If god is in the details, then the Philadelphia 76ers began their disastrous 1972-73 season with an atheist, the blustery Roy Rubin, as their coach. Hired in June '72 after 11 successful years at Division I Long Island University, Rubin came to training camp unfamiliar with the NBA and unacquainted with many players in the league, including some of his own. "It was a joke, like letting a teenager run a big corporation," says Fred Cartel, the team's leading scorer (20.0 points per game) and now an analyst for ESPN. "We had Hal Greer [a Hall of Fame guard] on that team, and Rubin had no idea who he was. After we went 4-4 in the preseason, Rubin said, I don't think Boston will be so tough.' We just looked at each other and laughed."
What followed, of course, was a season in which Philly went 9-73, setting a Beamonesque mark for futility. Yet as bad as the Sixers were, the lore surrounding the team is championship-caliber. The lowlights:
0-15: By the time the Sixers lost their 15th straight game to open the season, "it was clear we were the league's universal health spa," says Carter. "If teams had any ills, they got healthy when they played us." The Sixers didn't get off the schneid until Nov. 11, when they beat the Houston Rockets 114-112.
3-31: An otherwise forgettable loss to the Detroit Pistons was made memorable when Rubin attempted to substitute for forward John Q. Trapp. Although Rubin denies it, legend has it that Trapp refused to come out and then instructed Rubin to look behind the bench. When the coach turned around, one of Trapp's consorts supposedly opened his jacket and showed Rubin his handgun. With Trapp still in the game, the Sixers lost 141-113.
4-47: At the All-Star break Philadelphia axed Rubin and named Kevin Loughery as player-coach. Rubin, his coaching reputation forever besmirched, moved to Florida and bought an International House of Pancakes franchise. "I don't hold any grudges, but the day I came in, Billy Cunningham, the team's best player, jumped to the ABA and things went downhill from there," says Rubin, who now works with at-risk kids in Miami. "All the losing really eats you up, and it took me awhile to get over that season." Incidentally, after Loughery's elevation, one of the team's first roster moves was to release John Q. Trapp.
4-54: Credit the law of averages, but the Sixers played respectably on occasion. At Boston Garden, Philly held a 97-85 lead entering the fourth quarter against the Celtics, a team that would finish a mere 59 games ahead of them. ("No one wanted to lose to us," says Rubin. "The opposition probably played harder against us than against better teams.") Boston came back to win 123-115.
9-60: Philadelphia beat the Baltimore Bullets 102-96 to win for the fifth time in seven games. "When we played up to our potential, we actually weren't that bad," says center Dale Schlueter, now a businessman in Portland. "A lot of games were close, and we just couldn't get over the hump."
9-73: Fittingly the Sixers closed the season by dropping their final 13 games, the last of which was a 115-96 loss to Detroit before 1,937 fans in Pittsburgh.
Today, with a quarter century's worth of detachment, the players on that team don't look upon the milestone as a millstone. They reflect on it with far more self-deprecatory humor than embarrassment. "We were all sent to Hades for that year, but how dare Denver, or anyone else, try to break our record," says Carter. "We earned that mark, and I hope it stands." But even if the Nuggets fail to supplant Philly, they can take some solace from the fact that the basketball fates can change in a hurry. Only four years after the 1972-73 debacle, the 76ers were playing in the NBA Finals.