SportsProf

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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Where Have You Gone, Pat Croce?

About 3 years ago, the Philadelphia 76ers were almost on top of the world. They got to the NBA Finals, beat the Lakers in L.A. in Game 1 and almost stunned the Lakers in Game 2, failing to take advantage of a key fact -- they got Shaquille O'Neal to foul out of the game. Their star, Allen Iverson, was named the NBA's MVP, and their coach, of course, was Larry Brown. After winning Game 1, however, they lost 4 straight. It was the Lakers who partied in Philadelphia after Game 5, not the hometown team.

Atop the 76ers' organization then was a colorful character named Pat Croce, perhaps the most enthusiastic man in the Western Hemisphere. He used to move around the First Union (now Wachovia Center), dressed in black, high-fiving fans, giving off positive energy and feeding off theirs. He was the President of the 76ers and referred to himself as the owner, even though he owned a small percentage of the team (Comcast owned the rest) and even though he reported to Ed Snider, founding owner of the Philadelphia Flyers (a team which Comcast also owns), who led Comcast's sports operations. There is no question that Croce created a very positive buzz in Philadelphia about the 76ers. He was a man of the people, having gotten his start from humble beginnings as a personal trainer. He ultimately built a chain of rehab centers that he sold to NovaCare, making him a multi-millionaire in the process.

But after that almost magical season, Pat Croce wanted a promotion, or so the story went. He wanted to replace Ed Snider, and Ed Snider wasn't exactly ready to go. And Ed Snider probably wasn't pleased about Pat Croce's ambition, which would have been at his expense. And Ed Snider didn't get to his perch in the sporting world by a nice guy, either, and at the end of the day it was Pat Croce getting the gate.

Without an exit strategy.

He appeared as a commentor on the NBA for NBC, but that gig didn't last too long. He's knowledgeable about things that are more for a Tony Robbins-type presentation than hard NBA analysis, and not being a stat geek or a former player or coach, he was out of his element. He subsequently surfaced as a commentator for Slam Ball (which to many defies description and is hardly worth watching), he's published two books, and now he'll appear for NBC in Athens as the color commentator for Tae Kwon Do (Croce is an accomplished martial artist). Once he returns from Athens, he'll host a reality show (premise unknown to me) in the fall.

It's fair to say that outside of finding more funds and cap room for great players, a team president doesn't really get to become that well known and probably doesn't make that much of a difference, except by finding a good head coach and the funds for good players. So the tough question is, how much of a difference did Pat Croce make for the Philadelphia 76ers? If you measure the 76ers' performance after Croce left, you could argue that he helped create some form of momentum during his tenure that got them to the NBA Finals, because without Croce the 76ers haven't been very good. That analysis is insufficient though, because, again, teams' fortunes don't rise and fall with the comings and goings of club presidents. Croce did create a very positive atmosphere, and that will be his legacy. But he wasn't a basketball man, in the end, and what transpired on the court largely was a function of the coach and the players, and not the president/part owner. Yes, he did realize a mistake after he hired Johnny Davis to coach and Brad Greenberg as his GM in his first year (the team during the Answer's rookie season was awful), and he rectified it quickly by canning them and bringing in Billy King and Larry Brown. But that decision probably was the only significant one he made that had any basketball impact.

So here he is now, commenting, hosting, and, well, being on the periphery. It must be driving him nuts, because Pat Croce has defined himself previously for being at the core of whatever he does. And he hasn't been at the core of anything that has given him a public face, which he likes, for quite a while.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that "There are no second acts in American life."

Pat Croce has already had two -- with his rehab centers and with the 76ers.

The question is whether he will get a third, or, more fairly, whether he even wants one.

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