It can be said without fear of contradiction that the Allen Iverson Era reached its apex when The Answer stepped over Tyronn Lue in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals, the Sixers’ only victory over the Lakers in that series. It was AI’s lone trip to the championship round in his 14 NBA seasons — he would, in fact, only win one more playoff series during a decade-plus in Philadelphia — and represents the franchise’s last visit to such exalted heights.
Here’s the question, though, one that defines not only Iverson’s Sixers career but that of one of his top sidekicks, center Theo Ratliff: Great as that ‘00-01 season was, could it have been a little greater, had Ratliff not been injured, then traded?
Ratliff, now 50 and a New Rochelle, N.Y.-based businessman, sometimes wonders himself. Others have, too, as he said when contacted recently in his hometown of Demopolis, Ala., where he had traveled to run a youth basketball camp at his eponymous activities center.
“Every Philly person that I see always talks about the trade, no matter where I am,” he said. “No matter what country, what part of the world, if they know Philly, they bring that up. It was a constant reminder, even way back then.”
A little background: Ratliff, a 6-10, 225-pound gazelle, was leading the league in blocked shots when he was lost to a wrist injury in early February, leaving him unable to play in that year’s All-Star Game in Washington, D.C. — the only time in his 16-year career he was bestowed that honor. Then he was part of the package the Sixers sent to Atlanta for Dikembe Mutombo, a Hall of Fame-bound rim protector, on Feb. 22.
The Sixers were 36-14 with Ratliff in the lineup, 15-11 when Mutombo played, en route to an Eastern Conference-best 56-26 regular-season finish. And while no one was stopping Shaquille O’Neal in the Finals — not Mutombo, not Ratliff, not Colonel Mustard with the lead pipe — the great what-if concerns whether Ratliff could have at least drained some of the fuel from the Diesel’s gas tank by outrunning him up and down the floor.
One suspects it still wouldn’t have been enough to put the Sixers over the top, that a Lakers team also featuring the late Kobe Bryant would have prevailed anyway. But there is at least the possibility that the series would have been more competitive than the hum-drum five-game affair it turned out to be.
Ratliff said in the recent NBA TV documentary “Everything But The Chip” that Mutombo “didn’t fit the mold for what our team was.” Great as Mutombo was, he was more stationary, less apt to play at the break-neck pace that edition of the Sixers preferred.
“I always knew,” Ratliff said in our recent conversation, “that (trade) was something that would change the dynamics of the team.”
Larry Brown, a brilliant but quirky coach, nonetheless coveted Mutombo. Ratliff mentions in the doc the uneasy feeling he had when he saw the two of them huddle in the locker room after the All-Star Game, in which the East, sparked by Iverson’s MVP performance, rallied from 21 points down to win. But the way Ratliff remembers it, Brown had long had eyes for Deke.
“He always praised Dikembe — always,” Ratliff said. “He did it constantly. I knew that was one of his favorite guys.”
Ratliff was, however, a terrific fit on a team that played with unusual ferocity, with a fervor that bordered on the collegiate. Every game seemed to matter to the players. Every night represented a chance to compete and claw.
They had been building toward such a season from the time Brown became the coach in 1997. While he and Iverson frequently butted heads — something that was tirelessly explored in the doc — Brown built a lunchpail team around his star. Ratliff, for instance, came over from Detroit with Aaron McKie in a December 1997 trade for Jerry Stackhouse.
And in 2000-01, everything seemed to fall into place.
“We felt that this year was our year, that we could take that next step,” Ratliff said.
They won their first 10 games and kept rolling. But as detailed in the doc, Ratliff tripped over the leg of Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki on a defensive closeout during a Jan. 23 game and injured his right wrist when he braced himself for the resultant fall. He continued to play until Feb. 7, but it was finally determined that he would need surgery to repair a stress fracture of the right scaphoid bone, which is near the thumb.
Doctors said at the time that Ratliff would miss four to six weeks. But Brown clearly had other ideas, pulling the trigger on the deal that sent Ratliff (along with Toni Kukoc, Nazr Mohammed and Pepe Sanchez) to the Hawks for Mutombo and Roshown McLeod.
In our recent phone conversation, Ratliff said much the same thing he had said in the doc — that the deal was “a crushing blow” while adding, “I knew it would be hard for them to make that trade with me healthy. … Once I got hurt, it opened the door up. It just made it a lot easier.”
As it turned out, he didn’t play the rest of the season. He did keep in touch with his former Sixers teammates — he and Eric Snow were particularly close — and even attended some of the playoff games in Philadelphia.
“I didn’t just disappear,” Ratliff said.
Still, it was a tough time, one made that much more difficult by the fact that he missed most of the 2001-02 season with a hip injury. He leaned on his faith and those around him, but that only took him so far.
“You still have to go through and deal with it,” he said, “and then the constant, ‘Oh, they shouldn’t have traded you,’ and everything else that you deal with.”
He said he would have certainly benefited from the sort of mental-health services that have been readily available to NBA players since 2019, in the wake of revelations on the part of Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan that they were struggling with anxiety and depression, respectively.
“People don’t understand the effect of stress and everything,” Ratliff said. “Athletes, they make money and blah, blah, blah, but people don’t understand how stress affects guys. … I’m glad they focus more on it now, and guys are able to get treatment and get help and talk to people. Back then, that wasn’t really a thing to do.”
He turned the corner, leading the league in blocks in ‘02-03 and ‘03-04. In all he played for nine teams in his career, which ended in 2011. Now he involves himself in various entrepreneurial ventures, and allows himself to occasionally look back on his days with the Sixers.
“It was a fun time,” he said.
Coulda been even better.
“Things happen that you don’t have any control over,” he said. “You just have to roll with what it is, and keep on going.”
That’s not always easy to do, though. Not when you have a special team rallying around a special player. That’s where the what-ifs come in, where unanswerable questions arise.