Don’t Wait for the Bandwagon. Start Loving the Sixers Now

You might get to brag like a way-back Phillies fan.

I know my favorite two memories of being a Phillies fan. One was running to Broad Street after Lidge struck out Eric Hinske to win the 2008 World Series. The other one, in hindsight, was possibly just as much fun. It was in 2007, when the Phillies shocked the Mets by coming from behind to win the division and make the playoffs for the first time since 1993. For the multitudes who had been religiously following the team for the past few years, it was euphoria. The beloved stars (Hamels, Howard, Utley, Rollins), the 33-year-old rookie (Chris Coste), and the 44-year-old warrior (Jamie Moyer) were finally going to be playing in the Big Time. A few of my friends and I got out of the subway and ran into the middle of Broad Street, waving our rally towels, high-fiving drivers and hugging strangers. Soon there was a crowd of at least 100 people gathered in the middle of Broad. It was pure, unadulterated joy, the prize for hopping on the bandwagon when there had still been plenty of room.

Never mind that the Phils got swept by the Rockies. Never mind that it would be another year before we got a parade. That part of the journey was one of the most thrilling rushes I’ve ever had as a sports fan, and the fact that it ended in heartbreak made the next season’s success all the sweeter.

The Phillies have gone from underdogs to overdogs, and while they are still thrilling to watch, it is with sky-high expectations, not with the innocent sincere love we had for them five years ago. The Eagles are Philly’s team, make no mistake, but the frustration with Reid and Lurie and the lack of likeable stars other than Shady McCoy has left fans jaded. The Flyers will get a great bump from the thrilling Winter Classic, but the bottom line is that people tend to root for sports that they have participated in, and very few people in Philly have played ice hockey.

There is another team in the city that is at the same point that the Phillies were a few years ago, however. A team with extremely likeable players, from the young star-in-the-making (Jrue Holiday) to the exuberant wannabe rapper (Lou Williams), to the big man who was thought to be a joke but is starting to look like he could be a solid center (Spencer Hawes). They’ve started the season as far under the radar as a pro sports team can, going 2-2 on a west coast road trip that occurred while people were visiting relatives, eating fruitcake, and nursing New Year’s hangovers while watching football. But they played well, and showed flashes of the type of team that could really make some noise in the playoffs.

I can already hear you: “The NBA sucks. I stopped watching it after Jordan left. It’s all dunks and three-pointers and selfish stars. No strategy, no finesse.” I know where you’re coming from. I was there a year ago. But a couple of friends kept chipping away at me, telling me that if I loved basketball (and I do) this was a great time to start watching it again. I took their advice, and it paid off handsomely. Last year’s playoffs were thrilling, culminating with a thrilling soap opera of an NBA Finals. The NBA has plenty of problems (many of which I attribute to a terrible commissioner), but young stars like Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, and yes, even LeBron James are as exciting as any athletes in any sport right now.

And here in Philly we have the best hoops team in this city since the 2001 Iverson-led Sixers. A solid coach, new ownership that seems interested in listening to fans, and a solid core of guys who seem to have fun playing together. I realize that only goes so far. For this city to hop on that sparse bandwagon, the Sixers have to win, and a 2-2 start hardly portends a record setting season.

But the most fun seasons aren’t always the dominant ones. One of the best times to be a sports fan is seeing your team come together, find its identity, and come into its own. We had a chance to do that with the Phillies in 2007, and the result was exultation, even if it didn’t result in a World Series win. And though the season is still young, I have a feeling we’re going to get a chance to do that in 2012 with the Sixers. Can they compete with the Heat and the Bulls in the East? Probably not. But they’re finally headed in the right direction. They’re fun to watch (the second-leading team in the league in scoring), and they’re the type of young athletic team nobody wants to see in the playoffs. In other words, it’s the perfect time to hop on. There’s still plenty of room, and everyone in the city is welcome. Who knows? Even if we don’t win a championship this season, there could be enough of a run to give us an excuse to hug strangers on Broad Street. That may not be the same as winning a championship, but it’s still a pretty damn great feeling.