Members of the Philadelphia 76ers raise the NBA championship trophy after winning in 1983. (Courtesy Ron Rabena)

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

At this time 40 years ago, the 76ers were in the midst of completing an unforgettable season. The Moses Malone- and Julius Erving-led squad crushed opponents to dust en route to an NBA championship and a place among the best teams in league history.

At this time 50 years ago, the Sixers’ season was over — though it should have been euthanized by January. The team won 9 out of 82 games, a total Sam Hinkie’s Sixers couldn’t even match during the peak nadir of “The Process.” It remains the fewest wins an NBA team has mustered in a full season.

Ron Rabena, now 63, was there for the best of times and the worst of times.

He was a ball boy for the ’73 squad and assistant equipment manager 10 years later. With the passing of beloved Sixers stalwarts such as stats king Harvey Pollack and colorful trainer Al Domenico, Rabena is believed to be the lone surviving alumnus of both teams.

“In my 22 years with the Sixers, I never had a bad day,” Rabena, who was born and raised and still lives in South Philly, told Billy Penn. 

Rabena, whose late father, Frank, was director of security for the Spectrum, became a Sixers ballboy in 1970. It led to a lifetime of memories. He showed off his new house to Erving, who drew the awe of Rabena’s neighbor. He played NERF basketball with Doug Collins’ son. He saw the Spectrum shake with excitement when the team took the court like gladiators. And he took in the city’s cheers during the Sixers’ championship parade in June 1983.

(Yes, Rabena has a championship ring. He wears it on special occasions.)

Atlanta Hawks Jim Washington (12) cuts between Philadelphia 76ers Hal Greer (15) and John Block (34) on his way to a basket in the first quarter of their game at Philadelphia, Jan. 17, 1973. Atlanta’s Pete Maravich (44) moves in to help Washington. (AP Photo/Brian Horton)

If any stretch challenged the gregarious Rabena’s mood, 1972-73 is a prime contender. The Sixers started the season with 15 straight losses. It didn’t get any better. After 41 games, the team’s record stood at an appalling 3-38, not a surprise since the Sixers’ unqualified first coach, Roy Rubin — “[in]over his head” is Rabena’s polite, on-the-record evaluation — landed the job by answering an ad in the Philly papers.

“It was like watching high school basketball,” Rabena recalled. “They tried, but they just didn’t have any talent. And teams, it was funny — they would show no mercy.” The Sixers, according to Basketball Reference, were outscored by an average of 12 points a game. The Spectrum was empty; in the locker room “negativity permeated the air,” he said. Wins, a precious commodity, were celebrated with a fervor reserved for returning war heroes.

“When we did win at home—oh my God, it was a celebration,” Rabena said.  

By the late 1970s, the Sixers were winning more than once a month. They had gone to the NBA Finals three times and left trophy-less. Led by Erving, a superlative scorer, the team featured future Hall of Famers Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones. Andrew Toney was a superstar-in-waiting. Adding Malone, then a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, gave the 76ers the dominant center it had long lacked. 

With the final piece in place, it all clicked.

Philadelphia 76ers Bobby Jones, left, embraces Julius Erving after 76ers defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in four straight games to win the NBA Championship, May 31, 1983. (AP Photo)

“The thing with the ‘83 team, to me, was they liked each other,” Rabena said. “They wanted to win. Winning was fun and winning was contagious. [In 1973] it was the opposite. Losing was contagious. It was like, ‘Let’s find another way to lose this game’ and ‘Let me dribble a ball off my knee and go out of bounds.’ ‘Let me throw the ball in the stands.’ It was like The Bad News Bears.”

Simply being around the 1983 team had a profound effect on Rabena. “They knew what they had to do,” he said. “There was a mission. They relied on teamwork.” There were no egos, but plenty of humility and selflessness. “I just watched it, and it helped me grow as an individual to go on with my career,” he added.

Rabena, now chief client officer for AlliedUniversal Security Services, keeps in touch with some members of the 1983 Sixers, which was honored at Wells Fargo Center in March.

Does he chat with anyone from the 1973 team?

“Are you out of your mind? No way.”