AVALON - The Philadelphia 76ers have no coach. They recently traded away their only All-Star, and they are expected to contend for the worst record in the league this season.
But fans seem more excited than they have been in years.
The main reason for that enthusiasm was on display Saturday afternoon as 19-year-old rookie Nerlens Noel towered above a crowd of hundreds at the 14th annual Sixers Beach Bash at Jack's Place.
"Coming out here with all these fans and really engaging with them, it's been a great experience," Noel said.
The 6-foot-11 Noel spoke softly and appeared slightly nervous when he was brought up on a stage and introduced to the crowd. But he said all the right things.
Asked about the inspiration for his famous flat-top haircut, Noel drew applause when he said he used to watch Will Smith in "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" every night as a child. Smith, of course, is a Philadelphia native and a minority owner of the Sixers.
Noel then was asked whether he ever would shave the Sixers' logo into his hair - as he did with "UK" while at the University of Kentucky last season - and he responded, "With fans like this, I wouldn't doubt it."
"He brings an excitement that the Sixers are kind of looking for, because he can be potentially a game-changer," said Greg Duca, 28, a Sixers partial season-ticket holder for four years and a resident of the Erma section of Lower Township.
Noel, fellow rookie Arsalan Kazemi and third-year veteran Lavoy Allen signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans. Sixers public-address announcer Matt Cord revealed how he will introduce Noel before games, dragging out "Nerleeeeeeens" and drawing loud applause.
"It feels great just to be a part of this, with these passionate fans that really care about Philadelphia 76ers basketball," Noel said. "I'm definitely looking to get back (from left-knee surgery) so I can do my best by this city."
The city and the fans serve as a main source of motivation in part because Noel still doesn't know who his coach will be when the season starts. Doug Collins resigned as the Sixers' coach in April, and they still have not hired a replacement. They are the only team in the NBA without a coach.
"It's not weird," Noel said. "You've got to wait it out and make sure it's the right fit."
That seems to be the popular opinion. A coach seems inconsequential considering that new general manager Sam Hinkie's plan appears to have the team rebuild around Noel and a high 2014 draft pick. Hinkie acquired Noel and a 2014 first-rounder from the New Orleans Pelicans for All-Star guard Jrue Holiday the night of this year's NBA draft.
"It seems like they finally made a commitment to kind of bottom out, to clear space, and to rebuild," Duca said. "And to me, the commitment to rebuild takes a full-on effort from top to bottom. And it finally looks like the ownership and the guys in charge have that right mentality in mind."
In addition to acquiring Noel, the Sixers also picked up Kazemi and Michael Carter-Williams in this year's draft. Kazemi, a forward from Oregon, was the first Iranian-born player ever to be drafted in the NBA. Carter-Williams was a star point guard for Syracuse.
"It's really exciting," Kazemi said. "Obviously being a part of the organization that has a great history behind it, and seeing that they're rebuilding their organization and being a part of that is just great."
The players stayed at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City on Friday night, but they planned to head back to Philadelphia immediately after the Beach Bash.
Coach or no coach, the Beach Bash served as a reminder of whom they really will play for - the fans.
"They've been fantastic," Noel said.
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