The Philadelphia 76ers filed into room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis one late February afternoon and walked toward the balcony, past the coffee cups on the table, the cigarette butts in the ashtray, the peach-colored sheets strewn across the bed. The sun, setting over Mulberry Street, poured through the windows. The spiritual Take My Hand, Precious Lord played softly on the stereo. Their tour guide, a 26-year-old history student at Memphis named Ryan Michael Jones, stood before the team, his voice rising and falling in the melody of a Southern minister as he re-created the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life: the coffee that was sipped, the cigarettes that were smoked, the bed that was never made. The Sixers gazed out at the balcony, then down to the cement slab where King fell when he was shot and killed.
The field trippers from Egypt Elementary School in Memphis struggled to identify the oversized tourists among them. They whispered their best guesses: LeBron James? Kobe Bryant? Michael Jordan? Finally, a ponytailed girl with a digital camera approached point guard Jrue Holiday and broadened her query: "Are you the NBA?" Holiday shrugged. "Yeah," he said with a half smile. "I guess we are."
In a star-powered sport, bedazzled with Big Threes and Transcendent Twos, the 76ers embody everything the league supposedly lacks. They combine the most oppressive defense (allowing just 42.1% shooting through Sunday) with the most democratic offense (six players scoring nine or more points per game but none as many as 16). They share the limelight (guard Lou Williams, the leading scorer with an average of 15.3 points, comes off the bench) and take care of the ball (11.0 turnovers per game, on pace for the best mark in NBA history). Coach Doug Collins hasn't fined a player in a season and a half. "Oh, no, that's wrong," he corrects himself. "Lou slept in one day." Of course, it was Collins who most likely kept him up the night before, with the endless string of text messages he sends troops after games. "What's happening [in Philadelphia] is almost unheard of," says journeyman center Francisco Elson, who was with the team last month on a pair of 10-day contracts. "You can see it in the way guys act off the court. You go other places, and they play video games all the time. Here, they really talk to each other."
The 76ers' visit to the Lorraine came the day after a game in Minnesota, where they lost on two free throws with 0.1 of a second left, and everybody showed up. In January they held a surprise 28th birthday party for small forward Andre Iguodala at his condo, and everybody came to that as well. "What is Evan Turner doing here?" Iguodala muttered when he spotted a lanky shooting guard in his home. Before the season the Sixers planned a retreat to Los Angeles to play in the renowned pickup games at UCLA, and nine of them made the trip. Some canceled vacations. "A lot of teams said they were going to come," says Adam Mills, the UCLA games' long-time organizer. "Only one did." The 76ers followed their regular substitution patterns and ran sets from their playbook. No way, NBA opponents moaned. Are you guys really rotating out of pick-and-rolls?
Philadelphia is bucking all sorts of NBA stereotypes, but the challenge will be to bust the most relevant one: Teams win games, but stars win championships. The 76ers, 20--9 with a four-game lead in the Atlantic Division on Valentine's Day, slipped to 29--23 at week's end, a game behind the Celtics. Can the equal-opportunity model work or does Philly's lack of a prolific scorer relegate them to the same netherworld as the Pacers and Jazz, Nuggets and Rockets, competitors who aren't contenders? Leading the NBA in defense is usually a predictor of a deep postseason run. But the only time a team won the title with a top scorer averaging fewer than 15.3 points, the league was called the BAA and Kleggie Hermsen was dropping 12.0 per game for the 1947--48 Baltimore Bullets.
Of course the Sixers would love a Kobe or a Derrick. But they make do with what they have, which means molding a team around a player who is anything but your typical headliner.
Andre Iguodala has witnessed the worst of pro sports: five coaches in seven years, trade rumors every winter and a home court often filled with nothing but boos. At 6'6" and 207 pounds, with graphic-novel muscles and Inspector Gadget arms, Iguodala is the best perimeter defender in the NBA and one of the best all-around players not named LeBron. He is a driver-passer-rebounder who doesn't mind that he averages only 12.4 points and who pinches teammates on the leg when they complain about shots. The Eastern Conference coaches chose Iguodala for the All-Star team because there was no better representative of the Sixers' success. Elson's stay in Philly was short, but he was with the team long enough for Iguodala to make an impression. "If I'm open and I get the ball, it's going up," says Elson. "That's how pretty much everybody in this league feels. Andre gives it to somebody more open. He loves team basketball."
Iguodala wakes from his game-day nap thinking of whom he will guard rather than whom he will torch. In Memphis he was roused at the Peabody by visions of Grizzlies swingman Rudy Gay. "He likes to go right," Iguodala says. "He likes to post, jab, sweep through really hard and finish at the basket. And he's added a spin lob." Before the game Memphis guard O.J. Mayo told Gay, "Andre is the guy I hate playing the most." The Grizzlies won 89--76, but Iguodala spent the night doing jumping jacks in front of Gay, and held him to 3-of-10 shooting.
Iguodala grew up in Springfield, Ill., at the height of the Bulls dynasty, and patterned himself after Scottie Pippen. He was not the leading scorer at Lanphier High, where he deferred to a gunner named Richard McBride, or at Arizona, where he averaged 12.9 points and set up sniper Salim Stoudamire. "He likes being the guy who does everything else," says Lawrence Thomas, a coach in Springfield who has worked with Iguodala since ninth grade. His road roommate at Arizona was team manager Jack Murphy, and before Iguodala left after his sophomore year, Murphy gave him a copy of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. "I didn't want him to ever think he went unrecognized," says Murphy, now an assistant at Memphis. Iguodala, who churns through three books at a time, had already read it.
The Sixers drafted him ninth in 2004 as a sidekick for scoring champ Allen Iverson, and when he talks about those freestyling days he sounds like a backup singer who once toured with the Rolling Stones. "It was so fun," Iguodala says. "He'd crack jokes on the plane, draw cartoons, take you to dinner and score 50. I'd laugh, catch some lobs and watch him score 50 again. Ninety percent of the time, there were no problems." The other 10% of the time, though, Iverson was late to something or feuding with someone. In December 2006, he was traded to the Nuggets, and two days later Iguodala scored 31 points in Boston to snap a 12-game losing streak. The Invisible Man was the Man. "We knew he was an all-around player," says former general manager Billy King, now with the Nets, "but a lot of people looked at him as the go-to-guy, the franchise guy."