A tale as old as time? Hardly. But if Beauty and the Beast was a story about loving the true beauty on the inside, the tale of the Philadelphia 76ers fandom is a story about unconditional love despite the void of beauty throughout.
In 2003, Outkast blasted on the airways with a commercially successful song "Hey Ya". With an upbeat tune combined with the epic Ed Sullivan Show-esque music video in the era that was the peak of MTV’s TRL (aka the twilight of when the M in MTV actually stood for music), it became one of the most commercially and critically successful songs of the decade. At the same time, it was probably one of the most depressing songs that no one understood at the time. Behind a deceptively fun tune and lyrics like "shake it like a polaroid picture" is a tale of love loss in a relationship. Yet, the last image many remember of that song is a bunch of Andre 3000s singing and dancing. Misunderstood is a good word to describe that song and is a word that could describe another phenomena that happened between 2001 until now. No, I’m not talking about LOST or the cancellation that robbed us of Arrested Development for the past few years. Of course, I mean the Philadelphia 76ers.
Most don’t recall the Sixers after Larry Brown left, and I don’t blame them. It’s been a well written history marked by poor contracts, poor drafts, and poor performance. It’s been more than a decade since the Sixers had made it to the big dance and unfortunately history did not play out too well since then for all parties. To make a simple comparison, Andy Reid’s tenure with the Eagles started in 1999 and ended just this past year. In that same amount of time, the Sixers have employed 8 different coaches/interim coaches, some of which fans don’t even remember. Chris Ford probably doesn’t ring a bell in most heads and I bet more people remember Maurice Cheeks for his singing with the Trailblazers than his tenure with the Sixers. But, fandom is a fickle thing and when success is lacking, so is fan support.
So what keeps a Sixers fan coming back for more?
There are obvious designations and sub-genres when it comes to fandom. Even a die-comes in its own flavors and this is where the crux of the discussion occurs. Why exactly does one follow this team? And what are your expectations? More importantly, how do you derive your opinion of and for the team and its players?
Many in the Philly market have embraced the role of the underdog. They love the "hard workers" and the guys that "give it their all". To an extent, I understand that because we all want to root for someone or something that gives it their all. However, I want to draw a simple comparison between 3 players from 3 "different" teams. One player is still revered as a guy who gave it his all and left it all on the court. One player was wrongly disliked for most of his tenure due to mostly his contract. The last is a player that hasn’t even touched the court during his tenure. The first is Allen Iverson, the second is Andre Iguodala and the third is, obviously, Andrew Bynum.
No one will question how great of a scorer Iverson was nor any of the positives during those few years of Sixers contention (albeit in a terrible Eastern Conference). However, for some reason, people tend to look at his infamous "practice" rant as funny joke/instance of Iverson’s legacy rather than a glaring example of his greatest weakness and the reason for his eventual disappearance from the league. No one questioned Iverson’s iron will during games. However, there’s a reason why Iverson’s contemporaries are still playing today. They refined their games and adapted as they grew older. They practiced. And yet, because most fans only remember the (poorly built) team making playoff runs and the finals appearance, they will subconsciously give Iverson a pass instead of being critical of him for not being or becoming an evolving player. These same fans will crucify Andre Iguodala for not being a scorer like Allen Iverson despite the fact that Iguodala, in terms of overall skills and abilities as well as team play, is probably a better player. Likewise, they will question Andrew Bynum’s desire to play basketball despite the fact that they didn’t question Iverson’s desire to become a better player or evolve.
So what does this all mean? I asked before, "how do you derive your opinion for the team and its players?"
Winning in professional sports is the best panacea for struggles ("winning solves everything"). However, I’d say that winning is probably the biggest narcotic for fans, as well. It hides, numbs, and blinds us to inherent problems of a team or of a player. It’s the reason why the early 2000s team is still revered despite it being a pretty mediocre team. It’s the reason why Iverson is still beloved to the point of legend by many fans. The lack of it is the reason why Iguodala was disliked during his tenure and why EVERY little thing Bynum does is an annoyance to us all.
The lack of winning or success of the Sixers only compounds to the "championship starved city" narrative that plagues Philadelphia. The search for a "star" has been equally as difficult. The disconnect between fellow fans occur at this point because most feel that short term and long term success are mutually exclusive instead of symbiotic. This is also the reason why the ‘closing window’ metaphor exists as well. Ask a Spurs fan what that means, and you’d be hard pressed to find an answer, especially over the last decade.
To conclude, I don’t claim to be a superior fan, just an astute observer. Even that may not make sense because I enjoy Nick Young for the very same reasons I disliked Lou Williams. But irrationality is the core of fandom in the first place, especially being a Sixers fan. However, I do challenge true Sixers fans to root for the team and for it’s ultimate success (the NBA Championship). Watch enough basketball and you’ll realize that true success comes from a well built and talented team, inside and out, in addition to a legitimate star or two. So rooting for a team to lose in order for them to get better is not fostering a losing mentality but trying to build towards a more successful future. Likewise, rooting for low seeded playoff appearance or playing for pride is just imbibing that narcotic and masking problems for fleeting wins.
Winning is where the Philadelphia 76ers and fans find their misunderstanding and yet there’s no question it’s the shared goal of us all.
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