Inside the worst team in NBA history, the 1972-73 Sixers

The Philadelphia 76ers started the 1972-73 season by losing 21 of 23 games. They'd finish with the worst record in NBA history, 9-73. This is the story of what the team learned about themselves through turmoil. Bettmann/Getty Images

JOHN Q. TRAPP SAT on the bench, watching his Philadelphia 76ers get pummeled by 41 points. It was January 1973, and the team recently had suspended Trapp for missing practices. So the 6-foot-7 forward, who routinely agitated his teammates, just sat there during the second half, in his warmups, holding a large cup.

"Hey, want any of my Coke?" Trapp asked forward John Block.

"You don't want that cup," another teammate interjected. 

It was bourbon and Coke.

That was hardly the first time Trapp did something noticeably unusual during an NBA game, but his teammates were surprised. "A [totally] crazy thing," Block says now. "I played on seven teams. [I never experienced anything] even close to that."

Block turned down the drink, but 50 years later, no one is exactly sure what happened to Trapp. The former NBA champion seems to be lost to history. What isn't lost, however, is how awful the Sixers were that year. With a depleted roster and a head coach with no NBA experience, they lost more games than any other team in league history, finishing 9-73 -- still a record for an 82-game season.

Several teams have come close; five others have finished with at least 70 losses. But it was a modern Sixers team that came the closest, falling one game short in 2015-16. Those Sixers were part of "The Process" -- a purposeful multi-season effort to bottom out -- which helped them land Joel Embiid.

Five decades ago, the 1972-73 Sixers provide a clear lens through which we can see what it means to lose -- even though the feelings of grief or despair or frustration linger in the immediate, decades later, those emotions can still, oddly enough, bring teammates together. The Sixers, as bad as they were, proved there is some upside to losing that many games.

"Most of us were embarrassed," says Tom Van Arsdale, a swingman for the 1972-73 Sixers. "We're all in the same boat. So, what did we do? We stuck together."

IN 2021, VAN ARSDALE WROTE a book titled "Journey Man" about his 12 seasons in the NBA. He played for six teams and remains an all-time leader in many categories for a player who never made a postseason appearance, including 929 games played.

On the day the Sixers' record fell to 4-48, they traded for Van Arsdale, a three-time All-Star. In his book, he compared the team to a car that was a "burnt, faded, broken-down used lemon with the sticker price so low it was almost offensive." But he felt pleasantly surprised about the state of the locker room; it was one of the most unified and spirited groups of his professional life.

"Individuals know that they're losing," says Brad Donohue, a psychology professor at UNLV, "and many of those factors of why they're losing may be outside of their control. However, the bond is over the effort."

Nearly two years ago, Van Arsdale called Fred Carter, who was the leading scorer on the 1972-73 Sixers. They were half a lifetime removed from their playing days and didn't talk much about basketball, but they did talk about how they navigated those times together. Carter remembers hiding the Sixers logo on his duffel bag as he walked through airports to avoid embarrassment. But on that phone call, they mainly talked about getting each other through those times.

"We thanked each other for being good friends," Carter says. 

HOW MANY PROFESSIONAL sports teams have used a newspaper's help-wanted ads to search for a head coach?

That's exactly what the Sixers did in 1972. They bought space in the Philadelphia Inquirer with the hope of finding a replacement for Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay. A stockbroker named Jules Love eventually responded, suggesting the team hire Roy Rubin, a coach at Long Island University, according to The New York Times. 

"He wasn't kind of in over his head," Carter says now. "He was in over his head. With all due respect to Roy, he was offered a job he couldn't handle. But he couldn't turn it down either." 

At one practice, Rubin suggested the team run full-court, one-on-one games for 48 minutes straight, and that would be all they needed to be ready for the season. "If you do that, you'll be OK," Rubin said, according to Dennis Awtrey, who briefly played for the Sixers.

"Coach Rubin, he was a nice guy, but he really, really had a hard time coaching," says Block, who played forward and center for the Sixers.

It was emblematic of a slow decline. The franchise -- as the 76ers and as the Syracuse Nationals before them -- had made the playoffs in every year of its existence until 1971-72.

They won a championship in 1967, winning a then-record 68 games. But in July 1968, the Sixers traded Wilt Chamberlain to the Los Angeles Lakers. The reasoning was debated, but there was reportedly a conflict between Chamberlain and Sixers owner Irving Kosloff, whose co-owner, Isaac "Ike" Richman, had died in 1965. Richman was Chamberlain's lawyer, close friend and reportedly offered Chamberlain an ownership stake in the Sixers -- a verbal agreement that Kosloff did not honor.

By September 1969, Chet Walker, a future Hall of Fame small forward, was traded to the Chicago Bulls. And Billy Cunningham, another Hall of Fame forward, jumped to the ABA after the 1971-72 season. A court ruling kept him in the ABA despite a contract dispute that the Sixers fought.

Before the 1972-73 season was officially underway, the Sixers went 3-1 in the preseason. They pulled out a win against the Celtics, who went to the Eastern Conference finals in the prior season. The results of NBA preseason games, used for conditioning and camaraderie, are almost irrelevant.

Not to Rubin, who came bursting into the locker room after the game. "'See, I told you we were going to be good,'" Carter remembers Rubin saying. "'We can beat the Boston Celtics.' He never thought about the Celtics playing their third team against us in the preseason game."

Carter and Kevin Loughery, still friends now, looked at each other and smirked. They knew they were in trouble.

"We were in for a long [season]," Carter says now.

THE SIXERS FINALLY won their first game about a month into the season, snapping a 15-game losing streak. They defeated the Houston Rockets by two points, and Rubin was so excited that he leaped off the bench to celebrate -- apparently severely injuring himself. His teammates had to carry him off the court.

Block says Rubin tore his hamstring and fell hard to the ground: "[He] just crumpled to the floor because he was so excited to win his first NBA game."

Rubin would win only three more games ... ever.

Block who scored a team-high 31 points, celebrated the win, but he was puzzled. He couldn't understand why the coaches weren't playing guard Hal Greer, the future Hall of Famer. That year was Greer's last. He wasn't the player he once was but only played 38 games, averaging a career-low 5.6 points. "They totally ostracized Hal Greer," Block says. "They even told him that he was not going to play, and he could still play."

Block blames the organization. Even if it wasn't said out loud, the rest of his teammates understood what was happening.

"There was no competition, animosity, or anything," Block says. "We all knew that we were in this and that we were in a tough situation. We just tried to enjoy our time.

"There was no blaming each other for anything."

BEFORE TRAPP PLAYED for the worst team of all-time, he played for one of the best. The 1971-72 Lakers won a record 33 games in a row en route to a championship. Trapp went from playing alongside Chamberlain to struggling to stay on a team that spiraled after trading him in 1968.

Trapp had played limited minutes with the Lakers (13.1 per game) but he was effective on the court. His career per-36 minutes stats show he had averaged 15.1 points and 9.1 rebounds -- production the Sixers desperately needed.

According to Charley Rosen's book "Perfectly Awful," Philadelphia assistant coach Paul Lizzo warned the front office about trading for Trapp, saying he was "absolutely uncoachable."

Several written accounts claim Trapp once called in a fake bomb threat as a Laker so he wouldn't get fined for missing a team flight. But, according to Rosen's book, he hadn't been a problem in Los Angeles otherwise. So, the trade went through.

In his first game as a Sixer, Trapp played just five minutes and scored two points in a 13-point loss to the Kansas City-Omaha Kings. He checked in and was taken out about two minutes later. According to Rosen's account, when Rubin subbed him out, "Trapp shouted 'S---!' loud enough to be heard in the cheap seats."

Trapp eventually averaged 21 minutes a game. He scored a career-high 35 points against the Kings and later received praise from then-Celtics coach Tommy Heinsohn for his tough defense on Boston's star player, John Havlicek. Trapp's role for the Sixers was the same as it had been with other teams: a typical defense-and-rebounding forward who did all the dirty work. Neal Walk, a former NBA center, told Rosen that Trapp "had a scowl on the court, he always played with an edge, and he had no finesse whatsoever. ... He did whatever he had to do to stay in the league."

But Trapp's time with the Sixers was tumultuous. There was at least one instance, a week after he locked down Havlicek, when he didn't know who he was supposed to be guarding, according to Rosen's book. Trapp also fought hard over his suspension for missing practices, which led to tension with Rubin. And during one game, a friend of Trapp's flashed a gun from the stands when they thought he was being substituted out, according to several written accounts. Trapp stayed in the game.

"Trapp played with a chip on his shoulder, but the chip was too big," Carter says now.

The Sixers were an otherwise tight-knit group, with each player trying to slog through the season. So, Trapp's effect on the group was noticeable.

"I don't want to disparage him in any way, but he was just an unhappy soul and unhappy souls are sometimes difficult to be around. I'm saying that as nicely as I can because, if he's alive, he has children, and his children don't want to read or hear that," Carter says.

"I guess he was unhappy because of the situation he was in because it affects everybody differently."

One day in the second half of the season, the Sixers players climbed on the team bus, ready to continue their journey toward infamy. Loughery, who was the last person on the bus, had taken over as the team's head coach. Trapp, however, was absent.

"Guys, I've got some news for you," Loughery said. "I cut John Trapp. I let him go."

Everyone on the bus stood as one and clapped.

THE SIXERS FIRED Rubin in January 1973, and he never coached in the NBA again. They let him go nine days after the champion Miami Dolphins completed the NFL's only undefeated season. Rubin had gone 4-47.

Rubin eventually landed in South Florida, where he taught middle school and ran an IHOP franchise with his wife. 

Meanwhile, Loughery was in Chicago for the All-Star Game when he received a call at 1 a.m. from Don DeJardin, the team's GM. DeJardin asked Loughery to become the team's head coach -- even though he was still a player.

Loughery, surprised, accepted. He's still perplexed by the decision: "I really don't know exactly why they selected me."

Some believe Rubin simply lost the team. At a meeting before Christmas, the players decided they would follow Loughery instead of Rubin -- before Loughery was named head coach. The front office hired a scout to work alongside Loughery so the team could focus on rebuilding. "We didn't do a whole lot of practicing at that stage, and I had no idea who was playing in college because I didn't pay any attention to it whatsoever," Loughery says.

That's when the entire Sixers front office set its sights on one particular college player: Bill Walton. But they would need the star UCLA center to forgo his senior season if they wanted to draft him.

But for a moment, it seemed like the Sixers could turn the corner with Loughery as the head coach. They even defeated the same revered New York Knicks team -- with Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe -- that had throttled the Sixers by 48 points earlier that year. The Knicks would later win the NBA title, but that night belonged to the Sixers.

"It was like we won the world championship," Van Arsdale says.

The party didn't last long; the Sixers didn't win another game that season. That March, they won a coin toss for the first overall pick in the 1973 NBA draft. Six days later, Walton scored 44 points to help UCLA win another national championship. The star center wanted to stay in school for another year, but the Sixers were desperate and willing to "spend $2 million to change Walton's mind," according to The New York Times. An ABA team also reportedly offered him a spot, with partial ownership as a caveat. Walton turned it all down.

"I was not interested in going to Philadelphia," Walton told the Philadelphia Inquirer last month, saying he would have chosen the ABA over that Sixers team. "I had zero interest in leaving UCLA early. Zero."

So, the Sixers moved forward. Racking up losses with no hope for the future.

"I didn't see any problem with [pointing fingers] at all," Loughery says now. "I really didn't and the thing about a bad team is when you play your best game, you can't play any better. Every team has nights where they play their best game, and you can't win.  

"That's when the players know." 

THE SIXERS WERE willing to do just about anything to get fans in the arena.

Andy Dolich, who was promoted from an intern in the ticket department to the front office, had a front-row seat as the team found ways to get fans -- any fans -- to come to games. In many ways, it was a precursor to modern-day promotions and in-game entertainment in professional sports.

As Dolich remembered it, Dave Zinkoff, the team's legendary announcer, gave out kosher salamis to fans pulled from the crowd if they could make free throws. There was Yo-Yo Night. Karate exhibitions. Drum corps. A uniform promotion with shirts that all arrived in kids' smalls.

At one point, there were no expectations that the team could win more games. Carter, the team's only offensive threat, was told to let it fly because no one else could score.

Even the notoriously vicious Philadelphia fans were in on the joke. Van Arsdale said he could say only good things about them, even as he took the floor feeling embarrassed that the Sixers couldn't win. Carter said they were more disappointed than anything, paper bags on their heads like ski masks. 

"Everybody knew that as a team we weren't good enough," Carter says. "Some things are meant to be -- 1973 was meant to be, and it's going to last forever."

The players weren't the only ones who bonded over this shared experience, no matter how ridiculous it was. Dolich remembered an evening in Pittsburgh, where the Sixers played some of their home games that season. There were at least four members of the organization stuffed into a station wagon, which slid off an icy road. A police officer, Dolich said, approached the fender bender and caught a glimpse of the Sixers' gear inside.

"Oh, God," the officer said, "You can't drive on the court, and you can't drive on the damn road."

DECADES AFTER DRINKING bourbon on the bench, John Q. Trapp is nowhere to be found.

Block says he heard that Trapp had worked security at a Las Vegas casino. It was a job Trapp got through Jerry Tarkanian, who won an NCAA title at UNLV in 1990. Block says Trapp, while a casino employee, had died of a heart attack. But he can't recall who told him that.

An email response from Pasadena City College, where Tarkanian coached Trapp, turns up more questions than answers.

"I'm almost positive he died," writes Robert Lewis, the school's sports information director. "For whatever reason, it's become a mystery on the internet."

The Sixers were Trapp's last NBA team. He finished his career with the ABA's Denver Rockets. His last professional game was a playoff loss to the Indiana Pacers on April 7, 1973. He scored four points before fading into oblivion.

"I think [Trapp] passed away," Carter says. "Did he?"

A public records search for Trapp shows no known relatives and a most recent address, in Detroit, registered in 1995. No date of death can be found.

The National Basketball Retired Players Association said it didn't have any information on him in its database. The Sixers' director of alumni relations didn't know, either. The Lakers didn't respond to inquiries. Trapp attended five colleges: Pasadena City College, Voorhees University, UNLV, Mt. San Jacinto and Riverside City College. A spokesperson at Voorhees couldn't locate him, and Andy Grossman, from UNLV's athletic department, says that a database kept by the men's basketball office shows that Trapp is deceased. "But I spoke to a person who manages that," Grossman emails, "and she isn't sure how accurate that is."

Lewis, the spokesperson at Pasadena, says there's someone who might know. His name is Skip Robinson, a classmate of Trapp's at Pasadena. Robinson later became a coach and athletic director at the school, retiring in 2010. 

"John passed away years, years, years ago," Robinson says. "His brother George told me." George Trapp, who played six seasons in the NBA, died in 2002 after getting stabbed in the stomach by his roommate, according to his obituary. Robinson thinks he last saw Trapp in 1968.

All these years removed, Robinson calls Trapp a good, upstanding guy. "I can't say anything negative about him," he says. That stands in contrast to Trapp being described by several teammates as tough to be around that season.

"That's the part about John I didn't know," Robinson says, "because when he was at Pasadena, we won."