- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 29, 2001

PHILADELPHIA (AP) Pat Croce is gone. Larry Brown isn't. Neither is Billy King or Allen Iverson or Dikembe Mutombo or Aaron McKie.

Croce, the bungee-jumping, bridge-climbing, self-made millionaire, helped turn the Philadelphia 76ers from cellar-dweller to championship finalist in his five years as team president. Now he's off to pursue other dreams, bigger challenges.

Croce's departure, however, doesn't signal the end of the Sixers' run. The organization is in position to move forward without him.

"Nobody can be Pat. But I think what we can do is to continue to do our jobs," said King, the Sixers' general manager. "I think Pat has established this franchise as the city's team, and that's something we will have to strive to continue."

When Croce persuaded Harold Katz to sell the Sixers in 1996, the franchise was at rock bottom. Croce helped restore pride, brought back the winning tradition and invigorated the city's passionate fans. He did it with his effervescent personality and never-say-die attitude. More importantly, he did it by hiring the right people.

Croce's first hire was Dave Coskey, who once ran the Sixers' public relations department. Coskey came on board as vice president of communications and later became senior vice president in charge of public relations and marketing.

When Croce stepped down Wednesday, Coskey was elevated to executive vice president for business operations. He doesn't get Croce's former title, but he'll get his old duties day-to-day operation of the team.

Coskey is extremely creative and a tireless worker.

"There is a man I couldn't have done it without," Croce said of Coskey, who came up with many of the promotional ideas that helped the Sixers pack the First Union Center.

Coskey admitted he won't climb bridges to hang Sixers banners like Croce, he won't jump out of planes and he probably won't greet fans and shake hands on the concourse before games. But like Croce, Coskey plans to let the basketball guys do their business.

"I have an incredible staff," he said.

Croce's best move was convincing Brown to coach the team after Johnny Davis failed miserably in his first season. Brown then recommended King for a front-office position, and Croce made him the youngest GM in the NBA.

With Coskey, Brown and King still around, there's no reason to expect a decline.

Croce didn't make the trade for McKie, the league's sixth man of the year. Brown and King did. Same goes for the acquisition of Mutombo, a seven-time All-Star.

Croce played a huge role in mending the contentious relationship between Brown and Iverson, but Brown is the one who convinced Iverson to become a team player, and it resulted in him winning the MVP award.

For all the energy and excitement Croce brought to the Sixers, he didn't call plays, make trades or score points.

"I think Pat is incredibly charismatic," Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider said. "You don't replace people like that. What you try to do is circle the wagon, fit all the pieces together and as an organization you take on a different personality."

Croce rose from a working class neighborhood to founder of a chain of sports therapy centers to part-owner of the Sixers. Along the way, he worked as a physical therapist for the Sixers and conditioning coach for the Flyers.

Perhaps a part of Snider still saw Croce as a guy who taped players' ankles. Maybe he was jealous of Croce's popularity or resented the perception that Croce was the team owner when he only holds 2.5 percent of the team.

Whatever the reason, Snider wouldn't turn over the "keys to the palace" that Croce thought were dangling in front of him. Croce wanted to be chief executive officer of Comcast-Spectacor, which owns the Sixers.

His biggest mistake was making his feelings public.

Snider wasn't ready to retire or give his up duties. He certainly wasn't going to lose a power struggle. Just ask Eric Lindros what happens when you make demands on Snider and the Flyers.

Croce remains with the team as part owner, consultant and board member. But he won't be around much anymore.

"My visibility is backseat," Croce said.

Fans, players and staff will miss seeing Croce on a daily basis. They'll get over it if the Sixers continue to win.

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