We are Philly: How the Sixers and their fans built a symbiotic relationship like no other

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In 1776, the original 13 colonies, one of which was Pennsylvania, declared their independence from Great Britain and started the incredible country that we know today as the United States of America. Specifically, it was on July 4th, when the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was accepted by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Now, you might be asking yourself “what’s the deal with the history lesson man? I clicked on the article for some sports!” That’s just it. This is a story about sports. It’s the story of a sports team whose roots are grounded in the foundation of America. This is the story of the Philadelphia 76ers and their fans.

The Sixers are the oldest team in the NBA. The team was founded in Syracuse, New York in 1939 and were originally known as the Syracuse Nationals. It wasn’t until 1963 that the Nationals relocated to Philadelphia and were  rebranded as the Philadelphia 76ers. In the 1964-65 season, the team traded for arguably the best center of all time in Wilt Chamberlain, who is recognized as one of the greatest players to ever wear a Sixers uniform. With Chamberlain, the team won their second NBA championship. However, it happened to be their first in Philadelphia.

Al Litz, a Pennsylvania native who currently resides in Portland, Oregon, recalled his early childhood as a 76ers fan when they won their first title in The City of Brotherly Love. “I remember listening in bed to their games on the radio when I was really little in 67’ and 68’. My old favorites were Wali Jones, Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham.”

It wasn’t just Al that tuned into the Sixers games whenever they played. Millions of kids and parents would sit around the radio to hear the radio announcers give a play by play of the game. Families would go wild as they heard “Wilt ‘The Stilt’ Chamberlain with the ferocious dunk!” on the air. Wilt Chamberlain helped bring some life back into the one of the greatest cities in the world. There was excitement in the air and fans were captivated by the 1967 Sixers.

Things weren’t always this great though. A season after winning a championship, Alex Hannum, the coach for the Sixers at the time, quit the team and moved to the West Coast. Chamberlain, who was apparently unhappy with the team, demanded a trade and was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in the offseason. Things continued to get worse from there. The team saw a downhill slope in most of early 70s, even going a disheartening 9-73 in the 1972-73 season. Despite the poor performance from the team, Philly fans continued to show their support.

“When I was young, I went to a game where Darryl [Dawkins] and Lloyd Free [World B.Free] would say hi to us and it was great,” said Al Litz. Fans still showed up to games to show their undying support and loyalty to the Sixers and according to Litz’s story, it sounds like the players were very appreciative of that. The fans and players in Philadelphia have always had a special bond, even when the team isn’t doing great.

In the 1976 offseason, the Sixers acquired Julius Erving from the New York Nets of the ABA. “Dr.J”, as Erving might be better known as, is one of the most beloved Sixers of all time. Fans all over the world, some not even Sixers fans, would come together to watch the highlight reel dunks that Dr. J made look so effortless. The excitement around Philly basketball was back.

Yet, even though they had one of the greatest small forwards of all time on the roster, the 76ers couldn’t win another championship. They made the postseason each year and even made the finals a few times, but they just couldn’t get over the bump and get a ring.

In 1982, the 76ers traded for Moses Malone, who had just been named MVP of the league, from the Houston Rockets to pair with Julius Erving. Together, Malone and Erving won the championship in 1983, which would mark the third, and most current, championship for the franchise.

The late 70s and 80s were a fun time to be a Sixers fan. Dr. J and Larry Bird were the face of a fierce rivalry between the Celtics and Sixers, a rivalry that dated back to the Chamberlain era when he and Bill Russell went toe to toe in a clash of the titans. Erving and Bird even got into it a few times, most notably in a November game in 1984. Ryan Drinkwater, founder of Philadelphia’s Phinest Sports News and Blog, tells me what he remembers growing up as a Sixers fan in the 80s.

“Every summer we would go visit my family in Boston, my uncle had a picture of Dr. J and Larry Bird from the famous brawl in November of 1984 in his bedroom….I remember being beyond excited every time Dr. J touched the basketball. He was a magician and ever since seeing his first slam dunk I was hooked. As I grew up I started watching all of the older Sixers games from the early 80’s. My uncle got me a VHS tape of the 1982-1983 Sixers and after watching all those moments, with that team and how they won the NBA Championship that season, I fell in love with the Sixers.”

An entire generation of Sixers fans grew up mesmerized by Julius Erving and Moses Malone. They idolized those players as they fought with passion, enthusiasm and determination night in and night out. They were Philadelphia.

The 80s were also an exciting time to be a 76ers fan because the team drafted Charles Barkley in 1984. Barkley is one of the most polarizing figures in all of sports. He often found himself in the media, sometimes for good things and sometimes for bad things, like spitting in a little girl’s face on accident. Yes, that actually happened.

Barkley became the face of the Sixers franchise after Julius Erving retired an an aging Moses Malone was shipped out of town. Unfortunately, the Sixers never had much success in the playoffs with Charles Barkley behind the wheel. The Sixers eventually decided to trade him to the Phoenix Suns in 1992. The team then entered a “rebuilding” period where they didn’t make the playoffs from the 1991-92 season to the 1997-98 season.

After a decade of being in the playoffs and winning a championship, the 76ers were back at the bottom. There was little to no buzz surrounding the team. Philadelphia felt empty. That is, until Allen Iverson showed up.

Allen Iverson, known around the world as “The Answer”, was selected by the 76ers in the 1996 NBA Draft. Iverson produced for the team right away, averaging 23.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game. Iverson brought national attention to the Sixers again.

The 11x All Star carried the Sixers to the 2001 NBA Finals almost single handedly (no offense to other guys on the team but let’s be real, he was pretty much alone). The 2001 Finals against the Kobe and Shaq lead Los Angeles Lakers was one of the best playoff series of all time. Game 1 of that series will go down as arguably the most memorable moment in not only Sixers history, but sports history.

The Los Angeles Lakers were undefeated in the playoffs that year. The Sixers were supposed to be swept. What did Allen Iverson do? He dropped 48 points and beat the Lakers. In that game, Iverson hit Lakers guard Tyronn Lue with a crossover that allowed him to nail a clutch shot. He then famously stepped over and looked down at Lue as he walked over to the other side of the court. Today, it is simply known as “The Stepover”.

Tyler Edgerton, a college student who attends Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, shares his memories of The Stepover. “I remember watching the 2001 playoff run and watching AI step over Ty Lou 10,000 times the next day on SportsCenter.” He also tells me what it was like to watch Allen Iverson play. “He was really the reason for my fandom as I watched an undersized superstar thinking size didn’t matter in basketball and I could be him one day.”

Tyler isn’t the only one who felt inspired by watching Iverson play the game. Even though he was officially being listed as 6’0 tall, Iverson was probably and inch or two shorter than that. Watching a player who shouldn’t be good at basketball because he was too short completely dominate the NBA was something that fans had never seen before. He allowed young people everywhere to think, “hey, that can be me up there someday.”

Allen Iverson revolutionized the game of basketball. He helped hip-hop culture to be embraced by the league. His cornrows, tattoos, and flashy chains and jewelry weren’t always so openly accepted before Iverson came onto the scene. Even then, it took years for then commissioner David Stern and other league executives to catch up to the changing times. Iverson was never afraid to be himself, which is something basketball fans have come to know thanks to his famous “we talkin’ about practice” rant. Iverson may not have been the most popular guy amongst league executives but rival and current players alike recognized the way he redefined what being a superstar in the NBA meant.

“It was inspiring just to know that you can defy a lot of odds and  be yourself while you’re out there on the court and changing the game,” said Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry in regards to Iverson during an interview.

A lot of current Sixers fans’ first memory of basketball is watching Allen Iverson crossover Michael Jordan or step over Tyronn Lue in the finals. Many people who are fans of basketball became fans in the first place because of Allen Iverson. Take Scott Osterneck, who was born in Philadelphia but currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona, as an example.

“That man gave 100% in every game he played.  Obviously not a huge fan of practice, but you have to respect that he left it all on the court each game.  He sacrificed his body and proved himself to the fans in Philadelphia.” Scott, like countless others, respected Iverson for his heart and passion for the game. Iverson embodied what it meant to be a true Philadelphian. His connection to the city and the fans will never change.

Unfortunately for the Sixers, Iverson was the last star they had for a while. After Iverson left the team, they were never quite the same. The Sixers went through a few mediocre years where the best players they ever had was a young Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday. The Sixers tried to fix that by trading for Andrew Bynum, who was supposed to turn their franchise around. However, Bynum never even played a single game for the Sixers due to lingering knee issues and other factors. After trading away several pieces to acquire Bynum, the Sixers were suddenly looking really bad. That’s when ownership decided to shake things up and bring in analytics wizard Sam Hinkie, who’s also known as the father of “The Process”.

From 2013-2016, under Hinkie’s careful watch as General Manager, the Sixers went through a drastic transformation that had never been seen before in all of NBA history. Hinkie gutted the roster, shipping out anyone and everyone who held any type of value to other teams in exchange for future first and second round picks. As he stockpiled his precious picks, he replaced the players he got rid of with young guys who could potentially carve out a role for themselves in the league. This consisted of a lot of G-Leaguers and undrafted prospects. As you can imagine, a lot of losing happened.

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Most Sixers fans were surprisingly on board with the idea of collecting as many picks as possible. The picks would provide more shots at finding gems and potential stars in the drafts. Others however, were not. The Sixers were scrutinized by different media outlets for their “reckless rebuilding plan” that apparently made the league look bad. In their defense, it did. Hinkie exploited the way the NBA draft worked and the league was not happy. Ultimately, Hinkie resigned as General Manager from the team, although many believe he was pushed out, and Jerry Colangelo, a widely respected figure in the sports industry, was named as a special advisor to the team. This was seen as a sign of interference from the league to ensure that the Sixers put an end to their extreme tanking ways.

However, Hinkie left a lasting impression on the team before he quit. Hinkie drafted Joel Embiid with the 3rd pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, traded for Dario Saric in the same draft, and positioned the team to draft Ben Simmons with the 1st overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Even the Sixers drafting Markelle Fultz with the 1st pick in the 2017 draft can be traced back to Hinkie. Simmons, Embiid, Saric, and Fultz are the core of the 76ers present and future. Embiid and Simmons are on their way to becoming household names, if they aren’t already there.

Embiid has become the face of the new era of 76ers basketball. He’s already an All Star and one of the best centers in the league. He’s a presence on both ends of the floor and an intimidating low post player. While Embiid has already established himself as one of the best players in the NBA, that’s not the only reason that fans love him.

Embiid is a character. He is charismatic, charming, funny and as some might put it, a savage. His Twitter feed is full of jokes and slight jabs at other NBA players. His love for Rihanna and Shirley Temples are well documented on his social media pages as well as his hilarious feud with Hassan Whiteside. Embiid’s life is pretty much an open book and like Allen Iverson, he is never afraid to be himself. Perhaps that’s why Sixers fans love his so dearly.

Lee Stabler, a college student who was raised in New Jersey, just so happens to love Joel Embiid. When I asked him why Embiid was his favorite player, he said, “We all know how freakishly good Joel is but I look more to his personality. It represents Philadelphia to a tee. Joel shows the grit and toughness that the city of Philadelphia has.”

Embiid has quickly won over fans with his charisma off the court and incredible play on the court. Even though many criticized Embiid when he was rehabilitating after his many injuries, Sixers fans rallied behind him and have always had his back.

After years of losing, the Sixers are finally winning again. The excitement that was there during the Chamberlain, Erving and Iverson eras is back. Fans are rejoicing at not only the fact that their team is winning again but that they have players who they love to support. The love that Philadelphia 76ers fans have for their team is unmatched. Yes, sometimes they get a little crazy and say or do something they shouldn’t but it’s only because they care so much. We care so much. We are loyal to a fault and will always have each other’s backs because at the end of the day, no matter what, we are Philly.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

 

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