I’ve always loved Willie Green. I do not know why.
He wasn’t a flashy player during his seven seasons with the Sixers from 2003 to 2010. His scoring average never reached 13 points per game, he didn’t have some boisterous, brandable personality that hooked me — he wasn’t even a full-time starter in six of those seven seasons. But I loved him. Still do. My only theory as to why is that when I was a kid, green was my favorite color. Ipso facto, you see the correlation. I met him once at a Verizon store near a California Pizza Kitchen. I just remember being so happy to learn we were on the same wireless coverage plan.
My peers could never share in my appreciation or fascination of Green. Most of them actually very actively disliked him.
What I’m now realizing is that the charm of Willie Green, for me, was that he was somewhat emblematic of the NBA everyman. He was far from a star — honestly, he was often a pretty unhelpful basketball player. But he served as a placeholder for me for so many guys who played on the Sixers over the years who I found impossibly endearing.
Dave Rueter not only shares in this phenomenon, but he just wrote the book about it.
A Sixers Odyssey: Exploring The Forgotten Players of 76ers Yesteryear dives deep into the Sixers tenure of Green and 75 others. Each chapter features a different nondescript Sixer, and the book serves as a tribute to the forgotten players on our favorite, stupid team.
Dave — or Where Is Ben Rivera, on Twitter — is known by many fans for honing his literary voice right here at Liberty Ballers. While with the site, Dave and his colleagues took on the mammoth task of trying to make the Doug Collins-era Sixers interesting. We thank him for his service.
I recently had the chance to speak with Dave via email and ask him about his career at Liberty Ballers and the process that went into crafting his inventive new book. Enjoy.
As a Liberty Ballers alum, I’d love to first hear about what your experience was like writing for the site. How did you get involved? Are there some fun pieces or breaking news stories from that time that stick out?
I loved my time with Liberty Ballers. There was a sense of community with LB that I always enjoyed — the interaction between the writers and commentators, the inside jokes that organically developed on the site, etc, etc. Heck, when I was with LB — gosh, probably almost ten years ago at this point — we worshiped a Giant Tanking Octopus named Lucy to secure a top pick. Even writing that last sentence a decade later doesn’t seem odd to me. Lucy will provide.
(The first-ever LB community meet-up saw a resounding victory over the Hawks. Al Horford struggled. The more things change, et al).
I was the fifth writer to join LB and rounded out the starting line-up. If the OG writing staff was Michigan’s Fab Five, I was certainly Ray Jackson – the least-heralded of the bunch. We had Jordan Sams (the founder), Mike Levin (now hobnobbing in Hollywood), the movie critic and tag team specialist, Tanner Steidel, and Godner (Derek Bodner). Like many LB writers, I started writing Fan Posts. I previously had a blog that no longer exists on a platform that got swallowed up by the internet years ago. But I enjoyed writing and wanted to make people laugh. I just needed a new forum. Eventually, I was asked to join the staff. I knew my role. If you wanted to know the strengths and weaknesses of a prospect from the Missouri Valley Conference, ask Derek. Writing a few jokes about Kevin Ollie was more my speed.
I was around during the Doug Collins Years, so outside of an upset of the Bulls thanks to half the residents in Chicago tearing their ACLs, we didn’t have that much excitement. We were right in the thick of the Andrew Bynum acquisition but all we got was this lousy “Pressure Makes Diamonds” T-shirt. Oh, and the writers also said a lot of mean things about Damien Wilkins. Nobody played better in March and April when his team was 20 games under .500.
A Sixers Odyssey is so unique in that it’s a book about an NBA team’s least talked-about players. This isn’t The Jordan Rules. At what age do you remember growing a particular affinity and fascination for these miscellaneous guys? Did it start with one Sixer in particular?
I mention this in the prologue of A Sixers Odyssey, but my best friend growing up had this coffee table book ranking the Top-100 basketball players of all-time. I must’ve read it a hundred times. Even today, I can visualize the pages and the pictures. With each passing, my focus shifted to the players in the background of the photos. Like I know who Kevin McHale is. Who’s the guy bodying him up? Couple that with my memories from watching the Sixers on Prism and SportsChannel, and my obsession with basketball cards (I have over a dozen Jim Lynam cards I’m willing to barter), and I have this treasure trove of knowledge and memories of these random and forgotten players.
As for a particular player, it may have been Greg Grant, the 5-foot-7 guard from Division-III Trenton State. He was different, you know? He was an outlier. The Law of Averages says he should’ve been playing overseas somewhere, but he held his own. I dug him.
What do you think it was about these guys that hooked you? Do they all have something in particular in common?
That these players all have a story, yet their stories aren’t widely known. “The Juice Man” Michael Cage traveled with a 50-pound blender. Don MacLean, not Kareem or Bill Walton or Reggie Miller, is the leading scorer in UCLA history. Manute Bol’s passport said he was 5-foot-2, because the photo was taken while he was sitting down. Ron Anderson didn’t even play high school basketball. The list goes on and on.
The majority of books about the Sixers focus on Iverson or Dr. J, or the ’01 or ’83 championship team. The books play the same hits, and I get the appeal. I’m not naïve. Iverson is my favorite Sixer ever. But I didn’t have an interest in rehashing, say, the AI practice rant. I wanted to give the reader credit. There are stories in this book a Sixers fan may not know. There are others he or she haven’t relived in years. Either way, I wanted to tell them in a funny and entertaining way.
Did you set out to write a full-length book? Or did you start to jot stuff down and it sort of snowballed organically?
While writing my blog, someone asked me if I had a plan for these player essays and I joked, “Yeah, I’m gonna create a coffee table book.” But the idea always stuck with me. Like, what if…
That was over ten years ago. Charles Shackleford was the first essay I ever wrote, back sometime in ’08 or ’09. There are 76 chapters in the book. Each chapter is devoted to one former Sixer from the last 30 years.
Do you think that there’s something specific about the players who have passed through this particular franchise that makes the Sixers especially rife with these types? Could A Mavericks Odyssey exist just the same?
I’d love to read A Mavericks Odyssey! I hope he or she includes former Sixer legends Lucious Harris and Shawn Bradley. But to answer your question, I think a lot of bizarre things have happened to this franchise in the past 30 years. The Jeff Ruland Incident from 1992 is one of the most bonkers stories in NBA history, yet because it happened pre-social media, it’s barely a blip on the radar. Sixers coach John Lucas accused former lottery pick, Sharone Wright, of feigning injury to avoid playing against Shaq and David Robinson. Vernon Maxwell is Vernon Maxwell.
From a content perspective, I’m fortunate to be a Sixers fan.
From what I’ve read, you intersperse many chapters about different Sixers with anecdotes from your personal life. Was that something you learned to do while writing for LB, or did that evolve and develop as you were writing the book?
I brought that from my blogging days, but the LB editors always gave me the freedom to write outside the box. I never covered the team in a traditional sense. I’ve never been in the locker room or in the press box. I’m a fan, so why pigeonhole myself as something I’m not?
(As an aside, writing game previews was my least favorite part of the LB gig. “The game starts at 7. The thread will be up by 6:45. Sixers by a million.” What else do you need to know?)
I have a chapter about Willie Burton and his 53-point outing from 1994. I read articles written from the night and included quotes from that game. But I also have this vivid memory of me, a 10-year-old kid, watching Willie Burton go ballistic on his former team. Why not include that? I think, or my hope anyway, is that those personal memories will resonate with the audience. That someone will read that chapter and say to themselves, “Man, I remember watching that game with my mom,” or “I watched James Anderson drop 36 at Locust Rendezvous. What a crazy night.” Something like that.
Would you mind spoiling a small excerpt of the book for our readers?
Sure. This is the opening to my chapter on Greg Buckner.
The Six Years
Name: Greg Buckner
Sixers Tenure: 2002-2004
It appeared Buckner was the Sixers’ No. 1 priority this offseason as Brown and King wooed him from the beginning of free agency. (Moser 2002).
Greg Buckner is still on the books. There will come a point when Buckner’s deal transitions from albatross to trade chip, but we’re not there yet. Buckner was like a Blockbuster membership card. You haven’t rented a movie since 2004, but they’re still collecting late fees from your checking account. In a cabinet full of head-scratching and curious deals doled out by GM Billy King, Greg Buckner’s contract was perhaps the most puzzling. In July 2002, King and the Sixers inked Buckner to an astonishingly long six year (six!), $18 million dollar deal.
Giving Buckner six years? What was he, a senator? Buckner wasn’t an unknown. He had been in the league for three seasons and that’s what was so perplexing. If Buckner was a mystery, then the gamble may have been justified. If he was some guy tearing up the Serbian League, and the only grainy footage of him was locked in a safety deposit box owned by Fran Fraschilla, then ok. Let’s roll the dice on upside. Let’s get nuts. The Clemson product was fresh off a season where he averaged under six points per game. Certainly, there’s value in a defensive wing, but for a half a dozen years, you’d hope he comes with at least one made jumper a week. Six years was a long time to wait for a player to develop an offensive game. Six years was a long time by any measure.
Larry Brown’s fingerprints were all over the Buckner acquisition. Coach Brown ended up abandoning the Sixers for the Pistons job after Greg’s first year with the team. Not to play conspiracy theorist, but have we considered this was all part of Larry Brown’s strategy? Hamstring the Sixers with all these bad contracts and mediocre players, and then jump ship to an Eastern Conference rival? This was an inside job. I’m not accusing anyone of anything. Actually, I am accusing someone of something. Larry Brown enjoyed a cake walk to the Finals, while Sixers fans were stuck contributing to a GoFundMe to hire Buzz Braman to fix Buckner’s jump shot.
Early on, Buckner had an impressive five steal performance against the Cavs, which made fans briefly forget there were still five years and eleven months on his contract. He was ok in year one, but the limitations on the other end of the court were glaring. To justify playing a wing who brought so little offensively, they need to basically be Marty Brodeur on the other end. Buckner only shot 27% from behind the arc for the Sixers, so I’m thinking that GoFundMe that I contributed to never got off the ground.
If you could share any meal with any three Sixers from your book, which meal and which Sixers would you choose? How would they get along?
Vernon Maxwell has the best Twitter feed in the game, so definitely him. Probably Todd MacCulloch because I’m fascinated by the Professional Pinball Circuit. Then probably Tony Wroten. Maybe there are a few Team WHOP B-sides he could play for us between courses.
We’d get along great and eat scrapple and wuder ice until our hearts and bellies were content.
My immense thanks to Dave for taking the time to revisit his old stomping grounds, tell us about the book and even share with us an exclusive excerpt. His book is a must-have for anyone who’s spent a lifetime being obsessed with the Sixers. Below are some links to buy.