No matter the conditions, Eric Snow keeps the engine cool as the 76ers turn up the heat
Out of the corner of his eye, the veteran point guard saw it coming. With ball cradled in hand, he focused on the body hurtling his way. The point guard, trained to be ready for any circumstance on the floor, deftly countered, lifting his free hand to fend off whatever the other fellow could bring. It didn't matter that the Philadelphia 76ers' practice had already ended, and Eric Snow
was standing still for the first time in about two hours. The instincts he had learned so well were kicking in as the approaching man lunged ... and pushed his cell phone in Snow's face.
"You've got to help me," the frantic, out-of-breath man said. "It says my mailbox is full, and I don't know how to erase the messages. You helped set it up for me. You're the only one that can do it."
It's doubtful such a scenario exists in Coach Larry Brown's playbook, but Snow took control gracefully and decisively, just as a good point guard should, turning crisis into calm. After using his thumb to punch a few keys, the device bleated and beeped in protest, but the beast was soon silenced and the point guard had saved the day. Again.
Clearly, mastering a cell phone menu is a challenge Snow has already met and soundly defeated. And his ability as the man who sets the 76ers offense in motion is innately recognized by his peers and teammates.
Hadn't Snow averaged 12.2 points, 6.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds in his first 18 games of the season as the Sixers sailed to a 14-4 start? Didn't his season averages increase in each of his first four NBA seasons? And hadn't Brown referred to Snow as Philadelphia's most valuable player out of the gate? And wasn't it George Karl, Snow's former coach in Seattle, who called him "one of my favorite guys?"
"A lot of people underestimate this game," Snow said. "They think it's like going to the rec center and playing basketball once a week. It's not like that. I mean, you're playing against the best guys in the world, and if you have any kind of weakness or disability that you're struggling with, it takes a little more concentration and a little more patience."
VIDEO: As Snow goes, so goes the Philly offense:|
But Snow's most significant struggle this season had nothing to do with what he did on the court, and everything with what happened off it. On December 6, one day after playing 40 minutes in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Snow was diagnosed with a fractured right ankle that would require surgery, which was performed six days later. He missed 32 games and could only watch as the Sixers surged through the All-Star break and beyond with the league's best record. For a player who had always taken his health for granted, it was suddenly time for a reality check.
"It was tough," said Snow, who turned 28 on April 24. "I mean, it was the first time I had ever been out with an injury that long. It's tough watching and knowing that you see things that you can always help. You put in so much work during the summer and then you come in and miss two months, and it's like you're starting over again."
He fought the temptation to feel helpless and apart from what his teammates were building without him, instead focusing on the stellar start he had helped propel them to.
"We were 14-4 when I went down, and we still had the best record in the league," Snow said. "Remember, we started out 10-0. So I think that whatever I did has helped. If [feeling left out] were the case, then a guy who never played would never feel like a part of the team, so I didn't feel that way, and I don't think anybody on this team ever feels like that.
"It's difficult either way. It never goes perfect, and you always feel like you can help, and there were always situations where I felt I could make a difference. But I just tried to put in my work, and I'm still continuing to do that."
Snow became more acquainted with rehabilitation then he ever cared to. "Almost everything you could possibly do with an ankle," he said with more than a hint of fatigue in his voice. "Strengthening, mobility, all that stuff."
While the Sixers thrived even without Snow for nearly nine weeks, his return - one week before Philadelphia acquired Dikembe Mutombo
in a six-player trade with Atlanta - was cause for relief. Snow still wasn't 100 percent, but he strengthened the fiber of the team immediately. His airtight defensive play took pressure off Iverson
, who could concentrate more on his offensive freelancing, and at the same time ratcheted the effectiveness of the bench to another level, as able Aaron McKie
moved from the starter at point guard back to his familiar sixth man role.
"There are a lot of things that make Eric special," Brown said. "He's so competitive and such a team guy, he's got such good character, he's got toughness. Allen's [Iverson] said it a hundred times - he's so fortunate to play with a player like Eric, because Eric can guard anybody."
It's Snow's defensive pressure that the Sixers so desperately wanted back as they bore down for their best shot at an NBA title in a generation. Snow's presence at point guard is the defensive yin to Iverson's offensive yang.
Snow has flourished in the Sixers' system.
"He's so tough on the ball defensively," teammate George Lynch
said. "He gives the point guards a lot of problems trying to get into their offensive sets. And he's also a threat offensively, especially when he's penetrating and kicking."
If it weren't for circumstances, Snow might still be plying his trade in the great Northwest. Drafted out of Michigan State by the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the 1995 NBA Draft, he was summarily dealt to the Seattle SuperSonics, who thought very highly of him.
But the Sonics already had Gary Payton
at the point, which left little room for a youngster to gain valuable minutes. The club then had a chance to pick up veteran help at the same position, a strong priority given that Seattle had reached the NBA Finals in 1996 and wanted to make another run. So the Sonics signed Greg Anthony
as a free agent, shuffling Snow back again.
"We loved Eric a lot," said Karl, then the Sonics coach and now the coach in Milwaukee. "And what happened was the year we thought he would play, we had the opportunity to sign Greg Anthony, and that's when we decided to trade Eric."
Which Seattle did on January 18, 1998, with Snow going to the Sixers for a draft pick.
"Coach Karl had an All-Star point guard in Gary Payton, who wanted to play a lot of minutes, so it was kind of tough," Snow said. "I was a young guy and [Karl] had veterans, but I came in and worked and he encouraged me to keep working and stay positive, and I did that. I'm very thankful for him giving me the opportunity to be in this league, because he could have easily replaced me with anyone at that time."
For Snow, the change in scenery and systems was all he needed to flourish. His defensive skills immediately endeared him to Brown, who made him a starter before the 1998-99 season. Soon, the numbers and confidence began to grow.
"Anytime guys get to this level, everyone can play," Lynch said. "They've just got to find what team they fit in well with and how they're going to help the team, and I think Eric knows how he's going to make this team better, and he's accepted that role."
Eric Snow was referred to as Philadelphia's most valuable player out of the gate by Coach Larry Brown.
Said Karl: "I'm so happy for him because no one's worked harder, no one's been committed to being a pro like he has. He's just a wonderful person and a wonderful player. He's one of the best defensive players in the game, and he gives teams fits with his understanding how to help teams win."
Snow has also been recognized for other facets of his game, having won the 2000 NBA Sportsmanship Award, which honors a player who best represents the ideals of sportsmanship. Previous winners include Joe Dumars, whom the award's trophy is named for, along with Terrell Brandon
, Avery Johnson
and Hersey Hawkins
The $25,000 that came with the award was divided equally between Hartford Middle School in Canton, Ohio - Snow's alma mater - and Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia, the alma mater of McKie.
"It felt great," Snow said of the honor, which he received during the NBA Finals 2000. "It's a tribute to my family, to my wife and parents, and teammates and coaches. I'm very thankful people think of me in that light, that they believe I can make a difference and be a good model for younger kids."
Snow also gives back to the Philadelphia community through "Eric's Challenge," a program where he donates $10 to charity for every assist and steal he records.
"I can remember a conversation I had with Joe [Dumars] the last time playing against him," Snow recalled. "He pulled me over and said, 'You know, everything that I did in this league, you can do. You can be that type of guy.' I want to help give the kids any kind of motivation I can that can help them succeed. I just want to seize the great opportunity I have to be vocal and have kids look up to you and listen to you."
Without a doubt, whether it be questions from those in need regarding basketball, academics or life's lessons, Eric Snow is more than willing to lend an ear. And in some cases, a thumb.
BARRY RUBINSTEIN is a Hoop staff writer.