It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of analytics, it was the age of tanking, it was the epoch of on-court fun, it was the epoch of off-court fights that ended up on TMZ, it was the best start to a season at 24-0, it was the worst start to a season at 0-18, it was the spring of chasing Jordan’s Bulls, it was the winter of “Trusting the Process.” The Golden State Warriors have Steph Curry, the Philadelphia Sixers have Shirley Temples, the Warriors are destined for the Finals, the Sixers are destined for the draft lottery — in short, it’s a very weird time to be a Sixers fan living in the Bay Area.
I became a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers during the pre-dress code age of the NBA, when Allen Iverson was arguably the game’s biggest star and certainly its most singular personality. I was in 3rd grade when the Sixers made the finals in 2001, earning the right to get smashed by Shaq & Kobe’s Lakers1For the record, my dad made me go to bed before the end of the Sixers’ Game 1 win when Iverson nearly murdered Cleveland’s new coach Tyronn Lue and I might not ever forgive him for it. Since then, I’ve seen Philadelphia’s front office bungle an all-time great’s prime with mediocre second bananas like Derrick Coleman, Glenn Robinson, a past his-prime Chris Webber and Keith Van Horn. They blew up a flawed team that nonetheless pushed the Big 3 Celtics to 7 games in 2012, only to acquire three2THREE! centers in three years who were injured for the entirety of the next season3Joel Embiid, the third, is out for his second season in row. Not to mention they’ve embarked on a tanking job so historically shameless that NBA commissioner Adam Silver coerced them into hiring Jerry Colangelo as Chairman of Basketball Operations to give their front office some semblance of legitimacy. The Sixers started the 2015-2016 season an NBA-worst 1-30, with their sole win coming against a lowly Lakers team more concerned with Kobe Bryant’s season-long retirement party than putting a competitive product on the court. Since then, Philadelphia has traded for a real point guard in Ish Smith and managed to win a whopping six of their last 17 games. They now only need three more wins to avoid setting a new record for most losses in a season, a record that currently belongs to — what do you know — the 1972-1973 Philadelphia 76ers. In short, there’s nowhere for this team to go but up.
The recent fortunes of the Golden State Warriors is another story entirely. In 2009, they lucked out and had Steph Curry fall to them with the seventh pick in the draft. In subsequent years, they drafted Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green (in the second round, no less), giving them the makings of a solid, young core. After making moves to acquire key role players like Andrew Bogut and former Sixer Andre Igoudala and installing Michael Jordan’s former teammate Steve Kerr as head coach, the Warriors had all of the pieces in place for a championship basketball team. After winning their first title in forty years last summer, the Dubs show no signs of slowing down. They’re not only the best team in the NBA but also its most consistently electrifying. They’re a team tailor-made for an NBA League Pass package. Steph Curry is an otherworldly shooter and the most dynamic star the league has to offer (Sorry Lebron and KD). Draymond Green trash talks like he’s at a Comedy Central Roast, and has the all-around game to back it up. Klay Thompson shoots like the only emoji he’s allowed to use is 🔥. Everyone else on the roster — and especially defensive specialist/super-sub Igoudala — knows their role and plays it perfectly.
These Warriors are historically good. Their 44-4 record through January has them on pace to eclipse the 72-10 high mark set by Jordan’s 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls. Just last week, they dismantled the second best team right now, the at-the-time 38-6 San Antonio Spurs, by 30 points. Coming into Saturday night’s game, all signs pointed to the lowly Sixers not standing a goddamn chance.
Being a sports fan is odd. Other forms of culture that we obsess over usually pretend to be something more than a cheap distraction from real life, but sports tend to steer in the other direction. They champion their use as a distraction. The narrative of the blue collar worker logging long hours whose only respite is cracking a beer and watching their team play at the end of the day is a well-worn cliche, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Still, it’s a pretty poor return on investment, time-wise. You don’t grow as a person or become more intelligent, and half the time your team loses and you just end up mad. I’ve been a major fan of four Philly teams for a total of 72 seasons, and I only have a single championship to show for it. Did I win anything? Did I do anything substantial for the team? Of course not, but I feel a sense of community because of the time I spent watching and talking about them. In fact, outside of my parents, Philly’s long-suffering sports teams are my biggest connection to a city I haven’t lived in for nearly six years. So pardon my use of personal pronouns.
For me, this particular basketball season has been especially odd. To follow a team that does so much losing while you live four blocks away from the practice facility of a team that does so much winning makes for an extreme contrast. As a fan of quality basketball, I like the Warriors and their dynamic play. As a Bay Area resident, I like that the people around me are generally happy because of the Warriors. But as a human being I can’t help but wonder what they did to get the happiness that has evaded Philly’s basketball fans for so long. Kind of like “why do they get to be happy when my basketball team makes me want to throw batteries at Santa?” In order to try to better understand these competing feelings, here’s a in-game diary to recap how I felt over the course of the January 30th Warriors vs Sixers game.
I decided to watch the game at a bar located in the historic Ferry Building in San Francisco. Few people there were actively paying attention to the screen, likely because it’s the most skippable game of the season for fans used to watching the Warriors beat much better teams with ease. People walking by poked their heads in to check to see if the game’s started, but few lingered for more than an instant. Super Bowl 50 week kicked off a block away4Even though the game’s being played over an hour away in Santa Clara at the Embarcadero earlier in the day, so there’s more foot traffic than usual and it feels pretty safe to assume they are more sports-inclined than usual as well.
The game is in Philadelphia and apparently noted Sixers fan Meek Mill’s bae, Nicki Minaj, is in attendance. The Sixers are 2-0 in games she attends, which is the opposite of Meek Mill’s record in beefs with Drake. Time to test her magic.
The opening tip went to the Sixers and I fully anticipate that this might be the high point of the game. But lo and behold, it’s suddenly halfway through the quarter and the Sixers are up 17-10. This could be a classic “trap game,” where a favored opponent is caught napping against a scrappy underdog5Editor’s note: Kind of like what the Eagles did to cost the Patriots home field advantage…. Feeling suddenly confident, I say this to the bartender, but they scoff at the idea. These Sixers have been so bad that I cling to any shred of positivity, no matter how delusional.
Suddenly, the Warriors go on a 15-0 run and are up 25-17. Draymond Green gets a layup and a foul and flexes for his team in celebration. Speaking of shreds of positivity, I’m kind of honored that Green considers the Sixers worthy of being flexed at. It’s like the girl talking about how awesome being pushed by Regina George was in Mean Girls.
The Sixers are only down by 6 at the end of the first quarter, but the Warriors are on pace to score 136 points. That sort of scoring usually levels off, but this Warriors team is so good and this Sixers team is so bad that you can’t be too sure.
The Sixers’ backups come in off the bench, led by resident white guy point guard TJ McConnell. He’s “hardworking” and “gritty” in the way that white dudes who can’t crack the starting lineup on a historically bad team usually are. The highlight of watching Philadelphia’s second unit is seeing McConnell and Nik Stauskas generally try to out white-guy-you-might-see-at-the-Y each other when they share the floor. Stauskas wears full-length tights while McConnell looks like Giovanni Ribisi wandered off the set of Ted 2 and onto the court. McConnell is tonight’s out of place rec league baller champion because I realize I don’t think I’ve ever seen him jump and Stauskas at least has the amazing nickname Sauce Castillo.
Predictably, the Warriors start pulling away. Their run is punctuated by a filthy Ian Clarke (who?) block on the diminutive Isaiah Canaan that might send Canaan straight to the D-league. Draymond Green does some Draymond Green things (YUP) and celebrates by putting hand goggles on over his face. This is one of those instances where it is so hard to dislike this Warriors team even while they’re embarrassing my own. They’re just too damn good and have too much fun while they beat you into submission. In any other city I would try my best to bring the fans down to my level like a sports bar Debbie Downer, but here I can’t help but jump out of my seat when Steph, Klay, or Green throws down some otherworldly shit.
The lone bright spot of this quarter for the Sixers is when Nerlens Noel dunks and then swings back and forth on the rim. It’s as if he’s trying to remember a happier, simpler time of childhood swingsets and forget about the massacres he routinely suffers at the hands of competent basketball teams.
The 2nd quarter ends with the Warriors up 73-54. Important statistic: the Warriors are (approximately) 1 billion – 0 in the past two years when ahead by 15 at any time.
As a sports fan and sometime educator (that’s a whole different story), it becomes clear to me how expectations can impact self-worth. The Sixers weren’t expected to do anything in this game, and I barely feel like I should share the occasional flashes of competitiveness the Sixers show with the mostly tuned-out Warriors fans. What could I say that couldn’t be shouted down without a second thought? I am mostly mentally healthy enough to remove my self-worth from the results of a team I don’t play for, but sometimes I still can’t help but think about that ROI and how my time could be spent doing better things, like finally writing holiday thank you notes.
The game slows down a bit as Green starts trying to chase a triple-double instead of making the best available play6He’d finish a rebound short, but got one without missing a field goal the very next night anyways. The Sixers seem safe from ending up on the wrong side of a single-game scoring record, but the Warriors are very much in control. As the Warriors’ cruise, it’s becoming difficult to watch. It’s just hard to get excited about an Ian Clarke (again, who?) vs. Hollis Thompson matchup as Steve Kerr gives his stars some rest. Warriors lead after 3, 91-72.
It appears we aren’t worthy of seeing Steph or Klay in the 4th. I would’ve walked away from this game long ago if I wasn’t determined to document my misery. Wait a second — a little run gets my young Sixers within 12 at 93-81 and Kerr is forced to put Steph and Klay back in to close the game out. Hooray for moral victories.
Steph, of course, promptly makes a 3 and a single digit game begins to feel like the pipe dream it’s always been. The Sixers get it back down to 10 a few times, but Ish Smith misses a free throw to make it 9 and becomes trash in my mind.
The network cuts to commercial and when they come back, they show cheesesteaks. I’m pretty sure every network is contractually obligated to show that shot for every game played in Philly while the commentators banter about Pat’s vs. Geno’s (Trick question, the correct answer is Tony Luke’s).
3 minutes left and the Sixers’ spark seems to have abated until Noel slams an alley-oop from Ish, who follows it up with a jumper on Philadelphia’s next possession. It’s a 4 point game, baby. Will we someday look back and refer to this game as “The Minaj Miracle”?!?!
Steph makes a tough layup and the crowd of passers-by that had suddenly formed outside the bar cheers. Sixers down 6 with a minute left.
The inbound pass goes to Isaiah Canaan, who apparently recovered from being stuffed into a locker earlier, and HOLY SHIT he makes a tough 3 while getting fouled. He completes the 4 point play and the Sixers are within 2. Say it with me: “Minaj Miracle”.
Steph takes the ball upcourt and flubs it! The golden child coughs it up, leading to an easy Ish dunk in transition. The game is tied with 22 seconds left. Forget what I said about him a few paragraphs ago, Ish is the real MVP. Trust the process.
Warriors will hold for a final shot. There is a clatter in the Ferry Building, but our small section of it is quiet and tense. Minaj Miracle! Minaj Miracle! Minaj Miracle! Aaaaand fuck. A beautiful passing sequence ends in a Harrison Barnes 3 and the Warriors hang on to win 108-105. The crowd cheers and a security guard that I had just started trash-talking to pantomimes ripping out my heart.
I came into the game expecting a Sixers loss, and that’s exactly what I got. Somehow, I’m still disappointed. And yet I’m strangely relieved that the Sixers didn’t hurt the Warriors’ chances of 73 wins, or their own chances of winning the Ben Simmons sweepstakes in the draft lottery. The two emotions pull at me for a little. No one here is able to relate, as they’re all too busy enjoying the present. Warriors’ fans must be happy and relieved they won but I’m sure those feelings will fade quickly as they play tomorrow night, and the Sixers are small fish. For Philly, this competitive loss might be a high water mark in this drought of a season.
I spent three hours resigned to what seemed like a predetermined result followed by fifteen minutes of genuine excitement and an indeterminate amount of time feeling conflicted about what it all was supposed to mean. I accomplished nothing. I didn’t grow as a person. Maybe I learned to never give up, except for the fact that it’s better for the Sixers in the long run to lose. Maybe I learned that hard work trumps otherworldly talent, except that it didn’t. I guess all it comes down to was that I felt, for a brief while, something. Time and time again, I have determined this activity is worth it. I’ll watch the young Sixers try to learn to walk against the Atlanta Hawks tonight. Sports are weird.
References [ + ]
|1.||↵||For the record, my dad made me go to bed before the end of the Sixers’ Game 1 win when Iverson nearly murdered Cleveland’s new coach Tyronn Lue and I might not ever forgive him for it|
|3.||↵||Joel Embiid, the third, is out for his second season in row|
|4.||↵||Even though the game’s being played over an hour away in Santa Clara|
|5.||↵||Editor’s note: Kind of like what the Eagles did to cost the Patriots home field advantage…|
|6.||↵||He’d finish a rebound short, but got one without missing a field goal the very next night anyways|