Croce climbs bridge, hangs banner
Updated: Wednesday June 13, 2001 5:51 PM
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Is there anything Pat Croce won't do for his beloved Philadelphia 76ers?
The hyper team president and amateur daredevil scaled a suspension bridge Wednesday morning and helped hang a giant banner with the words: "Go Sixers, Beat L.A."
Then Croce did a few exercise dips for good measure -- 374 feet above the Delaware River, with TV news helicopters buzzing around him. All in a bid to psyche up the fans and spur the underdog Sixers to a Game 4 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday night.
Croce, who grew up in a Philadelphia rowhouse, worked as a conditioning coach for the Sixers and Flyers and wound up owning a successful sports therapy business, is surely the wildest executive in all of pro sports. And he's having a ball in these NBA Finals.
"The best part of the Finals is the pride and passion that's been restored to the city, that galvanizes communities -- white, black, young, old, male, female," Croce said after his hourlong adventure Wednesday.
The zany Sixers' frontman has been everywhere the past week. He's hung out with comedian Rob Schneider, appeared with rapper Snoop Dogg on TV and made headlines when he refused to let President Clinton sit in his skybox out of loyalty to his friends and family.
"Family and friends first, the city of Philadelphia first," said Croce, 46, who took over as team president in 1996 and restored pride in a franchise that had been languishing near the bottom of the NBA standings.
Croce orchestrated one of the NBA's most stunning turnarounds, as the Sixers went from a cellar-dweller to a championship contender in five years.
The one-time physical therapist entered the pro sports world in the 1980s as conditioning coach for the 76ers and Flyers. Croce worked with some of the city's most famous athletes, including Julius Erving and Mike Schmidt.
Taking advantage of the early 1980s fitness boom, Croce built a small empire that eventually spanned 40 sports rehabilitation centers in 11 states. He made $40 million when he sold the company in 1993.
Three years later, Croce assembled the partnership that bought the 76ers, Flyers, the teams' former arena and the First Union Center. Croce bought a 2.5 percent stake in the team and promised a championship.
Yet he had his doubts along the way, especially after the team went 22-60 in his first year and he fired coach Johnny Davis and general manager Brad Greenberg. Philadelphia can be a very unforgiving place when it comes to professional sports, hometown boy or not.
"I'm laying in bed thinking, 'What did I do? Why am I here? This city's going to torch me if I don't pull this thing off.' I was scared at times," Croce said.
Croce's afraid of little else -- including heights.
He once descended upside-down from the roof inside the First Union Center during a timeout in a 1999 game, ecstatic that the Sixers had made the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Before this year's playoffs, he climbed a water tower to hang a Sixers banner. And he wants to rappel into the Delaware River from the Walt Whitman Bridge if the Sixers win the title.
Croce's also into scuba diving, bungee-jumping, piloting helicopters and especially motorcycle riding, even though he almost lost a leg in a riding accident two years ago. Croce needed three operations and months of grueling rehab, but remained cheerful and upbeat throughout.
His latest stunt was hatched before the playoffs, when Croce was challenged to climb the Walt Whitman connecting Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Croce demurred at first, then relented, on one condition -- that the Sixers make the Finals.
Wearing a harness, Croce walked up one of the span's 30-inch cables with eight Delaware River Port Authority workers to help hang the 5-by-70-foot banner, which greets New Jersey residents as they drive into Philadelphia. He waved to the motorists far below and did an interview with a radio station when he got to the top.
"We were above the whole city, and you could see the spirit of Philadelphia just emanate," he said.
Afterward, in typical Croce fashion, he spent 40 minutes on the sweltering asphalt signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans.
"I pinch myself because I used to sneak into [Veterans Stadium] to Phillies and Eagles games, and now I get the red-carpet treatment. So I try to give everyone else the red-carpet treatment," he said.
The one blemish on what has been a magical season for Croce came in January, when he was forced to fire his brother after he was caught on videotape apparently taking money from Allen Iverson's pants in the locker room. "I felt sick," Croce said at the time.
Things are better now.
"This is a great epic. I couldn't write a script any better,"
Croce said. "I know how I'd write the ending, though."