The Ballad of a Disillusioned Fan
So far, I’ve submitted 64 posts to this blog. Not a single one has been about the NBA. I don’t even remember the last time I wrote about basketball in general. Probably because it’s never happened. Is that because I hate the sport? Nope. I just don’t really care enough. It’s weird, 10 years ago you couldn’t have found a bigger 76ers fan than the 13-year old me. That ‘00-01 Sixers team, led by the spellbinding Allen Iverson in his MVP season, was one of the most exciting Philly sports squads I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. It was also the culmination of my 76ers/NBA fandom. You have to understand something before I go any further: My experience as a basketball fan started with the likes of Shawn Bradley, Clarence Witherspoon, Derrick Coleman, Sharone Wright, and Rex fucking Walters. Back in the mid-’90s, when the Sixers were the laughing stock of the league, I still watched nearly every game. These were the days that predated Comcast Sports Net, when PRISM was the local cable station that covered Philly sports and dial-up modems spawned the beginning of cyber space (wow, I feel old). I even remember sitting in front of the TV in my parents’ bedroom and watching Vernon Maxwell drop 41 and 38 in successive games against the Nets and Hawks (the second of which occurred in thrilling fashion, as the Sixers overcame a double-digit deficit and won, 100-99. Thank you, basketball-reference.com). I had just celebrated my eighth birthday a few days prior. That was near the end of the ‘95-96 season, when the city was more interested in a local high school phenom named Kobe Bryant than a Sixers team that had completed another shit sandwich of a season by going 18-64. That record, however, ensured the floundering franchise would earn the right to transform itself by selecting Allen Iverson first overall in the upcoming draft.
At this time, the high-flying Jerry Stackhouse (one of the more underrated surnames in NBA history, by the way) served as the Sixers’ “star” player and provided a modicum of excitement. And, yes, he also provided us with this timeless highlight, which is one of the more unbelievably awesome dunks you’ll ever see (and tells you everything you need to know about Dick Vitale). Unfortunately, throwing down insane dunks was pretty much the only aspect of the game at which Stackhouse excelled early in his career. He wasn’t going to lead a team to the playoffs, much less an NBA championship. Once Iverson was added to the mix, fans could count on seeing a few acrobatic alley-oops and breathtaking street ball moves each game, even if they couldn’t be treated to winning basketball. So at least there was that. Besides, I was an impressionable kid who just wanted to be entertained. Losing all the time sucked, but it didn’t really pain me because I knew nothing else. Truthfully, the only team to which I felt an emotional connection at that point in my life was the perennially competitive Flyers (I remember being devastated when those Lindros-led squads lost in the ‘95 and ‘96 playoffs to the Devils and Panthers, respectively, before suffering a humiliating four-game sweep in the ‘97 Stanley Cup Finals against the Red Wings). Watching Iverson play was special, though, and it wasn’t before long that everybody in the city could see the Sixers were a team on the upswing. Listed at 6-0 and 165 pounds, he was closer to 5-10 and 160, but that didn’t stop the diminutive warrior from playing with reckless abandon and penetrating the lane at will, punishing contact be damned. A player with that kind of body type just shouldn’t have been able to do the things Iverson did, let alone pick himself up off the floor every time he got knocked down. In Philadelphia, that kind of effort is both respected and revered more than anything. The fans loved him, and he loved them back. I was one of those fans, but never did I put Iverson above the team as a whole — I was always going to root for the name on the front of the jersey before the one on the back.
Maybe it’s because I played basketball the most growing up, I don’t know. Either way, there was a time when I was legitimately infatuated with the sport. Now, in the “About Me” section, I don’t even list the Sixers as being a team for which I root. That isn’t to say I don’t care about them at all, but to put them in the same category as the Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers would just be a blatant lie. But there was a time when I felt that way about the Sixers. I can’t pinpoint exactly when my disillusionment began to take form, but it was sometime during the ‘02-03 and ‘03-04 seasons. Not so coincidentally, that’s about the time when the exuberant and omnipresent Pat Croce gave up his post as president of the team. His energy and visibility were replaced by the incompetence of long-time general manager Billy King, who specialized in horrendous cap (mis)management and had a terrifying penchant for dispensing obscenely lucrative contracts to pedestrian players (see: Dalembert, Samuel). In fact, his fiscal idiocy and irresponsibility are part of the myriad reasons the league appears destined for an ugly, prolonged lockout. The Sixers, as a franchise, were headed for disaster, and everybody knew it, too.
It took me some time to understand why my interest in the sport was waning at such a rapid rate, but I finally realized it was because I was watching the Philadelphia Iversons and not the Philadelphia 76ers. My team had become a microcosm of the modern NBA, and that wasn’t a good thing. I despised the individualistic and selfish nature of the league and just couldn’t stand the ubiquitous look-at-me shit. Everything about the sport had became predictable, stale, and lame. The Sixers ran literally one play, which was give Iverson the ball and everybody else get the fuck out of the way. Part of that philosophy was to appease his need to hoist more than 25 shots per game in order to be effective, but it was also a function of not having a legitimately worthy talent to complement him. The Dikembe Mutombo, Glenn Robinson, and Chris Weber experiments failed spectacularly,* and it became increasingly obvious that Iverson’s effectiveness depended upon having an entire supporting cast solely geared toward taking care of every facet of the game unrelated to scoring points (that’s why the ‘00-01 team worked so perfectly; it also remains, for my money, the most misfitted collection of players to reach an NBA Finals). If I wanted to waste my time watching one player attempt to take on five, I’d tune in to the Harlem Globetrotter or And 1 Mixtape Tour. That’s not basketball, it’s a playground pickup game.
* Watching Mutombo attempt to guard Shaq in the Finals was like witnessing a slow-moving trainwreck; it was almost as bad as DeJuan Blair making Hasheem Thabeet his candy-ass bitch whenever the two squared off in college.
I can’t say whether I would’ve remained interested in the Sixers had the team’s star been someone like Jason Kidd or Steve Nash, but there’s no denying the chances would have increased exponentially. Call me crazy, but I’ve always appreciated the art of passing more than the sexiness of scoring. In that capacity, I saw the NBA deteriorating before my very eyes. An overwhelming percentage of players could not shoot or pass, and the low scores that everyone wanted to attribute to improved defense were merely the result of individuals forsaking fundamentals in the name of fancy dribbling and flashy dunks. Players preferred to go one-on-one (and get all the resulting accolades) than be part of a team concept. To put it succinctly, the product on the court sucked. Believe me, I’m a hockey fan, so I know what it looks like when the quality of a sport goes in the toilet.
I remember praying the Sixers would trade back into the first round in 2004 after selecting Iguodala ninth overall; the Denver Nuggets had the 20th pick and were intent on trading it (for a future first round pick). The player I wanted the Sixers to draft? Jameer Nelson, who had just led a once-in-a-lifetime Saint Joseph’s team to an undefeated regular season, #1 ranking in the polls (and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament), and the cusp of a Final Four. It was a sports story unlike anything the city had seen before. The Sixers, on the other hand, were never a factor that season, as they went 33-49 the year following Larry Brown’s departure for Detroit (that’s the move that ultimately killed the franchise) and fired his successor as coach after 52 games. Make no mistake, Philadelphia’s basketball team in 2004 was the Saint Joseph’s Hawks. Nelson was even born and raised in Chester, which made him a native son to the Philly area. It just made so much sense to take him and revive interest in the team, which was clearly in the midst of the beginning of the end of the Iverson era. Anybody who knew anything about basketball could see Nelson was a special player and would succeed in the NBA. Who cares that he went to a small school like St. Joe’s, or that he and Iverson would form a backcourt consisting of two players barely pushing 6’ in height? If anything, the fact that Nelson elevated that Hawks team the way he did was perhaps the most convincing testament to his talents. The day the Sixers passed on the opportunity to draft Jameer Nelson was a particularly disheartening moment in my fan experience.
One day a switch flipped, and I stopped caring. It was not something I could really explain with any conviction, but rather one of those revelations that just happened. And with that, the Sixers seceded from my pantheon of beloved professional sports teams and faded into irrelevance. By the time Iverson and the franchise finalized their divorce toward the end of 2006, it was nothing more than a footnote on my sports news wire. Conversely, at the same time I was still closely following the Flyers even as they slogged through the most abysmal season in team history (which has henceforth been dubbed “The Season That Shall Not Be Named”). The Eagles had risen from the ashes after losing Donovan McNabb to a torn ACL and were in the midst of the brief, yet exhilarating, Jeff Garcia era. The Phillies had narrowly missed out on the playoffs but were clearly a team on the verge of achieving great things. The Sixers? Meh, whatever. I mean, would you watch a team that boasted Andre Iguodala as its main attraction (no offense, Dre)?
There were fleeting moments of excitement in the post-Iverson period when Andre Miller (who was part of the Iverson-to-Denver trade) helped the Sixers established an identity as an athletic, fast-break team that was fun to watch but ultimately couldn’t hang with the big boys come playoff time. Still, I treated them like so many of my friends treat hockey: with nothing but a slight passing interest. I watched when the Sixers were in the playoffs, but really never any other time. I’d check stats here and there, but I didn’t keep up with any semblance of regularity. I also wasn’t alone in my apathy. Sensing this widespread indifference within the fan base, general manager Ed Stefanski, who replaced Billy King in December 2007, attempted to rekindle interest and made his major splash by signing Elton Brand to a multi-year contract. The hope was that Brand could be the focal point of a half-court attack to complement the team’s run-and-gun style. In short, the decision immediately backfired, as the team struggled to adapt and Brand eventually suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Within six months, Mo Cheeks had been fired as head coach, and Brand’s contract turned into an albatross regarded as one of the worst in the entire league. The Sixers were once again relegated to NBA doldrum dweller status.
There’s something you should know about Philadelphia. Despite its warranted reputation as a sports-crazed inferno of insane passion and intense pressure that has a tendency to cannibalize those athletes who can’t handle the expectations, it harbors a dirty little secret the natives don’t like to acknowledge: This is a city that is lukewarm and fickle about pro basketball. Once the Iverson era ended, so too did the interest in the 76ers. The franchise no longer had an identity and universally lost its appeal. If anything, Philly has always been more of a college basketball town, with Villanova and Temple running the show (and St. Joe’s back in ‘03-04). In terms of fan devotion, the Sixers are very much on the bottom of the sports totem pole. The Eagles and Phillies will always reign supreme, while the Flyers possess a rabid and unwaveringly loyal cult following deeper than it is wide. The Sixers certainly have a core following, but it’s the quintessential bandwagon team. Since the dissolution of the Iverson era, the majority of Sixers fans have shown their true colors. This city was obsessed with Allen Iverson, not the 76ers. There’s really no two ways about it. Only now is the franchise beginning to emerge from a dark era of obscurity and abandonment — for the better part of the last seven years, you couldn’t give Sixers tickets away, and the barely half-filled arena resembled a graveyard most nights (which is putting it nicely). Sure, once the team starts winning regularly people will come out of the woodwork and pack the stands, but they’ll slink right back into hiding whenever things go in the tank again. Even Tuesday night’s game against one of the league’s elite teams in the Dallas Mavericks — after the Sixers had just climbed above .500 — drew a sparse, relatively uninterested crowd (13,509 was the official attendance). Sixers fans, by and large, are front runners, and I apologize to the select few who are die-hard for including them in such a sweeping generalization. Then again, the truth hurts.
All this brings me to my next point: Slowly but surely, the Philadelphia 76ers are doing their best Lazarus impersonation and reentering the city’s sports landscape. The man responsible for this revival? Doug Collins, who should be the leading candidate for Coach of the Year honors. He was selected by the 76ers first overall in the 1973 draft and spent his entire eight-year career with the team, so it’s only fitting he’s the one bringing this franchise back from the dead. And you know how he’s doing it? Defense. Tough, blue-collar defense. Say what you want, the man knows the way into the hearts of Philadelphians. The ‘00-01 Sixers team that captivated the city was predicated on defense, as was the hallmark of their coach at the time, Larry Brown. Doug Collins has brought it back, and every single player is buying in. When he arrived, Collins was handed a roster stocked with Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala, and a bunch of young, highly athletic guys still trying to find their way as NBA players. The team lacked both an identity and foundation for success. Collins’ first point of emphasis was changing the culture, and he was going to make his new troops earn everything they got — work hard on defense and get the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labor at the other end. There was an adjustment period as Collins figured out what kind of rotations he wanted to use, but the team is firing on all cylinders now. They’ve gone 27-17 after a dreadful 3-13 start (30-30 overall) and are a game and a half behind the Knicks for sixth in the East. Not bad for a coach whose hiring a majority of “fans” met with scorn.
The players are starting to find themselves, too. Jrue “Tha Damaja” Holiday, at the age of 20, looks more and more like the next coming of Gary Payton (copyright Shimmy Raben) with each passing game. Not only does he have the same body type as The Glove (6-4 and 180 pounds), he’s also a tenacious defender who uses his length to his advantage to get his hands in passing lanes. Now that Holiday is starting to figure things out on offense, I see no reason why he won’t soon develop into one of the league’s better young point guards (this is the part where I should tell you that I wanted the Sixers to take Ty Lawson in that draft instead of Holiday — hopefully I was wrong). Perhaps relieved that he’s no longer asked to be the star he never was, Andre Iguodala — who at one point earlier in the season seemed like a lock to get traded — seems content embracing his integral place on the team as an athletic wing, lockdown defender, and all-around stat sheet stuffer. The Sixers sport five players averaging double figures in points on the season (the even distribution of scoring makes it feel like you’re watching a college team, which actually enhances the appeal for me), which allows Iguodala to thrive as a 14/6/6 guy who matches up on defense against the opposition’s best scorer. Even Elton Brand, far from the 20-and-10 player he once was in his prime (and was signed here to be), has figured out his place as the elder statesman and calming influence, while leading the team in both points (15.3) and rebounds (8.8). Lou Williams is a poor man’s Allen Iverson off the bench and averages 14 points in 24 minutes per game. He’s the kind of player who can get scorching hot at a moment’s notice and go on ferocious scoring tears. Thaddeus Young, still only 22, has Iguodala’s freakish athleticism and, like Williams, can fill up the hoop in a hurry (on 55% shooting, which is most impressive). Jodie Meeks had a few moments in the sun earlier in the season but has now settled into his role as a bench scorer and three-point shooting specialist. Spencer Hawes, more than just the token white guy, is actually the center on the Sixers’ best lineup combination. And last, but certainly not least, is Evan Turner, who epitomizes the growing pains that the entire team went through over the season’s first two months. He has the talent to be a useful player at the NBA level and is currently an important contributor off the bench. Remember, it took a year for Turner to settle in and find his way at Ohio State before taking off as a player, so let’s hold off on judging him until we see how he plays next season. He needs to learn how to adapt his game as a jack of all trades to the pros.
Again, just because I don’t care all that much about the NBA, doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on. I still appreciate basketball and can talk about the game if the situation calls for it. After all, I watch SportsCenter daily and have ESPN.com as my homepage, so I check in on the Sixers at least a few times each week. I’ll even watch for a bit (and I mean just a bit) if they’re on TV in my area — which is basically never — and I have nothing better to do; whereas I make a concentrated effort to watch each Flyers game, even if I have to resort to choppy live video streams on the Internet. Believe me, I want to like watching pro basketball because I’ve always immensely enjoyed the college game. For the first time in a long while, this Sixers team is giving me a reason to tune in again — just in time for the owners and players to go into a contentious labor dispute that will shut the league down indefinitely. If the Sixers continue their current play, though, I’ll be watching the playoffs because this is the kind of team that can give one of the East’s top seeds some trouble in a first round matchup.
Maybe I’ll end up caring about the Sixers again, maybe I won’t. Whatever happens, at least they got me thinking about it.