I am not a 76ers fan. Or at least, I had never actually described myself as one. I've followed the team very closely, committing hours to speculation over draft picks and potential trades, and writing multiple (very long) posts about team-building strategies. I know the quirks of the current iteration well, and understand all of the inside jokes based around the 2014-15 season. I have favorite players and least favorite players. But I've always been scared to self-identify as a "fan." Something about that word seems fraught with gravity.
I grew up in New England, about three hours northwest of Boston. My father was an army brat with no lasting allegiance to any single team, and, while he instilled a love of sports in me that has stayed with me all my life, he never stressed the importance of which teams I should also love. While two of the Boston teams were ending long championship droughts, the Celtics had a team of unlikable stars playing awful basketball, and, as a child most interested in winning (or at least entertainment), I never pledged fealty.
At the same time, I was reading columns like these, hearing about the importance of remaining loyal to your team no matter what, and seeing fair weather fans slandered in every medium that existed. There were rules to being a fan, I was told, and they were important. Failure to comply would lead to ridicule, and that meant that I was never going to be a "real" fan.
So I became a basketball nomad. I followed the sport consistently, cheering for players and teams that seemed likable, but never committing to a team. When Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen helped the Celtics hoist banner 17, I rooted for the team, but refused to identify as a fan. After all, I had laughed at the team during the lean times, so how could I justify supporting them in the good times?
Which brings me to the Sixers. I moved to Philadelphia after graduating from college last spring, and was very excited to have a real, live basketball team in the very city in which I lived after never being closer than two hours away from the Boston or New York teams for 22 years. I find the rebuild to be exciting, exhilarating, and trailblazing. Embiid is one of the most entertaining personalities and most talented players to come into the NBA in the last half-decade. And the organization is thoroughly on the same page, taking the right approach to almost everything. If I were ever to "get hitched" to an NBA team, this was the one.
But I was still tentative when it came to calling myself a fan.
The 76ers' fan base is rife with more issues than the average base is. Not only do I lack the common history of the last fifteen years, but there are all kinds of ruptures and arguments that frequently break out throughout the fan base.
Should I root for wins or losses? Does rooting against the Sixers make me less of a fan? If you stop paying attention during these few years of awful play, can you jump back on the wagon if the team starts to challenge for championships in a few years?
There's so much disagreement about the "correct" way of supporting the team, that given my lacking credentials, it would be folly to claim fandom of the Sixers. All of this has gotten me to think about fandom on the whole, and why we follow sports in the first place.
For the majority of the world-- that portion that does not earn money through participation in the industry-- the main motivation for viewership is enjoyment. That means that fandom, at its core, is an inherently personal, internal process. Enjoyment can be gleaned in many manners, but what matters most is that only one person can fully understand their own experience. Every single supporter will be informed through slightly differing preferences, histories, motivations, and understandings. And that's okay. Diversity is a part of the human condition; recognizing its existence and its merit is one of the many things that sets us apart as a species.
There are factions who will continue to support their teams through all conditions, because they feel it is akin to a civic duty to do so.
There are factions who will continue to support their teams through the worst conditions, knowing that the good times will feel sweeter for having done so.
There are factions who care most about individual players while feeling no true attachment to the team as a whole.
There are factions who will only pay attention when their teams are threats to qualify for the playoffs.
And there are so many more groupings that could never account for all of the idiosyncrasies innate in understanding how a person connects to a non-entity like a sports team. And if each person feels that his particular brand of fandom is how he is best able to enjoy the experience (she's, too, ladies, I just wanted to be grammatically consistent), then who are we to begrudge him that personal fulfillment? We're all aiming to attain the same sensation, we just take separate paths to get there. In that sense, we should work to be more accepting of those who differ from ourselves, just as we should in all areas of life.
If you're willing to take that step with me, then I'm willing to call myself a Sixers fan. I never particularly liked Allen Iverson. I recently had to look up where the team finished each year since 2001 to better understand how this city feels about the team. I couldn't name more than two players from the 1998 team. But I'm on board now, and I'm here to stay.