Despite historic losing streak, Sixers’ worst days are still behind them

The 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers were no match for Oscar Robertson or anyone else for that matter.

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Andy Dolich has built up quite a resume throughout more than 40 years in sports promotions and marketing. He’s worked for teams in all four major professional sports and beyond. But his career started out, after working toward his master’s in sports management from Ohio University, with a front seat to infamy, as a 25-year-old intern with the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, better known as the worst team in NBA history, thanks to an unthinkably abysmal 9-73 record.

Now, from across the country in the Bay Area, he’€™s witnessing his old club attempting to write itself again into the wrong chapter of the record books, with a 25-game losing streak that stands just one short of the all-time mark. (They can tie the mark tonight with a loss in Houston.)

"It happens every two years or so where a team just starts out so unbelievably putrid, and then my favorite team of all time gets brought into the discussion,"€ Dolich told by phone from his sports consulting firm in Los Altos, Calif. "€œThe litmus test is, do you know how bad you have to be in today’s NBA not to win at least double-digit games? You’ve got to be very, very, very incompetent."

At least in this instance, the 76ers (with 15 wins) have already avoided any chance at besting that dubious feat, but not even the ’72-’73 team — with losing streaks of 13, 14, 15, and 20 — had any prolonged stretch of badness like the present-day squad.

The 76ers had actually experienced immense success in the years preceding the ’72-’73 season, culminating with an NBA title in 1967 off a 68-13 record. But ownership turnover and bad drafting, as well as losing head coach Jack Ramsay ("a Philadelphia basketball god,"€ as Dolich remembers), put the entire team in a dark place heading into the fall of 1972.

It was up to the organization’€™s younger blood (like Dolich) to make the experience of 76ers basketball as palatable as possible — maybe even a little fun — even though the team was slipping, as Dolich says, "from bad to worse to historically, biblically, incomprehensibly bad."

There were no regular meetings or strategy sessions, but no promotion was deemed off-limits. Whatever your brain could come up with was usually worth a go. Free throw-shooting contests? Sure thing. Victor the Wrestling Bear? Why not! The prize, no matter the accomplishment, was usually a six-inch salami brought to the Spectrum by PA announcer Dave Zinkoff on his way into work.

Giveaways were a big part of that season as well, but they could backfire at times. Dolich and others decided on a mug giveaway, though the idea of pissed-off fans, tired of all the losing, throwing their souvenirs onto the court prompted a change in strategy: Give away the mugs to exiting fans after the game.


That didn’t work out so well, either.

"€œBy the third quarter, we always had leakage," says Dolich, using the in-house term for fans leaving a game early. But on this night, the game was unexpectedly competitive and went into overtime, which meant very few fans left before the game’€™s finish (a loss, of course). That also meant, once the loss was cemented, a late-night dash for the exits — and cases and cases of ceramic mugs. 

"To say we had a bit of a rush would be an understatement,"€ Dolich says. "€œI was at the door and when someone who is 6-foot-5 who’s had a few beers says ‘I’€™m taking this entire box of mugs,’€™ you just let that go. It’€™s not worth my life." He still has one of those mugs, a constant reminder of that close call with personal harm.

Dolich hasn’t been keeping super-close tabs on what exactly has befallen this season’s 76ers, but he’s close with team CEO Scott O’Neil and has spoken with him recently. Dolich i€™s hesitant to offer specific advice regards Philly’s€™ current state of futility, but he does think the league as a whole could stand to loosen up a little.

"I think those three letters"€ — fun — "are lost in sport today,"€ he says. "Ultimately, sports fans go to the venue to have fun, to smile, to bond. These venues are the last town squares we have in our country." And because not every team is going to win every time out, you’ve always got to be ready with a backup plan, be it a wrestling bear or something else.

Whether the 76ers break the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers’ record for most consecutive losses or not, this season has been one that anyone even remotely associated with the team, from the front office on down to fans, would rather forget as quickly as possible once it’s done. But how do you put a historically inept year behind you?

Dolich had a unique solution for the summer of ’73. Because the 76ers were so bad and didn’€™t sell even close to their allotment of printed tickets, that meant bags upon bags of unsold stubs were left stuck in the front office at season’™s end. In ticketing parlance, they call this "deadwood."

So, a couple of months after the 9-73 Philadelphia 76ers were officially nothing more than a bad memory, after all the accounting had been completed, Dolich and a colleague loaded up all the bags of tickets into one of the player vans and drove to a dump in South Philadelphia. There, they unloaded the bags and set them aflame.

"€œWe literally saw our season go up in smoke," he says. "But the deadwood — and that season — was gone forever."