The large sign urging fans to "Get On Your Feet!" sat idly out of view against a courtside seat at First Union Center during the waning moments of a recent game between the Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trail Blazers.
Yet most of the 20,901 spectators instinctively followed the discarded sign's order as Aaron McKie dribbled while Allen Iverson, sweat dripping from his determined face, clapped down the final seconds of Philadelphia's 90-79 victory.
Signs were necessary in the first half of the 76ers' season, when there was little to cheer for. With a 25-24 record at the all-star break, there had been more speculation on Coach Larry Brown's job status than of Philadelphia reaching the playoffs.
Ever since, however, Iverson's team has executed an impressive turnaround and found its rhythm, unlike a few fans who danced in the aisles with cheerleaders after the recent home win. Philadelphia has won 15 of the past 17 games, including Sunday's comeback at New Jersey and Tuesday's blowout of Miami. The sizzling stretch has given the club a realistic shot at the top spot in the Eastern Conference, trailing conference-leading Detroit by two games entering Thursday's contest against the Pistons. The 76ers are percentage points ahead of the Nets for the Atlantic Division lead and are evoking memories of 2001, when Philadelphia reached the NBA Finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I'm just amazed that we are in this position right now after what went on," said Brown, whose team lost 20 of 30 before the all-star break.
Last Friday's victory was Philadelphia's seventh straight at home. The outcome was noteworthy because the Blazers, one of the NBA's best teams, had sought redemption for an embarrassing home loss to Philadelphia. Instead, the 76ers affirmed their new status as one of the East's best teams with a performance containing the ingredients that spurred the turnaround: Iverson's scoring brilliance; improvement by point guard Eric Snow; solid play by the front court; and, most of all, hustle and hounding defense.
"This team is probably more talented than [the 2000-01] team," said Snow. "That team was gritty. We outworked teams, hustled and played hard. And we're getting back to that point."
Philadelphia's turnaround began March 2, when the club went on a five-game, nine-day trip out West, where Eastern Conference teams frequently return feeling like clubs in the NBA's developmental league. The 76ers won three of five with an impressive 88-60 humiliation of Portland, the least points in franchise history. It's only two losses were Sacramento (107-99) and the L.A. Lakers (106-92) "We really got started with a win at [Portland]," Brown said. "That gave us a lot of confidence."
Snow said: "We knew going out West in March was going to be rough. So we made a conscious effort to win games and build our confidence."
With the inevitable ebbs of the NBA season, the 76ers seem overdue for a letdown. But it didn't prevent Philadelphia's magical run from continuing Sunday, when the 76ers defeated New Jersey, 92-87, in East Rutherford, N.J. Philadelphia -- one of only two teams in the Eastern Conference with a winning road record at 18-15 -- rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit and held the Nets without a basket in the final 8 minutes 56 seconds.
Iverson -- who scored 31 points against New Jersey and has averaged 30 points since the all-star break -- has entered the wide-open competition for league MVP, which he won after the 2000-01 season by leading the NBA in scoring average (31.1 points) and steals (2.51 per game). This season Iverson's scoring average is down to 27.7, but Brown insists that his seven-year star has never played better.
"This is his best year by far -- on both ends of the court," Brown said. "And hopefully it will continue."
Perhaps Brown was alluding to Iverson's lack of off-court issues. This summer Iverson faced four felony and 10 misdemeanor counts for allegedly threatening two men while trying to track down his wife, before all charges were dropped. Since then, the only controversy involving Iverson has been whether the 6-foot guard should be named to the U.S. Olympic team for the 2004 games in Athens.
This season Iverson has had more help than usual from teammates. Snow, a nine-year veteran, is posting career highs in scoring average (13.0) and field-goal accuracy (45.5). And Philadelphia's front court has become one of the steadiest in the East despite the absence of Todd MacCulloch. The center's NBA career appears over because of neuropathy, a rare, incurable disorder of the nervous system that had led to numbness in his hands and feet. So 13-year veteran Derrick Coleman has been forced to start at center alongside small forward Kenny Thomas and power forward Keith Van Horn. The 6-10 Coleman instantly became one of the most skilled centers in the East.
"Derrick right now," Van Horn said, "is one of the one or two best centers in the East."
The 76ers surged after Coleman, 35, was inserted into the starting lineup. He's averaged 11 points and nine rebounds in the past 17. But a factor in the turnaround, Iverson said, has been the club eventually meshing after revamping the roster during the off season. Van Horn and MacCulloch were acquired in a trade shipping center Dikembe Mutombo to the Nets.
"I don't think it happens overnight," said Iverson. "Things get better when you start to understand where your teammates like the ball, and when they run and don't run.
"I just understand now at this point in my career that without your teammates there's no way you can be successful, there's no way you can win the ultimate prize, and that's a world championship," Iverson recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It's going to take four other guys on the court with me to help get it done. I just think my teammates have really gained my trust by how well they play on the basketball court, even how well they act off the basketball court."
Now, after an impressive turnaround, the home fans are on their feet without prodding -- cheering Iverson's scoring wizardry and the team's gritty defense. Spectators dance in the aisles at First Union as the 76ers have found a winning rhythm.