Everyone Says Philly Is a Great Basketball Town

So why aren't our teams better at basketball?

Philadelphia’s a great basketball town.

You’ll hear this a lot, and it makes sense. The city has a rich basketball tradition. After being invented in Springfield, basketball spread to other east-coast cities, and eventually the Philadelphia SPHAs were one of the top teams. The Sixers may be down now, but they’ve had some of the biggest superstars in NBA history: Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley. More recently, the Sixers had Allen Iverson, the most exciting, interesting player of the post-Michael Jordan NBA.

On Thursday during the NCAA tournament, announcer Bill Raftery made the vertical leap of a Saturday Daily News joke. Raftery went to La Salle, but that joke — that, what, a thousand people might get at most — is a sign of just how many people in college hoops got their start in the Philadelphia area. (The Saturday Daily News, now a weekend edition, is notably thinner than the paper the rest of the week — it’s a way to say a player can’t jump.) There are six Division I basketball teams in Philly. There are thriving Catholic and public high school leagues. “Philadelphia produces good high school players, good coaches,” high school scout Norm Eavenson told the Inquirer‘s Mike Jensen in 2009. “It produces referees. It can satisfy the cravings of any basketball junkie on any given night.”

And that doesn’t count people just playing basketball. I could throw a basketball over my head at a random location in this city and there is a better-than-average chance it would land on a basketball court. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But I think a love of basketball infects those who want it to in this city. Even Philadelphia’s Romanian consulate has a basketball hoop!

Unfortunately, this hasn’t translated into much success. The Sixers turned Chamberlain, Erving, Barkley and Iverson into a total of two NBA championships. That’s the same number won by the city’s old team with the embarrassing Cleveland Indians-style logo, the Philadelphia Warriors, when they were in town. (Okay, they defeated teams called the Chicago Stags and the Fort Wayne Pistons, but they’re still titles.)

While all the Big 5 schools have been to the Final Four, there have only been two national titles — one in 1985, by Villanova, and one 60 years ago, by La Salle. (If you want to get charitable, Temple’s 1938 NIT win and Penn’s 1920 Best-of-3 series win over Western champ University of Chicago can count as national titles.) The high schools do a little better, but it’s a little disappointing: While I get the reasoning behind it — and I’m no big fan either — the greatest modern player the Philadelphia area has produced, Kobe Bryant, is not a beloved native son but a guy who was actually booed at an All-Star Game in Philadelphia. “Philadelphia fans don’t consider Kobe one of their own,” a 2002 Associated Press headline read.

And those great Philadelphia SPHAs teams of the early barnstorming basketball days? They essentially became the Washington Generals, a team that lost tens of thousands of games to the Harlem Globetrotters. Local high school teams won two Pennsylvania state titles this year — and women’s hoops has been growing and starting to thrive here — so the city’s recent hoops history isn’t so bleak. But top high school players usually leave for college, heading to out-of-state basketball powerhouses instead.

So when Saint Joseph’s lost a winnable game to Connecticut in overtime on Thursday night and a 29-4 Villanova team (I very much liked, as did Nate Silver) was bounced pretty easily by that same UConn squad two days later, it wasn’t terribly surprising. Like most Philadelphia sports, the success rate of basketball teams in this town is just not that great. It’s why that Sixers “third most victories and third most playoff appearances in NBA history” ad campaign was so funny: By using that as your selling point, you’re implying that the team (1) hasn’t been good recently and (2) hasn’t been very successful in the playoffs! (Similarly, Temple has the sixth-most wins in NCAA Division I history and Penn has the 11th-most, though those teams are helped by starting play in the 1890s. Villanova is 28th and Saint Joseph’s is 39th.)

I think there’s an upside to this: Philadelphia is such a great basketball town because of the affection people here show for the game despite its relative lack of success. Our top city players end up doing most of their damage elsewhere. The Big 5 schools aren’t frequent national title contenders. The Sixers will always be the Sixers. And yet the sport thrives here anyway, even if live attendance is down.

So chin up, Philadelphia hoops fans. There will be a day when some local team wins a title, be it NCAA or NBA, and the wait will make it all the more glorious. I mean, unless Villanova wins and you went to Joe’s or whatever. Then you’ll probably be pretty pissed. Eh, you’re used to it at least.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.