Life in the NBA often leads to places like the visitors' locker room at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City. No huge dressing cubicles or fancy carpeting here. Instead, a concrete floor, metal folding chairs and a worn training table lend a boiler-room ambiance to a space so small that if the Philadelphia 76ers had tried to dress at once for their game on Feb. 19 against the Utah Jazz, the scene would have resembled a rugby scrum. All last week the Sixers kept finding themselves in similar settings, constant reminders that home and only home is where one finds real comfort in the NBA.
In the span of 168 hours, the 76ers traveled 6,500 miles and continually reset their watches while crossing time zones eight times. They spent almost a quarter of their waking hours in airports or on planes, and then shared their hotels with conventioneers from Goodyear and the Credit Union National Association. But beyond all that was the real hassle: In seven nights, with only two days off, Philadelphia faced five fast-breaking, playoff-caliber Western Conference teams—four of them NBA title contenders—that had won 113 of the 134 games played at home. "It's impossible to imagine a tougher trip," said Sixer assistant coach Fred Carter.
The trek West came at a pivotal time for the 76ers. In the early part of the season, they lumbered along like the also-rans many basketball observers had projected them to be. Then from Jan. 13 through Feb. 5, Philadelphia reeled off 12 wins in a row—a feat surpassed by only six teams in league history—and suddenly found itself in the thick of the Atlantic Division race.
The off-season acquisitions of point guard Johnny Dawkins and power forward Rick Mahorn had seemingly added the high-octane offense and the low-down defensive muscle needed to supplement a nucleus composed of shooting guard Hersey Hawkins, center Mike Gminski and small forward-force of nature Charles Barkley. Before playing the Jazz on Feb. 19, Philly trailed the division-leading New York Knicks by one game, or as Barkley said to anyone in the Salt Palace locker room who would listen, "Man! Here we are, 33-18 and rolling down the highway like a big Mack truck."
"I look at this trip with a curiosity," said Sixer coach Jim Lynam the next day. "We've been playing at such a high level. It'll be interesting if we can come out here and do some damage."
Barkley, who was averaging 24.7 points on a league-high 61.6% shooting percentage as well as 11.4 rebounds a game, was willing to raise the stakes. "Winning all these games in a row meant we would have a chance for the home court advantage and a high seed in the playoffs," he said. "This week means to me whether we can win the Atlantic Division or not."
The trip had started on Sunday, Feb. 18 in Portland, where Hawkins nailed a running jumper with five seconds left to defeat the Trail Blazers 110-109. As it turned out, that game would be the highlight of the Sixers' western swing.
MONDAY, AT UTAH
Wearing a red T-shirt with an image of Malcolm X and the words BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY on the front, Mahorn is the last Sixer to reach the locker room. He immediately dispatches one of the ball boys to fetch him three cups of coffee with cream and sugar. Philly acquired the 6'8½", 255-pound Mahorn from the Minnesota Timberwolves last fall for one first-round pick and two seconds. Given Mahorn's physicality—"I enjoy confrontation," he says—and shrewdness on defense, the move figured to fortify the 76ers inside. It did. Through Sunday, their opponents were shooting 47.3% from the field and scoring 103.4 points a game. Last season, they shot 50.1% and scored 110.4.
Mahorn and Barkley considered billing themselves as the Notorious Twosome, though the Sixers' management seems to be leaning toward Double Trouble. No one owning a whistle would object to either. As Barkley and Mahorn lined up to rebound a free throw in Orlando on Nov. 18, Barkley gestured at an offending ref and shouted across the lane to Mahorn, "You hit him, I'll pay the fine." Both showered early that night.