The Philadelphia 76ers made perhaps the biggest splash of anyone in the Eastern Conference this offseason, landing All-Star center Andrew Bynum in the blockbuster trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers. On the heels of a surprising run to game seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Sixers appear to be on the threshold of a new era.
Yet with so much focus on the team's immediate future, the organization's front office has spent a considerable amount of time looking backwards.
"We're very much talking about our history and our legacy," said co-owner and CEO Adam Aron, as his revamped roster prepared to take the floor for its first home preseason game. The proof was all around him, as he stood not in the Sixers' home arena but in venerable Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
While it may feel like the dawn of a new era, in truth this is year two of an era that began when Aron and the rest of his ownership group took the helm before last season. The fan base that had been mostly quiet since Allen Iverson left town was rejuvenated throughout the 2011-2012 campaign, and captivated by a spirited playoff run.
Expectations are high, and the Sixers are viewed as one of the up-and-coming teams in the East. Aron, whose frequent interviews and interactions with fans on Twitter have made him the public face of the ownership group, has made a point to show off the team's rich history.
"The 76ers franchise has the third most wins in NBA history and the third most playoff appearances," he said. "The Sixers are not a run-of-the-mill team. We are an elite franchise and we should remind our fan base of that."
This line of thinking led to the Sixers and Nets taking the hardwood by the boardwalk on Saturday night. This was the third time the two teams met in this gym, tucked in between casinos and close enough to skip rocks into the Atlantic Ocean.
The first two installments of the Boardwalk Classic occurred in 1982 and 1983. Those days represent the greatest era of basketball the Sixers have ever seen. The October 1982 game was a tune-up for a season that ended with Moses Malone and Julius Erving holding a championship trophy. Those squads established a level of play that has not since been equaled in Philadelphia, and only rarely approached.
These days, the Sixers' new-look roster hopes to return the franchise to glory. Putting Bynum at center isn't the only major change to the team's rotation. With the departures of Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams, stalwarts of the Sixers' middling post-Iverson era, there will be many more opportunities for players like Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner.
But as the Sixers celebrate the franchise's 50th season in Philadelphia, Aron and the rest of the team's brain trust will continue to pay homage to the team's past. Aron proudly points out a pin on his jacket with the Sixers' 50th season logo, which will be everywhere from the court to the uniforms this year.
It's all part of a comprehensive plan that began last season. The team has held a variety of promotions as simple as having former players introduced before home games and as unorthodox as giving away pieces of the actual hardwood floor on which Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game.
Saturday night's game was merely an extension of that plan. "The NBA encourages each team to play one or two preseason games in what's called a developmental market," Aron explained. "Our entire staff was intrigued at the notion of playing in Atlantic City." Aron, not surprisingly, liked the fact that the game would be the third in a longstanding series.
The box score would tell you that the story of the game was the Sixers' fourth quarter comeback, a late charge to force overtime after the Nets had retired star point guard Deron Williams for the evening. But for all intents and purposes, the story was of two franchises at different crossroads.
On one side of the court stood the Sixers -- a young team looking to return to the prominence of a once-great franchise.
On the other side stood the Brooklyn Nets -- a contrasting opponent, looking anywhere but backwards. The Nets donned new colors and logos for the first time, while representing a new home city. A franchise that spent 35 mostly moribund years in New Jersey hopes to start over in Brooklyn. Just six months after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie famously said good riddance to the team that no longer wanted to play there, the Nets once again laced up their sneakers in the Garden State.
As the game became tense, the fans grew loud. Many in attendance cheered on those great Sixers teams in the 80s, while others may have been Nets defectors who didn't follow the bandwagon to Brooklyn. Arnett Moultrie stuffed home a thunderous dunk during overtime and was cheered as if he'd been Charles Barkley. The stars on the bench stood and cheered for their younger teammates repeatedly throughout crunch time, knowing that preseason wins and losses aren't as important as making sure all of the team's new parts discover their proper role.
The Sixers still have a ways to go if they expect to replicate the success of a bygone era. But the ownership group will continue celebrating the achievements of the club's most accomplished former players.
And they have a feeling the city will soon be celebrating some of its new ones too.