John Nash pleaded with Ed Stefanski to let go of his midlife crises. Stay out of the basketball business, he told him. And what about those four boys you need to get through college? His old friend had a successful mortgage business, a cushy college basketball television job, a good, balanced life in Philadelphia.
“He was giving up a lucrative career for what could’ve been a short-lived NBA experience,” Nash said. “I tried to dissuade him.”
Eight years ago, Stefanski told Nash, then the Nets GM, that he wanted to make this leap of faith before it was too late in life. He told Nash to keep him in mind. Nash had always believed Stefanski had the beautiful basketball mind and the iron will to validate those in the New Jersey front office questioning, Who is this guy?
Now, Nash said, “he’s exceeded my wildest expectations for him.”
How about Stefanski’s own? The 76ers brought Stefanski home as president and general manager to restore their lost cause. There are dream jobs, and there is Stefanski, the old Penn Quakers guard for Chuck Daly, the Catholic league coach at Monsignor Bonner High School, getting the offer to run the franchise of his childhood. The Sixers chose Stefanski in the 10th round of the 1976 NBA Draft, cut him and he figured the rest of his life would be spent rooting for them.
“I die with every Philadelphia team,” Stefanski said. “I love this place.”
This doesn’t make him basketball’s Vince Papale, or basketball’s Balboa, but his story is still something of a longshot considering it was just 2000 when Nash hired him as a New Jersey scout. All around town, Philadelphians love that one of their own has been entrusted with the family store. Philadelphia basketball is the ultimate closed club in sports, a tight fraternity that transcends preps to the pros.
So far, Stefanski hasn’t made big, bold promises and torn into Billy King’s flawed regime. Bad contracts here? Well, every team has them, he said. Most new general managers and coaches love to go on and on about how bad of a circumstance they’ve inherited, just so they can get more credit if they win and deflect blame if they don’t.
Stefanski hasn’t sold himself as a savior because there are none wearing suits in the front office. You work hard, take smart risks and get a little lucky. That’s how it goes upstairs. That’s true for everyone.
“The bottom line is personnel,” Stefanski said.
All he’s known with the Nets is living on the road, punching his passport through Europe and driving dirt roads to small gyms in the boondocks. Stefanski played an immense part in the Nets’ Eastern Conference rise, a bird-dog evaluator and a shrewd trader with far more hits than misses. Nets president Rod Thorn is responsible for the Jason Kidd trade, but little else about the franchise’s ascent – the trading for Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter, the drafting of Nenad Krstic – happened without Stefanski’s wisdom and judgment.
Philadelphia is one of those major Eastern markets the NBA needs to get back. The Sixers have made the playoffs in the lousy East only once since 2003, but a core of young players, a tradable point guard, Andre Miller, and a possible $14 million in salary cap space next summer, offer an opportunity to rise out of the rubble. Mo Cheeks isn’t automatically a lame duck because Stefanski’s ego isn’t large enough to make him hire his own coach.
As for owner Ed Snider’s consultant, Larry Brown, his nebulous position with the Sixers will quietly diminish and evaporate. If Brown was waiting to coach Philadelphia again, that’ll never happen. Where does Brown go next? With the baggage he brings out of his most recent stops in New York, Detroit and Team USA, the risk-reward has changed. Once, everyone believed he was worth the trouble.
“Now, it’ll take a desperate owner to hire him,” one Western Conference executive said.
For now, Stefanski judges the risk-reward of holding onto Miller, the cost to re-sign Andre Iguodala and the young Sixers players worth staking his franchise’s future. Between now and those choices Nash, a past Sixers GM himself, sees Stefanski winning one thing for sure: The trust of a basketball community that had come to scorn the 76ers.
“I’m not sure people coming from the outside are as aware,” Nash said, “but Eddie has such an advantage because of his great feel for the area, the tradition. The Sixers haven’t done a good job remaining connected with the alumni, and Eddie is making every effort to reach out. He’ll get them back.”
In the end, they’ll judge him on winning basketball games. A frustrated old Eagles and Phillies fan himself, the new president and GM understands that truth. For Philly GM’s, life can get downright nasty. Just remember, Ed Stefanski decided to give up comfortable a long time ago.