Pat Croce, suddenly a master of mindfulness, chooses to look neither forward nor back. While his life has largely been defined by nexts — the next body to reshape (when he was a fitness guru), the next 76ers’ game (when he was the team’s president) or the next business deal (when he was building a small empire in Florida) — he now lives in the moment, now savors every second.

His transformation, having begun some five years ago, was a matter of curiosity coalescing with serendipity (i.e., he was the rare soul who chose to read an in-flight magazine). But maybe it was also an inevitable product of aging, as he turns 65 on Nov. 2. Certainly there are those, like former NBA commissioner David Stern and former Sixers general manager John Nash, who are not the least bit surprised at Croce’s latest pivot.

As Stern pointed out to me in an interview last year, Croce never does anything halfway. And as Nash said, maybe this represents things coming full circle for a man who has always made physical fitness a priority — who has long been a patron of the martial arts and who remains enviably shredded.

“In most cases the mind is willing and the body is weak,” Nash said. “I think he’s backwards: The body is willing but the mind might have been weaker than he wanted. He’s doing it in reverse.”

Croce and his wife of 42 years, Diane, spend most of their time on a 53-acre spread outside Philadelphia called, interestingly, Meditation Hill; he jokes that while he just wanted to build a cabin in the woods, she held out for a chateau. He is no longer involved in the day-to-day operation of his business holdings, which encompass five bar-restaurants in Key West, four in St. Augustine and two museums in the latter town, including a pirate-themed place that serves as a nod to his long-held fascination with such swash-buckling characters.

His son and son-in-law are now overseeing those properties, leaving Pat free to roam about the landscape of his own mind. He said he arises every day by 4 a.m. and puts coffee on (a revelation: Pat Croce needs coffee?), then meditates and writes in his journal.

“I never did vulnerability before,” he told the crowd that gathered one night last week for a presentation at West Chester University, where he began his college career in 1972. (He spent two years there, then earned his degree in physical therapy from Pitt.)

Yet here he is. This new journey began, he said, shortly after his 60th birthday, when he read that magazine piece on mindfulness by respected author and essayist Pico Iyer, while flying to Florida.

“I saw a line in it that said most of our lives occurs in our heads — memory, imagination, speculation, interpretation,” Croce said. “And if you want to change your life, you best begin by changing your mind.”

That piqued his interest. He did more digging, more reading. Of particular interest was a 1998 book called The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Lama and psychiatrist Howard Cutler. And within seven months, Croce said, “A crack occurred in my mind and it just was like a shift of consciousness. The perception of the way I looked at the world changed.”

It’s not that he never looks back. In an interview shortly before last week’s presentation he happily recalled the early 1980s, when he served first as the Flyers’ strength and conditioning coach, then doubled up with the Sixers, while maintaining a string of exercise facilities in the Philadelphia area. Along the way he honed the physiques of such high-profile athletes as Bobby Clarke, Mike SchmidtJulius Erving and Charles Barkley.

“It was,” Croce said, “a wonderful time.”

The nexts kept coming, fast and furious. In 1996, he spearheaded a group that bought the Sixers from Harold Katz. And upon doing so, Croce recalled last week, he traveled to New York to “kiss the ring” of Stern in his office in Olympic Tower, on Fifth Avenue.

They spoke for an hour, and Croce, in the fashion of the pirates he so adores, sought a memento of the occasion. So he grabbed a clock, shaped like a miniature basketball, from Stern’s desk, with the promise that he would return it when the Sixers won a championship.

“I didn’t want to hurt his feelings,” Stern told me last year, “(and say) there were 300 in the closet.”

“I don’t want to hear that,” Croce said last week, while acknowledging that it was “probably true.” “But to me it still means if you were to reflect on memories, that clock was a wonderful memory.”

The Sixers came close to a title on Croce’s watch, losing to the Lakers in five games in the 2001 Finals, and the clock remains in his possession. Sits on a desk in a townhouse he and Diane own in Villanova, he said.

“The statute of limitations has run,” Stern joked, “so I’m not seeking to recover it.”

Croce moved on from the Sixers after that ‘00-01 season, and began devoting himself fully to his other business interests. Now he’s devoting himself to his inner self.

“Diane would always ask me, ‘What are you chasing?’” he said. “There is no ‘what’s next.’ ”

There’s only now. Only the moment.

“Everything else is an illusion,” he said.

And as he has learned, it’s best to come to grips with that, best to appreciate life in the present tense.

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