PHILADELPHIA – Standing at the podium dissecting the Philadelphia 76ers’ latest romp, coach Doug Collins commands attention, using his post-game time to again express his love for one of the hottest teams in the NBA.
Typing away on his iPad, Adam Aron rarely looks up, his furrowed brow a sign that some news has disturbed him. Perhaps the 76ers CEO found out concessions ran out of hot dogs or Will Smith had texted because he didn’t feel the Sixers were jiggy enough.
No, it turned out Twitter was the foil. Aron couldn’t appropriately express his feelings toward Collins in 140 characters. He taps the delete button, shortens a couple of words and, finally, has his post-game message.
“I want to shout from a mountain top: DOUG COLLINS IS A FABULOUS COACH, AND EVEN A MORE FABULOUS PERSON. (at)Sixers are so lucky Doug is here.”
Relieved his tweet is out, Aron turns his thoughts to Smith, the A-list entertainer who bought a stake in the Sixers last year and attended his first game Friday night with his actress wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and their “Karate Kid,” son Jaden.
“He had a great time,” a smiling Aron said. “What’s not to love?”
For the first time since Allen Iverson was in his prime, there is a reason to love — or at least appreciate — the Sixers. Smith and director M. Night Shyamalan sit courtside. Confetti is blasted after every win. Former stars like Dr. J are back in the fold. Ownership is connected with fans.
Of all the new touches around the 76ers this season, the biggest one is this: They’re winning.
Heading into Monday’s game against Orlando, the Sixers are surging toward their first winning season since 2004-05 and have the talent to win their first post-season series since 2003. The Sixers (14-6) already hold a four-game lead over Boston in the Atlantic Division and have yet to lose two straight games. At home, they are 9-2 after winning only 12 home games in the 2009-10 season.
Against Detroit on Saturday, Andre Iguodala had a triple-double and led the Sixers to their ninth win by at least 20 points.
Beat the Pistons, shoot confetti.
Rough up the Wizards, fire confetti.
“Our confetti budget is going through the roof,” Aron said.
Inspired by decades of working in the travel industry, Aron is the marketing mastermind giving fans the biggest bang (confetti) for their buck (dollar dog nights). Led by New York-based leveraged buyout specialist Joshua Harris, the new ownership group took control in October and instantly pledged to win back a dispassionate fan base one fan at a time.
Aron is the only member of the ownership group with an office inside the Wells Fargo Center. While Flyers chairman Ed Snider, who ran the Sixers until he sold to Harris, sits on the top floor with a view of the city skyline and construction of the outdoor entertainment project, Aron works in a mostly barren office on the bottom floor.
He’s slept a few nights on the sofa, even though he lives about 7 minutes away in the Italian Market section of Philadelphia. When he’s brainstorming ideas to re-energize the Sixers, it’s easy to doze off and dream of championships.
While most of the owners from Harris to Smith have Philly ties, the idea of running the franchise especially appealed to Aron, who was raised just outside the city.
His heart broke along with a generation of fans when the 1964 Phillies collapsed. He sat in the upper deck at Franklin Field when fans threw snowballs at Santa Claus, watched Hal Greer and Wilt Chamberlain play at the old Convention Center, and as a teen had to take both trains and buses just to catch a game at the Spectrum.
It’s safe to say Aron understands the psyche of the long-suffering Philly sports fan, and he hopes to change the way the city feels about a team that for decades has lagged behind the Phillies, Eagles and Flyers in popularity and attendance.
Handshake by handshake, Aron is making a dent.
He hears “Go 76ers!” when he’s spotted around town and ticket sales are starting to spike. The Sixers ranked 23rd in the NBA in attendance before Saturday’s game, but are on pace to exceed sales from last season — and that’s with only 33 home games because of the lockout-condensed season.
Overall TV ratings are a 2.5, up from an average of 1.6 for games last season, according to Comcast SportsNet. Their Jan. 11 game against the New York Knicks averaged a 3.6 household rating (108,000 households), the highest for a game since 2009.
“I’m not doing it for the money,” Aron said. “I’m doing it to win games and put smiles on the faces of our fans.”
Team president Rod Thorn and Collins have assembled and moulded a roster stuffed with team-first players — with no true superstar. Lou Williams is the leading scorer and he’s the sixth man. Six other players average double-digit scoring. Elton Brand is the only player on the roster who has been an All-Star.
To his credit, Snider could never order his team to tank a season for a high draft pick. In the process, the Sixers bobbed along in the 35 to 40 win range, occasionally made the playoffs and never mattered once Iverson was traded in 2006.
The team’s biggest asset, however, doesn’t wear a uniform.
“The Sixers are very lucky Doug Collins is the coach,” Aron said.
Collins, a four-time All-Star in his playing days with the Sixers, turned 27 wins into 41 in his first season. He texts his players daily with inspirational messages, hands them books and is never shy about telling them he loves them.
About 90 minutes before each game, Collins stands with his back to the wall surrounded by a semicircle or reporters and cameramen seeking a soundbite. Often, Harris and Aron stand behind the press, listening to Collins like curious fans.
“We’re not only the owners of the team,” Aron said, “we’re like the biggest Sixers fans in Philadelphia.
“I’m happy to say there’s increasing competition for that title.”
Aron is building the brand on Twitter, where he holds Q&A’s and asks for feedback, from the sensible to the silly. Some of the over-the-top gimmicks appear more suited for a Division-I college basketball team, but Aron doesn’t mind. It gets people talking.
“I don’t think anything is gimmicky until the confetti,” Aron said. “But that confetti is pretty cool. If it’s gimmicky, who cares?”
Collins understands wins alone won’t boost anemic crowds.
“They want to not only be entertained by our team, but they want to be entertained by the things that go on in the building,” Collins said. “It’s a 2 1/2-hour show.”
The Sixers have done their part by fattening their record against some of the worst teams in the league. They beat the Wizards three times — by 31, 13 and 20 points — have two wins over the Pistons, and wins against the four worst teams in the Western Conference: Phoenix, Golden State, Sacramento and New Orleans.
Now comes the hard part with home games this week against Orlando, Chicago and Miami. With the elite teams sure to help pack the place, the Sixers will find out if big crowds and big victories can co-exist inside the arena.
Beating championship contenders is a start toward proving the Sixers are for real.
Aron said there is no timetable for winning the franchise’s first championship since 1983.
”Our team and our luck will determine how quickly the great prize is realized for Philadelphia,” he said.