NEW YORK — During the hours that preceded Thursday night’s 2014 NBA Draft, being a 76ers fan was a beautiful thing.
No longer was having the second-worst record in the entire league last season of any importance. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it had become remarkably easy to believe in a franchise that has been basically irrelevant since reaching the NBA finals in 2001.
The 2014 NBA Draft had the potential to furnish one gigantic Do-Over.
Despite the venue being the oddly shaped — but weirdly attractive — Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Philadelphians seemed to be everywhere. Milling around the outside of where the Nets play their home games, optimistic Sixers fans appeared in droves. They patiently took turns snapping pictures in front of a wall emblazoned with the official 2014 Draft logo. T-shirts and jerseys provided a clue as to how desperate Philly fans long to fully embrace a special player, because the only names on the backs of that apparel were Erving, Iverson and Stackhouse — a sad testament to the dearth of talent that has deflated even the most optimistic.
But this draft contained significant treasure that, in the weeks since the NBA lottery, had been probed and dissected by both experts and clueless dreamers alike. Aided by the simultaneous gift — or, perhaps, migraine — of social media, every conceivable outcome was rumored as gospel truth, this despite the fact that not one single media member had been able to interview always-cryptic Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie on the record.
Still, in the weeks leading up to a crucial inclusion in the 76ers’ largely inept annals, there had emerged a tidal wave of hope – some realistic, and some, well, just silly.
Maybe the Cleveland Cavaliers, annoyingly selecting first for the third time in four years (despite a 1.7 percent chance to win the draft lottery), would trade the golden ticket to the Sixers for their top three picks and forward Thaddeus Young. Or perhaps the Sixers — horror of horrors — would trade down and build for the future. Maybe Cleveland would pull a 2013 — when they stunned the NBA landscape by drafting a nobody named Anthony Bennett out of UNLV first overall – by taking a flyer on yet another project.
Best case scenario: Maybe someone — Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins or Duke’s Jabari Parker being the front-runners — would emerge as our town’s next superstar.
Thus was the uncertain atmosphere as a packed audience filled the seats around and above the makeshift stage where NBA Commissioner Adam Silver would formally welcome the next wave of NBA superstars.
As the anticipation painstakingly approached the moments of truth, Philadelphia etched a rather proud contribution to the archives of annual drafts. As the 70,000-pound overhead scoreboard displayed spontaneous reactions of attention-starved fans jumping up and down while pointing to their respective team logos, the Philly faithful contributed the most raucous cheers and the most emphatic boos, and no one wore their team’s attire more proudly.
Finally, it was time.
A palpable nervousness filled the arena. Goofiness had subsided, and all that was left was why everyone had come from all over the country, but particularly from Philly — the Oscar Award-like divulgence of the winners.
“With the first pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select … Andrew Wiggins.”
Lots of groans emanated from Sixers’ enthusiasts, but all was not lost.
“With the second pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, the Milwaukee Bucks select … Jabari Parker.”
More groaning. Even some early despair. “With the third pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, the Philadelphia 76ers select … Joel Embiid.”
Ah, yes. The 76ers had just chosen a 7-foot giant from Cameroon (like Wiggins, from the University of Kansas) with, gasp, “terrific upside,” another player — just like last year’s top pick Nerlens Noel — who likely won’t be playing anytime soon because of a stress fracture in his foot that required surgery (Embiid had also missed the NCAA Tournament while recovering from a stress fracture in his back).
And yet, the 10th pick still remained. Surely the Sixers would grab a starter — maybe someone like Creighton’s Doug McDermott, one of the nation’s purest outside marksmen, who would at least sell some tickets from now until October.
But, alas, the 76ers chose little-known point guard Elfrid Payton instead, and then traded that pick to Orlando for 6-foot-10 Croatian forward Dario Saric, who had already signed a contract to play professionally in Turkey and doesn’t figure to dribble a basketball on a South Philadelphia court for at least two years.
The rest of the draft offered little drama. The Sixers snared a handful of players whom most people appeared to have never heard of. As the names were announced, the visibly thinning crowd responded with apathetic, pedestrian applause before returning to their cell phones, where they vented their frustration by Tweeting or texting friends about a draft that had begun with such promise, only to finish with a feeling of non-descript disappointment.
With the draft now officially complete, a distinctly different mood enveloped Philly fans as they prepared for an uncelebrated two-hour drive home. What had been a constant sharing of promising high fives among energized, complete strangers connected only by their fanatical zeal had transformed to a funereal walk toward the exits. Or maybe it was just utter fatigue after an emotionally draining day and night.
An offseason of discontent was already underway in Philadelphia, followed by what will undoubtedly be yet another year of uninspired basketball that should again produce somewhere between 15-20 wins.
But showing their classic resilience, many Sixers diehards could be heard discussing a brand new topic that provided some enthusiasm on the way out the door.
The 2015 NBA Draft … only one year away. ••