Pat Croce has invited his biker gang over to the house for pretzels and orange soda. Which is why he and the Road Pirates are revving their Harleys down Croce's swanky street on Philadelphia's Main Line. They're a scruffy, furry, mildly menacing band of cops, mechanics and even an orthopedic surgeon, with skull-and-crossbones on their helmets and enough tattoos to cover Independence Hall. In fact, one biker-an aspiring Pirate-has Independence Hall inscribed on the back of his right hand, directly above knuckles that read L-O-V-E. Of course, the knuckles of his left hand read H-A-T-E.
The guy who just moved into the baronial fieldstone across the street from Croce's house watches this racketing procession in goggled awe. "Yo!" yells Croce as he roars past his neighbor. "Welcome to the neighborhood."
Mr. Croce's Neighborhood is a domain that keeps expanding. His latest acquisition is a small chunk of the Philadelphia 76ers and will soon include parts of the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers and the two teams' arenas, CoreStates Spectrum and CoreStates Center. Over the past 15 years he has risen from conditioning coach to self-made millionaire and team president-a reality as fantastic as discovering you're an Elizabethan sea dog plundering treasure from a Spanish galleon. "Everyone told me the Sixers' owner would never sell," he says, "but I jammed my foot into the door of opportunity and refused to take it out. For months I banged and slammed on that door until finally it opened. Everyone has a dream. The question is How bad do you want that dream. I wanted it bad."
He wanted it bad, and he got it. Croce bought into the franchise that had the second-lousiest record (18-64) in the NBA last season. And the Sixers have been getting progressively lousier since 1990-91. But Croce applied the power of positive thinking to the nationally televised NBA lottery on May 19 and virtually willed the Ping-Pong balls that would be used to determine the 13 lottery teams' draft order to bounce his way. While NBA commissioner David Stern ticked off the names of the teams in order from 13 to 1, Croce sat restless and uneasy on the dais. He fumbled in his pocket with his father's lucky medallion. He looked like a point guard on the bench itching to enter a tie game in the closing seconds. "I was a volcano ready to explode," he says. And when probabilities prevailed and Philadelphia, the worst team eligible, got the first pick in the June 26 draft (page 58), he did. Leaping from his seat, Croce pumped his fists, high-fived each representative of the other lottery teams and, on-camera, laid a big, sloppy kiss on Stern's cheek. "No one's going to do as good a job as I will," he says excitedly. "No one has the passion I have. No one has the pride. I'm the one who's going to bring a winner to Philadelphia. I know it."
The 41-year-old Sixer Fixer is an ingratiating go-getter with flashing eyes, a fast-breaking smile and a mouth that often parts in midthought. "Pat bursts into rooms and overwhelms you," says Orlando Magic general manager Pat Williams. "He's the most enthusiastic guy I know, and enthusiasm, like mumps and measles, is contagious."
Though Croce's philosophy may sound like refried Yoda, his self-interest is obvious and fundamentally good-natured. "I've been called corny as an Iowa silo," says Croce, adjusting his granny glasses, which are, naturally, rose-colored. "A lot of what I say is corny, but I believe it." Croce is so relentlessly upbeat that he used to ask callers to his radio show about health and fitness: "How do you feel?" If they answered, "All right," Croce would say, "That's not good enough," and repeat the question. Even if his caller's thumb had just been sliced off in a garbage disposal, Croce wouldn't let up until the caller said, "I feel great!"
Talk-show host was just one of Croce's many sidelines. He has been a recreational helicopter pilot, a karate champ, an inventor, a fitness guru, an antidrug crusader and the co-owner of two pirate-themed miniature golf courses. "I've got a pirate mentality," he says. "Set a goal and go for it. No rules, man. Dead ahead. Go. That's how Black Bart captured 400 ships in less than four years. He was the Chicago Bulls of his time."
Pirates are an obsession with Croce. He has a pirate's parrot tattooed on his back and a pirate ship on his left forearm. An 1804 Barbary Coast cutlass reposes in his home office alongside martial-arts weaponry, Ninja books and a boxed set of Beverly Hillbillies videos. "Actually, I never watch reruns," he says. "I don't dwell on the past. The future is so exciting that I can't wait to get there." He carries a pad and a Pilot Razor Point pen everywhere. As one of his exercise disciples, Chuck Barris of Gong Show fame, once told him, "Always have a pen handy to write down your dreams."
Croce began dreaming in 1954, the year that Roger Bannister—he reminds you—"did the impossible" by running a sub-four-minute mile. Croce grew up in and around Philadelphia, the oldest and wildest of four boys. "I was a baby face who never turned the other cheek," he says. "If you looked under Conduct on my report cards, you'd always see a D in red ink." Croce's love of orderliness comes from his father, a stern insurance salesman of Italian heritage. From his Irish-American mother, says Croce, "I got the dream genes."
Young Pat dreamed of starring for the Philadelphia Eagles. Though squirty, he became the starting free safety on his high school football team. "It was a reckless-abandon position," he says. "On a safety blitz you could just dive in there and whack 'em." Reckless abandon later helped him snag his wife, Diane, whom he married in 1978 (they have two children). He met her at a party while her boyfriend was out of town. "I was a pirate going after booty," he says. Did the boyfriend put up a fight? "He knew better," says Croce. "I don't lose."