In his 59 years, Pat Croce has learned Japanese, flown helicopters, put together motorcycles, become a fourth-degree black belt and won national tournaments, opened six bar-restaurants in Key West, established pirate and history museums in St. Augustine, Fla., and most recently gone scuba diving through pirate ship wrecks.
As the man who once ran the NBA show in Philadelphia says, "I'm pretty good at reinventing myself."
Oh, and then there's this: After the Philly native expanded his Sports Physical Therapists center to 40 locations in 11 states while treating ex-76ers Charles Barkley, Julius Erving and Moses Malone, he became the 76ers president in 1996. He drafted Allen Iverson with the first overall pick, and five years later, the Sixers were in the Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Croce, who now earns $40,000 per speaking engagement to tell his entrepreneurial story, was in attendance at Iverson's retirement ceremony earlier this month at the Wells Fargo Center. Speaking with Bleacher Report recently, Croce shared some intimate behind-the-scenes moments from Iverson's playing days—including a critical meeting with former coach Larry Brown that changed the tune for the team—as well as thoughts on the NBA's future and his current exploits since leaving the league in 2001.
JZ: What was it like to be there celebrating Iverson's career?
PC: That was pretty cool. I got to escort him out at halftime. It was great to be courtside standing next to Doc (Erving) and to watch his jersey lifted to the ceiling. The last time we did it was during my tenure when we lifted Charles Barkley's, and I was there when we lifted Doc's. All of them I trained. You kidding me? Moses (Malone) and Doc and Aaron McKie. I got back "The Round Mound of Rebound" (Barkley) down to 250 pounds. That's when he looked great and won the rebounding title in 1987. But it was great to be able to see (Iverson's jersey) go up and know that here's this guy we picked with a first-round draft pick when all the naysayers said, "He's too small. He's going to get too hurt. He's a thug." It was just great to see this guy's dream come true. He is the best little man in the NBA.
JZ: To me, he redefined the isolation, clear-out situation with his streetball moves and scoring abilities. And he was only a point guard. Nowadays, many of them get assistance from the pick-and-roll, but he loved and thrived being on his own island on the court.
PC: And he would take a beating because of it. I mean, he took a f--kin' beating. You would see him on the ground, and that's why people also loved him, because he was on the ground so much. He was only 6'0", 165 pounds, and it was just him against all these monsters in the paint, and he played basketball with a quarterback mentality.
JZ: What's your favorite memory of him?
PC: The first one that comes to mind is him stepping over Tyronn Lue in the first game of the (2001) Finals against the Lakers. I mean, when he sunk that shot and right in front of the Lakers' bench stepped over Tyronn Lue, I remember I stood up and pointed to (actress) Sharon Stone, who was down at the other end, and said, "Yeeeaaah!" And I had all my family around me and buddies, and we're in the middle of a sea of Lakers—it was great. They were giving me s--t the whole game.
JZ: How about off the court?
PC: So much for five years. I mean, he could do impersonations that were hilarious. When he was on a roll, he would just do all kinds of things. He would imitate whoever was popular at the time. He's artistic with drawing. I mean, he's a very talented person. Watching him, I'll tell you, with this thug mentality and the cornrows and the tattoos and the baggy pants and the non-tie-wearing conformity, he was in a children's hospital during Christmas time and you watch him light up. I mean, it was great. He had a little red hat, along with Dikembe (Mutombo), and you watch him light up and make kids happy and smile. That's where God gave him a gift.
JZ: Are you connected to the NBA in any way? Still a fan?
PC: I'm still a fan. It was great to see Adam Silver (at the ceremony) because I've always liked Adam Silver. I loved David Stern. Being a marketing guy myself, someone who knows how to take a brand and blow it up—I helped create the sports medicine brand, I helped resurrect the Sixers brand and now I own the pirate brand—I know about branding, and David Stern was a wizard. Adam, I got to meet him my first day (with the Sixers). He gave me a tour of the NBA Entertainment studios when I was (in New Jersey) for the draft lottery when I won it, and to this day, we've become close friends. And to see him as NBA commissioner, man, I'd give him a big old hug.
JZ: Anything about the NBA you're interested to see how it will evolve or change under Silver's watch?
PC: It's a good question. He's been under the tutelage and waiting in the shadow of David Stern, so you know (the NBA is) not going to remain status quo. I guarantee that Adam will continue to make sure the NBA is a prime focal point for fans, and that's really where David was always good. He always helped me because he knew I was a fan advocate, passionate about fans. Adam is going to follow David's suit in that. They started with technology before everyone else. Adam and Dave were cutting edge, and I doubt Adam is going to slow down at all. So it's going to be interesting.
JZ: You can't talk about the Sixers without talking about Iverson and Brown, and their much-publicized contentious relationship. You couldn't draw up two more completely different personalities. Being on the inside, what was it like to see that unfold?
PC: It was difficult because they were at each other's throats, and there was the one time when Larry Brown called me and Iverson called me because (Brown) sat him on the bench in Detroit—I wasn't there—and I got a call that night because I saw that he sat him. And I heard there was a blast on the bus and Larry Brown wanted him traded the next day. And Iverson called me, which was rare, and he wanted him fired. So I said, "We'll meet in the conference room at the practice facility." And all the team is waiting outside the glass with the assistant coaches, and inside the room was Larry Brown on one side of the table, Allen Iverson and me on the other side and Billy King toward the end of the table. And I think Tony DiLeo, our scouting director, was also there.
It was really ugly, like really. Allen came in ready to kill someone. I've never seen him in such a foul mood. He wanted no part with this coach, none. This was my fourth year and (Brown's) third year. It got really ugly, and I remember saying—to this day, I don't think Larry Brown likes me because of this, because I made him sit down in this meeting, but it was the catalyst that turned our whole world around—"You two, I'm not going to trade him, Larry, and I'm not going to fire you. There's no way." I said, "You guys don't understand. You both are so talented, the best of what you do in your business. You're so headstrong. If you were to look in the mirror, you'd see each other. You both have a common goal; you just go about it in different ways."
With that I said, "Allen, the coach doesn't like when you motherf--k him when he takes you out of the game. That's disrespectful. Would you do that to your father or to your mother?" And he looked at me and he said, "No." I said, "I don't care how much you want to play; it's the coach's plan whether you play or not." I looked at coach and said, "Larry, Allen doesn't like when you treat him like the white prison guard that says, 'Sit down, n----r.' " And Larry went, "What?" He looked at me and I said, "That's what (Iverson) said. He said he feels that you are disrespecting him." So they both were looking at each other. I said, "You both are looking at each other in a wrong way."
What I said at the time, then they started to talk. And Allen got up, walked all the way around the table and hugged him. I remember it to this day. That was the beginning; that was the real turnaround, I'll tell you. That year we did real well. We lost to the Indiana Pacers in the second round (in 2000), and then the next year it was a really, really good year, starting off 10-0 and Allen was co-captain. But it was really, really ugly and scary at that time. And Larry did call me after that, and I thought he was going to thank me, but he was angry. He said, "How dare you put me in a position equal to a player?" I said, "Larry, I'm sorry you feel that way, but you're bigger than this. Now you have a relationship." That was the little wedge between the two of us. It didn't matter to me because I'm all about people. I know how to unpeel the onion, and I wanted to peel it all the way down.
JZ: It's interesting how it took about three years with Iverson and Brown together for things to really hit the fan.
PC: Listen, I was the one; Larry doesn't like to discipline his players. He doesn't feel the pros should be disciplined at the professional level. So it was me who got the call when Allen missed a practice after being in New York, before they went to Boston and I sat him out a game. It's me in Miami when I go to drop my bags off in the training room, and I hear, "Allen missed the shootaround this morning." I'm like "S--t." So Billy King and I go in the locker room, and we sit him down and said, "You're not playing tonight." He said, "What the f--k?" I said, "No, you're not playing tonight. You chose, not me." I looked him in the eyes and said, "Did I miss practice? No. You missed practice."
And he knows and Larry knows no one wants to not let him play because you've got the whole audience out there waiting for him, you've got all the media waiting for him. So I now have to go face the media and his mother. "Why aren't you playing him?" I'm like, "F--k." I said to her, "It's easy, he missed practice." I believe in discipline. I believe that until this day. I think he really loved me and I loved him. I sat him down and talked to him about it. He was the one; he stopped it finally.
JZ: Right now, the Sixers are basically where your team was when you took over in 1996—at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Five years later, they were in the Finals. When you look at the team now, do you see any parallels?
PC: I do look at it, except that they're hoping they lose. I didn't my first year; I wasn't hoping. They've got a plan in place. When I lost my leg in a motorcycle accident in '99—they put it back together—one week after, we lose to the Indiana Pacers in the second round of the playoffs, my third year as president, but the first year in the playoffs with the Sixers in eight years. So I was on top of the world and here I am in a motorcycle accident as I'm going cross country. When I was in the hospital, I think it was the first three of six surgeries in my leg. They took some of my shoulder, they took some of my hip, they put iron in my leg and they put the foot back on. And this one guy, my friend (and Philadelphia businessman) Ron Rubin, comes in and says, "Pat, man plans and God laughs." My point is that you can plan all you want, whether it's to tank the season or get (Andrew) Wiggins and the No. 1 pick, but it's not guaranteed.
JZ: You're the real life iron man.
PC: (laughs) When I walked into Cuba for the first time, they really patted me down because my leg went off and these guys wouldn't let me in that country until I took my pants off and made sure that there was nothing hidden in my leg. It doesn't happen in America.
JZ: So you have quite the post-NBA tenure, now diving for pirates and shipwrecks. Tell me about that.
PC: Recently, I was trying to discover and salvage Captain Morgan's 34-gun Oxford. It went down in 1669. That would be a pretty cool find because there's no really authentic pirate ships out there. That's one resting on the bottom of the Caribbean. I put together this really all-star team of archeologists, explorers, historians and we would like to get around the Bahamas. So we've got a variety of projects, not only for the shipwrecks, but also some projects in the Bahamas—possibly doing another pirate museum in Nassau, where pirates were in their heyday in the early 1700s. It would be a perfect place. I'm going there in two weeks.
JZ: Have you always had this passion for pirates?
PC: Always, always bro. I remember in fourth grade when I watched the 1935 movie Captain Blood with my dad. Then I got the opportunity to buy his jackets from that movie at an auction. I would carve skulls and crossbows with my school ruler. I was always fascinated with pirates, always.
JZ: Being interested in pirates and the open seas seems to represent what you're all about—you're adventurous and open-minded about taking risks.
PC: I've had several lives. I got a fortune cookie one time. I've kept it and it sums up my motto, "Life is a bold and daring adventure." Even when I was younger with the Sixers, it was a bold and daring adventure. When I was running the sports medicine centers, building them up to 40 centers, it was a bold and daring adventure, doing my restaurant and bars, doing the pirate museum, going on explorations. Anything I'm doing, whether if I'm going to give a speaking engagement in Las Vegas, I'm going to make it a bold and daring adventure.
JZ: So in two years, Pat Croce will be ...
PC: Oh, that's hard. That's hard; you never know. I might be back in the NBA. Who knows? You know, I was never really good at long-term goals because short term is so exciting and I'm so focused on the now and the present. I have a really small rear-view mirror in my life. I look at the rear-view mirror for memories and learning experiences, but I've got a big front windshield and I'm looking at right now. I've got so many projects on my plate right now. I've never been asked that question. It's a great question.
JZ: Overall, what's your equation for living life spontaneously and successfully?
PC: The equation would be adventure, entrepreneurship, family time, but it all equals passion. If you look at the bottom of my e-mails, I have one line on there. It says, "Take action on your passion," and that is truly it. So if I build a pirate museum, if I want to fly a helicopter, if it's a motorcycle or taking gun lessons or advanced scuba diving or mastering treasure wrecks, I want to be the best. If you're just after money, you might get the money at the end, but the journey might be painful. Now what if you don't get the money at the end, then you experience a painful journey; every f--kin' day is a waste. Seize the day.