Philadelphia doesn't need a new arena, just two upscale tenants

April 19, 1992|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- Sometime, somehow, we are promised, Son of Spectrum will rise from the ashes of JFK Stadium.

Whether we want it or not.

A neat trick, building a new playpen at the south end of a city whose finances went south quite a while ago.

Perhaps it is an impertinent question, but at this point you may be wondering: Why a new Spectrum when the occupants aren't even using the old one?

This will be a silent spring in the arena.

For the third year in a row, the Philadelphia Flyers are not in the playoffs.

For the second year in the past five, the 76ers are not in the playoffs.

So a building sits empty, and the classified advertising possibilities are intriguing:

"Summer rental. Room for let. Split level. Accommodates 18,000. Catering available. Parking nearby. Tenants won't return until October."

There is a difference, however, between the Flyers and the Sixers as they pass each other, and that is the direction in which they are headed.

The Flyers, it seems, have begun to resist gravity and appear to have righted themselves at last. For the first time in the past half-dozen years, there is a reason other than self-delusion to harbor hope for what is to come.

The 76ers, it seems equally clear, have succumbed to gravity's pull and may or may not have hit bottom. Like desperate lottery players, their hopes flutter for the moment on numbered ping-pong balls. But their plight will not be reversed by one draft choice.

No, the Sixers face the same sort of sweeping and painful overhaul that the Flyers at first resisted, and then finally gave in to this past year.

The Flyers have brought in 17 new players.

They have changed coaches.

They have traded away their best and most popular player (Rick Tocchet).

They got rid of age and have acquired youth, without benefit of plastic surgery or liposuction.

They finished the season on a decided up-tick.

A resourceful researcher discovered that over the past two months of the season the Flyers' 18 victories tied them with the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Rangers for the best closing kick in the NHL.

You may look at this as reaffirmation of that old saying: There are three types of untruths -- lies, damn lies and statistics. Or you may, as the Flyers understandably choose to, look at this as tangible evidence that once all those young strangers began to become familiar with each other's games, they started to mesh.

A successful conclusion of one season does not necessarily guarantee a successful start of another one. Still, it is reasonable to say that the Flyers look better than they have in years.

There is the occasional lament that if they played in any other division in the NHL besides the Patrick they would be in the postseason. Indeed, they would have finished third in the Adams, fourth in the Norris. But that is irrelevant whining. They are stuck in the Patrick, and it is up to them to make the best of it.

They have the right coach for the moment. Bill Dineen possesses the patience, the forbearance and just the right touch for a bunch of players a third his age. One day there may be need for a lion tamer, but for now what is needed behind the bench is a calming influence, an imperturbable presence.

The Flyers may have some fine-tuning yet to do. They still seem to be a top gun shy on offense, and in need of help on defense. Their amazing knack for developing goaltenders continues. You suspect that Dominic Roussel will continue the franchise's legacy of brilliant goalies.

As for the Sixers, they stand, wobbling, where the Flyers did not so long ago. There is a large bullet to be bitten. Everyone, players included, expects something grandiose in scope.

No one is safe.

Frankly, no one deserves to be safe.

The Sixers have not exactly covered themselves with glory over the last quarter of the season. Though they protest that they are trying, really, they gimp to the finish line losing five of every six, even against motley competition. You can tally their wins against top competition over the past four months on one hand.

A skeptic might wonder if they are tanking in a deliberate attempt to improve their lottery position in the draft. But they started too late. No, these defeats are on merit.

The post-game refrain is threadbare by now. They were in it to the end, then kicked it away. It is the perpetual lament of the loser.

It is not a new arena we need so much as it is new teams.

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