BLOG: Never saying never

John Finger
York Dispatch
Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor suffer through another loss with the 9-66 76ers.

Note: I'm new here. Until the beginning of February I was covering the Philadelphia 76ers for where I spent the last 16 years covering the Sixers and the Phillies. I also used to have a blog, a podcast and developed a bunch of web productions that I hope to bring here to the Dispatch.

I'll write some about sports, but mostly it this blog will be about stories and storytelling. For now, though, here's the first entry.

Records are made to be broken. Never say never. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Those are all statements that everyone pretty much accepts as ironclad truth. Actually, those sentences usually act as argument stoppers that are brought out when there is nothing else to say.
Every dog has its day.

But you know what? Some records will never be broken. That’s right, I’m saying never. And that horse… get me an IV drip. That’s because it’s quite fair to add one record to the untouchable file along with Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Wilt’s 100-point game, Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak or Wayne Gretzky's 2,857 career NHL points. 
The record? How about the 9-73 record by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers?

As of this writing, the Sixers are fresh off a 100-85 loss to the Charlotte Hornets at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night. The team is 9-66 and have lost 10 in a row and 23 of its last 24 games. With seven games left in the season it’s quite reasonable that the team could lose the rest of the games to tie the record.

If the Sixers lose out, that means they will have finished the year on a 17-game losing streak with a 5-36 record during the second-half of the season.
Historical? Only one other team has pulled off that feat and it wasn’t those 1972-73 Sixers.

It was this 2015-16 Sixers.

How bad are these guys?

They opened the season with 18 straight-losses following a skid of 10 straight to end the previous season. After finally winning a game in December, the Sixers lost 11 more games to fall to 1-30. No team has ever been so bad over such an extended period and that includes those record-setting Sixers.

And those guys were baaaaaaad.

That ’72-’73 Sixers’ club was so locked in that they snapped a 20-game losing streak with a stretch in which they won five times in seven games, only to lose the last 13 games of the season. Those two stretches were just the tip of the iceberg and helped those Sixers destroy the previous record set just two years before by the Cavaliers and the 1968 San Diego Rockets. To that point in NBA history, no team crashed any deeper than the 1972-73 Sixers.

In other words, those Sixers were like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. The difference in this case is that NASA hasn’t sent up any ships that have duplicated the feat or even come close. Technically, the 2011-12 Charlotte club had the worst winning percentage ever in going 7-59 during a shortened season because of a labor dispute.

If that Charlotte team had a normal 82-game season, three more wins would have popped up somewhere.

The closest any NBA team has come to the Sixers’ record was the 1993 Mavericks and the 1998 Nuggets with just 11 wins. The Mavericks actually had a shot at beating the record, but they won three of their last six games, including the final two to get 11 wins.

The ’98 Nuggets were a lot less dramatic by securing win No. 10 in game 77. Strangely, that’s three games later than the 2010 New Jersey Nets wrapped up their 10th win to ensure the sanctity of the holy grail of losing seasons.

Stranger still, the fact that the record was safe for the 37th year in a row was not disappointing for the leading scorer of the ’73 Sixers. He looked at it the way Pete Rose would if another player got close to his all-time hit record and then had a career-ending injury.

Oh yes, Fred “Mad Dog” Carter is undoubtedly rooting for the Sixers to get that 10th win before the season ends in the next few weeks.

“Every now and then, a team shows all the signs of perhaps breaking our record,” Carter said a couple of years ago. “That forces me to go to church and light candles to preserve our record. You can achieve immortality so many ways; if our record is broken, people might not [remember] that I played in the NBA. We would be forgotten souls.

“[Teammate] Kevin [Loughery] and I had played in the Finals for the Baltimore Bullets against the Milwaukee Bucks [in 1971]. We had beaten New York in the Eastern Finals, winning in seven games after falling behind, 0-2. We won Game 7 in New York. I made the jump shot that [sealed] the game. We had gone from the penthouse to the outhouse. We had played with Gus Johnson, Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld in Baltimore. We knew they weren’t walking into our locker room.”

So Carter looks at it as his small sliver of history. He was the MVP and leading scorer for that Sixers team, which makes him the best player on the worst team ever. He’s the anti-Michael Jordan or Bill Russell in that regard, which is rather dubious.
But it’s something.

You see, fame is a fleeting thing and the cheers/boos only last for so long. For folks as competitive as pro athletes, hanging onto any achievement or record can be a personal issue. A decade ago, a little-known big-league pitcher named Brian Kingman traveled around from ballpark to ballpark when another hurler had a chance to supplant him as the last guy to lose 20 games in a season. He was hanging onto his legacy — his tiny niche in history. Inevitably, if some poor pitcher was entering the final month of the season with 18 or 19 losses, Kingman would be there like a bad-luck charm reminding the pitcher that he too can be as bad as Brian Kingman.

And when Mike Maroth got 21 losses in 2003, Kingman fell deeper in obscurity. His claim to fame was over.

Carter is similar in that sense only he’s not going to bounce around the country to root for that 10th win. A few years ago when the Nets were flirting with ignominy, Carter was happy to see them avoid the record.

“I'm really happy for the Nets and for myself,” Carter said then. “I was really concerned about the Nets not getting there. The last thing they needed was to have to carry that with them. That could have cost a couple of guys their careers.”

See guys like Kingman and Carter have a sense of humor about it. They get it. Sure, they likely would have loved to have played for good teams like Carter for the ’68 Sixers or Kingman for the ’73 A’s, but even there they just sort of blend in. Carter wasn’t going to be the MVP or lead an NBA champion in scoring, and Kingman wasn’t getting the ball in Game 1 of the World Series. Carter came out of Mount St. Mary’s College and was a role player on the ’71 Bullets that featured Hall-of-Famers Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld.

So being the best player on the worst-ever team is quite something. At the time it wasn’t so fun, especially since the Sixers were the team that opponents used as slump-busters. But with some time it was as if Carter and his teammates survived a sinking ship or something.

Everyone loves a survivor.