PHILADELPHIA — For the moment, they remain the elephant in the room.
Nobody wants to talk about the 76ers and only the most devoted and perhaps demented of fans still want to watch them.
Soon, however, the local NBA team could become the Elephant Man, a team so grotesquely inept that it’s impossible to look away. Soon, the 76ers could attract national media attention just because they may not win another game.
Brett Brown, the Sixers first-year coach who knew what he was getting into before he got here, admits he is worried about a growing legion of media if his team’s losing streak continues much longer.
It grew to 18 Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center after a lopsided 115-98 loss to a last-place Sacramento Kings team with its own lengthy list of issues. The Sixers play 18 more and they sure could lose them all, which would leave them with a 36-game losing streak that would be by far the longest of any of the four major professional sports in North America.
“I think about it all the time,” Brown said. “I think that’s when you have to remind yourself why we’re all here. I hear what you’re saying about a following and it’s mounting and here’s another loss and, at some point, you end up getting closer to whatever the record is.”
The NBA record is 26 and it was set by the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers. In their first season after “The Decision” that sent LeBron James to South Beach, the Cavs lost and lost and lost some more. And if there’s one thing that draws nearly as much attention as a winner, it’s a team that threatens a league record for losing.
The Sixers, of course, were considered a team capable of losing a lot before this season started. They drew comparisons to the 1972-73 Sixers, a team that lost a record 73 times in 82 games. By beating King LeBron and the Miami Heat on opening night and playing .500 basketball through their first 10 games, that comparison briefly subsided.
But then the Sixers went 0-for-February and now are winless nearly halfway through March. They are only two losses away from tying the franchise record of 20 straight losses set by the infamous 1972-73 team. They are five losses away from the city’s longest losing streak of 23 set by the 1961 Phillies.
Unlike Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day, Brown insists he doesn’t mind hitting the alarm clock every morning and going to work, but he’d prefer to wake up some morning thinking about the previous night’s victory.
“I think about (the losing streak), but it doesn’t influence anything I’m doing,” Brown said. “It’s just born out of being competitive. That’s really as far as it goes for me.”
Brown, 52, has been around the game his entire life and was asked before Wednesday night’s game if he could remember his previous longest losing streak.
“I can tell you quickly now,” he said. “I don’t remember what the former record was for me personally, but this is by far and away the most losing I’ve ever done. It’s painful. There’s no doubt about it. How can you say it any other way? Of course, it’s painful.
“We’re all competitive. You want stuff now. You want to fix stuff now. You want to help the guys experience a win because we go hard. We’re serious about everything that we do. We hope we’re not skipping steps. I hope that I’m doing the right thing by our guys and trying to grow a program from A to Z. But in the public’s eyes you’re judged by whether you win or you lose. That’s our report card. How can that not be hard?”
The effort is honest by the coach and the players. The Sixers did not have a lot of talent when this season started and they had even less after shipping out Evan Turner to Indiana and Spencer Hawes to Cleveland at the trade deadline.
You look at the schedule and you try to find a game where they could win. This one against the Kings looked like a maybe. They were another last-place team in the midst of a seven-game road trip and had lost three games in a row by double digits.
Mike Malone, the Kings’ first-year coach, talked before the game about his team’s own growing pains. They seemed benign compared to what Brown and the Sixers are going through.
Oddly, the thing that bothers Brown most is the sympathy.
“I have friends who are like, ‘Hey, thinking of you, hang in there,’ “ the coach said. “I love them, I appreciate them reaching out, but we’re fine. Life moves on. We sleep. We’re getting it done in a way that we hope to build something. But I’d be lying if I said it’s not hard.
“Instinctively, I don’t want anybody pitying us. We don’t want sympathy. We don’t want ‘woe is me.’ Life is good. We just have to buy some time and retain a level of patience. We’ve always talked about the difference of tolerance versus patience. We have to be patient, but some things we can’t tolerate and have to fix.”
This team and this season are unfixable. Every remaining game on the schedule might be unwinnable and soon the morbid curiosity seekers could be coming to town.
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