COMPARED TO THE LEBRON JAMES CIRCUS this past summer, the 76ers’ signing of Elton Brand in July 2008 was a simple affair. General manager and president Ed Stefanski introduced his prized catch, a former NBA rookie of the year, at a press conference inside the Wachovia Center. The room buzzed with optimism. The power forward had just signed a five-year, $80 million deal. Yet there was something oddly funereal about the scene, with Brand in his black shirt and suit, a somber black banner behind him adorned with the Sixers and Comcast logos, and a black cloth draped across the table where he sat. If you didn’t know better, you might have thought it was an end, not a beginning.
But with his six-foot-nine messiah to his left, Stefanski could barely contain his excitement. A phalanx of cameras flashed as Brand thanked the team for the opportunity and made a pledge: “I’m deeply honored … and I won’t let anybody down.” Stefanski wrapped an arm around him. “The Good Lord sent him down,” he said.
Brand’s pledge would go unfulfilled. He lacked his usual explosiveness, thanks to a repaired Achilles tendon, and six months after his signing, he had season-ending surgery to repair a bum shoulder. For the 29 games he did play, he earned a tidy $13.7 million. The 2009-’10 season was even more cursed, marked by the complete failure of Eddie Jordan as coach — the team’s sixth in seven years. The Sixers limped to a 27-55 record, their worst showing since 1997. Their average attendance plummeted to the fifth-lowest in the league, an embarrassing 7,112 fans per game — less than half the crowd at a typical Union soccer match. In fact, the mezzanine was so empty that most games felt like scrimmages at Father Judge.
Now a new NBA season is once again upon us. In Philadelphia, this can be summed up in two words: Who cares? It seems like a lifetime since an NBA title was within our grasp, though it was actually 2001, when Larry Brown and Allen Iverson led the team to the finals. The team hasn’t yielded an All-Star since 2006. But it wants us to believe again, to believe in new head coach Doug Collins and draft pick Evan Turner.
Undoing the damage of the past decade won’t be so easy, though. Columnist Bill Simmons, ESPN’s “Sports Guy” and author of The Book of Basketball, is a Clippers season ticket-holder. He knows bad basketball. “I would not pay to see anyone on that team,” he says of the Sixers. “Every year when I do my season-ticket list and decide what games I’m keeping, there are four or five teams that I call ‘giveaway games’ — give them away for a charity, for a Christmas gift. Philly is a giveaway staple.”
The truth is that the Sixers’ problems go beyond their recent records. They’ve lost something even more important than games — the hearts of the people in their city. Their fans’ affections have turned to other suitors. While the Phillies, Eagles and Flyers stayed hungry — and in the hunt — over the past decade, the Sixers devolved into an afterthought. When Collins was hired in May, he put the scope of the team’s task in perspective. “I don’t think we’re talking championship right now,” he said. “I think we’re talking about being relevant again.”