In the stands at Wells Fargo Center last night, I got ready for player intros like I always do: screaming “SUCKS” after every opposing starter is named and cheering after every Sixers starter was named. The “SUCKS” part is hit-or-miss depending on who the Sixers are playing and what day of the week it is and whether they have a true villain on their squad. When Blazers guard Damian Lillard was introduced, there wasn't a “SUCKS” to be heard in the arena. Lillard received an applause as if he was starting at guard for the Sixers.
The fanfare for Lillard didn’t stop there. When Lillard went to the free throw line during the game, a massive “WE WANT LILLARD” with the included claps rang out. It wasn’t just a small section of the arena or a group of heavily lubricated fans, it felt like the entire crowd was in on it.
I’ve never seen anything like that at a Sixers game before.
Lillard, obviously, is a dream trade target for the Sixers as the Ben Simmons saga rolls on. A Simmons-for-Lillard swap feels fairly unrealistic at this point in time, but, hey, I’m not here to stop fans’ imaginations from running wild. What I might try to stop is cheering for opposing players. It was strange to hear that. I personally didn’t take part, nor did I make a scene because other fans were doing so. I was left with some weird, mixed feelings about the whole ordeal. It’s been a divisive topic on Twitter and sports talk radio today. It’s worth getting into.
Lillard certainly isn’t the first player Philadelphia sports fans have courted.
Phillies fans spent nearly a decade laying the groundwork to have all-time great Mike Trout come play for his “hometown” team (worth noting: Trout’s actual hometown is an hour away from Citizens Bank Park and in an entirely different state). This dude got more free footballs after Eagles touchdowns than a five-year-old kid. Given that he was a guy who seemed more interested in being an Eagles and Sixers superfan than being the most talented baseball player to ever live, it felt like a formality that Trout would end up in red pinstripes.
Well, Trout signed a monster 12-year contract extension with the Angels in 2019. The picturesque scene of Trout manning the outfield in South Philly on a balmy summer night went away.
Everyone was cool with that. I was leading the train! That felt fine to most people, but the Lillard situation clearly hits differently and does so for me specifically.
There’s no be-all, end-all rule about recruiting and rooting for opposing players. Here’s why the Trout thing seemed fine:
The Phillies absolutely stunk during that post-Golden Age era and the idea of Trout saving a floundering franchise felt like divine intervention.
Trout has a connection to the Philly area and his over-the-top love for the Eagles and the city’s sports landscape fed into Philly fans’ most primal instincts about inclusivity and the idea that sports just mean more here.
Trout has only played nine games against the Phillies in 11 years as a Major Leaguer. There wasn’t an annual black ops mission down at CBP about locking Trout in the Phanatic’s locker until he called his agent and demanded a trade to Philly.
The Lillard chants last night rubbed me the wrong way because the Sixers are, at least in theory, in a position to win a championship. Regular season wins mean something when it comes to the playoff picture and they should all be considered competitive affairs. Yes, a random weeknight loss in November to the Blazers wouldn’t have meant much in the long run, but, again, there’s a competitive element being ignored while fans are ostensibly rooting for an opposing player in the middle of the game. The Sixers are in a better position to compete for a championship than the Blazers themselves! Wouldn’t a guy who’s a playoff killer and goes into that “Dame Time” mode be more into seeing a ferocious home crowd that he could envision himself playing in front of?
It’s also not as if a Lillard trade is happening any minute now. The Simmons trade front has cooled since the season started. There’s no inclination that Portland would want to trade Lillard at all, let alone for Simmons. Does he even want to come here? It felt like 15,000-plus people grasping at a desperate straw. It felt unfair to the Sixers players themselves, a collection of role players who balled out and had one of the more memorable regular season wins in recent history. Save the energy for a pseudo-serious Georges Niang “M-V-P” chant.
Whatever. Maybe I’m off. Who am I to argue with thousands of people who looked to be having a good time? Lillard was aware of the warm reception he received, making mention of it after the game:
Lillard on the chants from the Philadelphia crowd, “the City of Brotherly Love … they showed me love.”— Chris Mannix (@SIChrisMannix) November 2, 2021
Perhaps one day in February, Lillard will be in Sixers red, white and blue and look back on this game as the moment when he realized he needed to be in Philly. There are few things in this world that I’d love to come to fruition more than that, but for the time being, I’m left feeling icky about rolling out the red carpet for an opponent in a fight for playoff positioning.