes in, making it 26-4. But that still left Miami nearly 42 minutes to play, plenty of time to get it together and show why they’re the NBA’s best.

(RELATED: HOW RARE WAS MICHAEL CARTER-WILLIAMS’ DEBUT? CHECK OUT WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY)

RayAllen-HeatWhen Ray Allen gave longtime Spurs assistant Brown a cruel reminder how devastating he can be by sinking four treys – the last from beyond midcourt at the buzzer – in a two-minute span, to put the Heat up 94-85 after three, it looked like Miami was home free.

And there seemed no reason to suspect otherwise when LeBron threw down a hellacious dunk, making it 107-99 with 4:55 left.

For Sixers fans, who had come to see LeBron and show their love to A.I,. a loss here would have been acceptable, the first step on their path to the lottery and a shot at Kansas wunderkind Andrew Wiggins.

Even one veteran team employee conceded the best thing for them would be flipping a switch so the calendar would jump from October to May.

Speaking of Wiggins, LeBron has some advice for the kid. “All he should worry about is being a great teammate and the best basketball player and student he can be while he’s at Kansas,’’ said a man who knows the pressure of being labeled the game’s next great one. “It’s up to his supporting cast to keep out all the negative things around him away from him. Just let him concentrate on the other things.’’

But on this one night when veterans like Spencer Hawes (24 points, nine rebounds), Evan Turner (26 points) and the rookie sensation Carter-Williams had other ideas, Riggin’ for Wiggins was the last thing on their minds

“At the end of the day, it’s still a basketball game and we have a lot of confidence,’’ said Carter-Williams, who calmly swished two free throws with 8.5 seconds remaining to ice it. “Miami’s a great team, but we were able to stay close and pull it out at the end.’’

It was the Sixers’ first regular season win over Heat in 16 games, stretching back before LeBron’s arrival in Miami.

And sticking it to all those folks telling them how terrible they’re going to be.

“We got a lot of pride among the guys who’ve been here,’’ said Hawes, one of only four players suiting up who played for Philly last season. “And the guys coming in want to prove themselves as players in this league. These are all NBA players around here.’’

That was the lesson they taught the Heat. Any NBA dog can have its day. Wade knows the feeling, having once played for a 15-67 Heat squad.

“It gets no worse than that in professional sports,’’ he said, recalling the pain of those memories. “Our coaches had us always believing it could be our moment. It never came, but they kept us believing it could. That season felt like three years in one.’’

Perhaps this season will be the same for the Sixers, though anyone witnessing last night’s shocker would have a hard time buying that.

“Together We Build’’ is the team slogan this season, as definitive as you can get to calling yourself a loser for now. Maybe Wedmesday night was indeed a fluke. Maybe the rest of the season will be the nightmare everyone expects it to be.

Or just maybe the Philadelphia 76ers will have the last laugh – the best one – on all of us. They certainly did Wednesday on Mischief Night.

(RELATED: MAGIC JOHNSON’S PICK FOR ROOKIE OF THE YEAR IS MICHAEL CARTER-WILLIAMS)

Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writer’s Association and North Jersey Press Club.  His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.