PHILADELPHIA - Allen Iverson raised his No. 3 to the rafters and had Sixers' fans raising the roof.
For one night in Philadelphia, the spirit of a big game was back, from the four-figure ticket prices on the secondary market to the packed house that roared for legends Julius Erving and Moses Malone, and chanted "MVP!" when Iverson thanked the fans.
The crowd was electric - then the Sixers pulled the plug.
By the fourth quarter, most of the 20,856 fans fled the Wells Fargo Center, the memories of Iverson's homecoming trumping the idea of sticking around to watch the home team limp toward another loss. The few that remained only cheered when the Sixers scored 100 points, netting them some free fast food.
Coach Brett Brown loved Saturday's atmosphere that was pulled straight from 2001.
"You think, 'What can happen if we ever get this right?'" he said.
The Sixers (15-45) have been every bit as bad as their preseason billing, and have lost 14 straight games following back-to-back defeats last weekend to Washington and Orlando. They have lost 12 straight at home and are freefalling their way toward catching Milwaukee (11-47) for the worst record in the NBA. They had allowed 100-plus points in 13 straight games before Sunday, their longest single-season streak since 1989.
Iverson, one of the 76ers' all-time greats, has tuned out the Sixers as if they were a coach talking about practice.
"It's hard for me to watch Sixers basketball games," Iverson said, "so I don't."
Toss out rookie Michael-Carter Williams, injured rookie Nerlens Noel, and veteran Thaddeus Young, and the Sixers are left with a roster more fitting for the D-League. Henry Sims? Jarvis Varnado? Byron Mullens?
Brown was blunt after the Sixers' 13th straight loss when asked if he wondered if the Sixers would win another game.
"All the time," he said, "I tell them that."
The Sixers are closing in on the longest single-season losing streak in team history, per STATS LLC.
• 20 straight; Jan. 9, 1973-Feb. 11, 1973.
• 15 straight; Feb. 9, 1994-March 11, 1994
• 14 straight; Dec. 7, 1972-Jan. 6, 1973
• 14 straight; Jan. 31, 2014-present.
Up next, tonight at Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City, which is a 19-point favorite.
Does anyone hear 15 straight losses?
Of course, the plan set all along this season by ownership and general manager Sam Hinkie was to gut the roster until the uncompetitive franchise was pointed straight toward the No. 1 draft pick. The Sixers traded former No. 2 overall pick Evan Turner, forward Lavoy Allen and center Spencer Hawes at the deadline to dump salary, create roster space, and gobble draft picks in hopes of building a championship contender down the road.
"We're trying to acquire things that will help us move forward," Hinkie said.
The Sixers could also have a second lottery pick (based on different scenarios) after acquiring New Orleans' first-round pick in a 2013 draft night trade that also landed them Noel.
Sure, the next lottery pick just might produce AI-type numbers, and the Sixers can sign a free agent or two and become Eastern Conference contenders within the next three or four years.
But the huge risk to Hinkie's gamble is this: Instead of drafting championship cornerstones in the lottery, he could instead land the likes of Turner and Kwame Brown, watching the short rebuild twist into a decade of wretched hoops.
The Sixers did try to become winners in the summer of 2012 with a nucleus of homegrown talent in Turner, Young, and Jrue Holiday, then they made the blockbuster trade for Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum. But Bynum went bust and never played a game last season because of bad knees, the first string pulled in the unraveling of a franchise that reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2012.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver defended the Sixers' plan, saying it was nothing more than a forlorn franchise taking a long-range approach toward rebuilding. In other words, he wouldn't call it tanking.
"I am concerned about the perception," he said. "I am not concerned about what is happening in Philadelphia."
The Sixers are 29th in attendance at 13,694 fans per game and Iverson's return was their first sellout of the season.
The Sixers failed to sell out opening night against the defending champion Miami Heat, a 114-110 victory that propelled them to a shocking 3-0 start. They also won four straight road games from Dec. 29-Jan. 4. Outside of those spurts, the Sixers have played down to their preseason projection as one of the NBA's worst, the same franchise that prompted Las Vegas to set the over-under for total wins this season at 16.5.
For now, all the team can do is gut out the season, and hope a glut of picks and about $30 million in salary cap space is enough for Hinkie to craft a contender.
It could happen, it's in the franchise's DNA: Four seasons after the 1972-73 Sixers set an NBA record for futility (9-73), they were in the NBA finals.
"They want to win, and I can see from their attitude that this is not acceptable," Iverson said. "Things will change around. I have the utmost confidence in the people running the show here that everything will turn around."