On Dec. 15, 1968, during halftime of the final game of a 2-12 season, a group of Philadelphia Eagles fans threw snowballs at a 19-year-old kid who was dressed as Santa Claus. There’s a longer version of this story with some quasi-exonerating context, but that’s the upshot. A gang of angry men pelted a teenager with snow because they were frustrated with the local football team.
Sports media figures in Philadelphia hate to be asked about this incident. Partly because they maintain it’s a cartoonish and grotesque distortion of the values of the city’s fan base -- which it sort of is -- but largely because it forces them to confront a pathology that, although maybe on the wane, still survives and thrives in pockets of their constituency.
Which is to say: It hurts because it exposes an uncomfortable truth.
There’s an angst, a deep-seated dissatisfaction, that pervades Philadelphia sports culture. It’s so ambient and consuming, so normalized, that it’s difficult to really see or feel while you’re inside of it -- to cut to the punch line of an old joke, "What the hell is water?"
“Passion” is what some Delaware Valley partisans attribute this cantankerousness to -- “love” and “loyalty” are also frequently cited -- but it’s probably best understood as a highly developed palate for unhappiness.
All of which makes it strange and noteworthy that, with the 76ers poised to tie an NBA record for consecutive losses Thursday, the modal attitude in this angsty, angry city isn't frustration, despair or apathy, but something that, if you squint just a little, looks suspiciously like optimism. Maybe even hope.
Consider the Sixers’ March 19 loss to the Chicago Bulls -- Chapter 68 in the tragicomic novel Brett Brown & Co. have been authoring since October. (Working title: “The 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers.”) The fans, the 13,322 paying customers scattered throughout the Wells Fargo Center that night, weren’t so much entertained as riveted by the scrappy, hopeless bunch. They roared when Thaddeus Young buried a 3-point shot to cut the (relatively) mighty Bulls’ lead to 64-61. They cheered raucously on the next possession when Henry Sims scored off a Tony Wroten assist to narrow the Chicago advantage to a single point. The rafters shook when Byron Mullens hit consecutive trifectas to make it 81-80 Bulls with nine minutes remaining.
When the game ended with the Sixers’ 22nd consecutive loss, the crowd was buoyant, even affectionate. It was like an arena full of besotted parents had just finished watching their snotty, uncoordinated, beautiful infants take their first clumsy steps. A few stumbles and scrapes, sure, but what do you expect? The kid’s skull hasn’t even fused yet.
This is unusual, especially in the context of Philadelphia, but there’s some precedent for it. When academia first saw fit to make a serious inquiry into the nature and cause of human happiness a few years back -- further evidence that progress comes in fits and starts, we started rigorously studying happiness 30 years after inventing Pop Rocks -- researchers were struck by something: The Danes were really happy. Thirty years of survey data all pointed one way. The cold, tiny, dark, hard-drinking, deeply pessimistic nation of Denmark was the happiest on the planet.
What these bewildered researchers soon came to understand was that the Danes were satisfied not despite their pessimism but because of it. Every year the citizens of Denmark braced for disaster, and when it never came, they were pleasantly surprised. Recently, economists Rakesh Sarin and Manel Baucells added to the picture, distilling happiness to a tidy equation: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. The Danes simply enjoyed a reality surplus. Imagine the feeling when your dermatologist tells you that mole on your back is just a mole on your back. That’s Denmark, 24/7.
And now it’s Philadelphia. This is a city, a fan base, that was girded for calamity in 2013-14. The team was supposed to be historically bad, so the fact that it is has been a nonissue. Happiness = Reality – Expectations. With zero expectation of success, the mounting losses are nothing to mourn. And so they haven’t been.
But this isn’t the end of the story. Sixers fans aren’t merely not miserable. In the absence of dread, something else entirely has cropped up from the once-fallow imagination of Philly hoops boosters: faith. Tucked into every loss, present in every missed shot and sloppy live-ball turnover, is a good reason to think things will someday, maybe not too long from now, get better.
Consider Michael Carter-Williams, the 6-foot-6 point guard whose combination of potential and puerility makes him the quintessential 2013-14 Sixer. Carter-Williams leads all rookies in points, rebounds, assists, steals and double-doubles, but shoots 39.6 percent from the floor and is ninth in win shares on a 15-56 team.
Carter-Williams isn't a Philadelphia 76er, he is the Philadelphia 76ers: a fresh-faced, uncomplicated, blank canvas upon which a city can project its hopes and dreams. And with Nerlens Noel still recovering from a torn ACL, MCW might not be the most gifted rookie on the team. Help, too, is on the way. With each passing loss, the team brings itself closer, if only in degrees of probability, to a potential difference-maker like Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker.
Meanwhile, the painful reminders of past failures have been flensed from the franchise. Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner are in Indiana. Spencer Hawes in Cleveland. Doug Collins is in my living room, talking about something on TV.
In Philadelphia, even the losses themselves are encouraging, suggestive of an ability to build a thing that works the way it’s supposed to. The Sixers aren’t merely tanking -- half the league is -- they’re tanking better than anyone else. They’re the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls of deliberate losing. This thing is a work of art.
General manager Sam Hinkie traded his best player, Jrue Holiday, on draft night (and received, in return, Noel and a top-five-protected pick in the loaded 2014 draft), flipped every player on the roster with immediate value and questionable long-term appeal, and resisted the chorus urging him to use the team’s ample war chest to add a veteran or two (just to keep up appearances).
The machine Hinkie built is doing precisely the thing it was designed to do: teeter over and explode. If an organization can succeed at failure so spectacularly, imagine how wildly it can succeed at success.
This is the other side of tanking, what gets lost in the hand-wringing over the great moral failure the NBA is supposedly guilty of by incentivizing teams to lose: For many impoverished franchises and fan bases, purposeful losing doesn’t smite out hope but breathes life into it. Giving up is the only way to hang on.
Tom Sunnergren writes for Hoop76, part of the TrueHoop Network.