Philadelphia 76ers fans don’t get a lot of cred for being a depressed fan base, and that’s probably fair. The Sixers have won two NBA championships, one in 1983 — not exactly recent memory, but more recent than all but eight other NBA franchises — and as recently as 2001, they’ve gone to the Finals and had a player named MVP, two achievements that Wizards, Warriors, Hawks and (for now) Knicks and Clippers fans have not gotten anywhere near enjoying in the time since. No one responds to your claims of being a Sixers fan with a sarcastic (or sincere!) “Oh, I’m sorry.” More likely, they’ll respond with, “Oh,” as they struggle for something else to say.
Shortly after Philly was eliminated from the 2012 playoffs, Ben Detrick wrote an article for Grantland entitled “Are the Sixers the Next Thunder?” which infuriated me in a way I can barely put into words. That wasn’t because of anything Detrick wrote in the actual article (which essentially amounted to “No”), but rather the implied supposition that there existed among NBA fans some sort of belief that the Sixers were a team primed to make the next step. Nobody, least of all Philly fans, watched the team’s playoff run last year (which ended one game shy of the conference finals) and thought the Sixers were anything but a mediocre team that got incredibly lucky in facing a super-injured Bulls team and a super-inconsistent Celtics team. Mostly, NBA fans didn’t think about the Sixers at all.
This is the way it’s been for some time now. In the five full seasons since Allen Iverson was traded, the Sixers have finished within four games of .500 four times, twice with a perfectly mediocre 41-41 record. Few, if any, NBA franchises have been less consequential to the league over that timespan than the Liberty Ballers. They weren’t a contender, but they weren’t a lottery regular either. They weren’t a model franchise, but they weren’t a walking punchline. No individual Sixer player ever won any award or led the league in anything. The two Big Splash moves the team made — signing Elton Brand for $80 mil, drafting Evan Turner with the No. 2 overall pick — both fizzled out in quiet disappointment, certainly not successes, but not catastrophic failures either. Philly’s half-hearted PR machine tried to sell its dwindling, shrugging fanbase on the Sixers just being a young team in need of experience, but we were unmoved. We knew this team was destined to keep spinning its wheels, moving in place, until … well, we didn’t know until what.
Then came August 10th, 2012, and suddenly everything seemed clear. The Sixers had traded Andre Iguodala, the brilliant-but-limited All-Star who had been the face of the franchise’s mediocrity for the last half-decade, in a larger deal that would bring mercurial big man Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia. (Of course, in keeping with the franchise’s accidental strategy of invisibility, the Sixers’ part in this deal was still overshadowed at the time by that of the far splashier Los Angeles Lakers, who managed to pick up the one center in the league more highly regarded than Bynum in the same trade.) There was much rejoicing among the handful of Sixers fans remaining in the greater Philadelphia area, for the sense that finally, next year would bring about something different.
In just about every way possible, Andrew Bynum was the exact player the Sixers had been missing for so long. Obviously, he came with a resume — two championship rings, an All-Star start, a 2011-12 stat line that would have seen him lead the Sixers in points, rebounds, blocks and FG%, as his prior team’s third option — that far dwarfed anyone on Philly’s roster, with the assumed possibility, given his youth (still only 25!) and increasing numbers year-to-year, that the best was still to come. And he was also a legitimate big man and post threat for a team that had been overpaying Samuel Dalembert and Spencer Hawes to start at center for the better part of a decade.
Perhaps just as importantly, though, Andrew Bynum was a personality. The best Sixers of the post-Iverson years — Andre Iguodala, Andre Miller, Lou Williams, Elton Brand, now Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young — have been well-respected, generally amicable basketball sorts who said and did remarkably little of interest off the court. (No, Sweet Lou hosting Meek Mill’s “House Party” music video doesn’t really count.) “Generally amicable” does not in any way describe Andrew Bynum. At best, he’s an eccentric, off-beat dude with a predilection for parking in handicap spaces and getting his zen on during team huddles, at worst, he’s a Trina-blasting, neighbor-terrorizing sociopath who doesn’t even really like basketball all that much. Either way, he’s totally different than anyone on the Sixers we’ve watched the last six years. And for most of us, that seemed like a pretty good start.
I put Andrew Bynum’s Halloween debut at the Wells Fargo Center (against Iguodala and the Denver Nuggets, no less) on my calendar the day the schedule was announced. I’ve never been more excited for a basketball game, especially for one that ended up never actually materializing. With opening night to the season approaching and Bynum yet to join the Sixers in practice or on the court, it seemed less and less likely he’d be jumping center at this seasons’ opening tip. The Sixers’ approach to discussing Bynum’s health was like my approach when given a writing assignment I really didn’t want to complete: they said absolutely nothing about it, and hoped that by avoiding the topic, no one would ask them about it and it would just go away.
Thus began the emotional bargaining. I think every Sixer fan went through it in a different way. Without any timetable to work with, you started making compromises with yourself about when Andrew Bynum would return. OK, I can deal with him being out through Thanksgiving, as long as he’s back for Christmas. OK, I can deal with him being out through Christmas, as long as he’s back at the start of the New Year. As the season went on and the updates got worse and worse — bone bruises in both knees, bowling-related injuries, maybe season-ending surgery — the bargaining got more and more dramatic, until most fans had to bring themselves face to face with the possibility that not only might Andrew Bynum not play for the Sixers this season, he might never play a single game in a Sixers uniform.
In the meantime, there was the hair. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know all about the many looks that Andrew Bynum’s gone through. The fro he showed up to his August press conference with seemed noteworthy enough, but it turned out to be just the beginning of Bynum’s season-long follicular journey. At first, the different ‘dos were funny, then sad, then irritating, then stupefying, then funny again, then just kind of irrelevant. There’s no point in having a reaction to Andrew Bynum’s hair anymore, because his hair (probably) doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not he’s going to playing again soon, and Sixer fans are no longer interested in any Andrew Bynum-related news that doesn’t end with him being one step closer to returning to the court.
To that end, however, we’ve become ravenous for any kind of news that confirms that Bynum is in fact still alive, still mobile, and may in fact one day play professional basketball again. Footage surfaced recently of him walking briskly on a treadmill and shooting around in a gym, and I watched it like it was a one-on-one game between Kobe Bryant and the ghost of Pete Maravich. If there was an “Andrew Bynum Walks on a Treadmill and Shoots Jumpers” TV channel, I would be late to work every morning as I watched footage I had DVRed from the night before while I slept. It’d be more interesting than watching the actual Sixers games this year, anyway.
Oh yeah, the Sixers. They have a team this year, though if they just wanted to sit out and forfeit every game they played between now and when Bynum comes back, I doubt anyone besides Doug Collins would complain that much. It’s not that they’re that bad — at 17-23, they could probably still fight for the playoffs if a couple things break their way in the season’s second half — it’s that they’re just good enough to remind you how good they could be if Andrew Bynum was actually in the lineup. After countless close losses this year when the team got subpar contributions from their big men, my roommate and I would discuss the games and he’d say the same thing over and over: “We win that game if we have Bynum.” He was right, but it didn’t matter.
It’s tempting at times to disregard Bynum completely, to write him off as a sunk cost, acknowledge that we were gonna get rid of Iguodala soon enough anyway, make peace with him walking as a free agent and refocus our efforts elsewhere. It’s terrible to have to pin all your hopes and dreams as a basketball fan to a guy like Andrew Bynum, who despite his obvious and incredible talent, is just about as far away from a sure thing as the Sixers could find among the league’s potential elite. Will he thrive as a number one guy? Will he get along with Collins? Will he mature emotionally and get away from all the stupid shit he does for no reason? We don’t know, and as long as his body refuses to get healthy enough to play, we won’t know. Sometimes, you wonder if it’s even worth wondering.
Ultimately though, Sixer fans will stick with Andrew Bynum for a simple reason: He’s pretty much the only chance we have of the Sixers being great. The team’s young guys have really come along nicely this year. Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young and (sometimes) Evan Turner all seem like like they could be core pieces on a contending team, while locked up to reasonable contracts, and several of the role players have performed well when only called on to do role-player things. Assuming that those guys continue to improve and gel — especially Jrue, who by all rights should be an All-Star this year and has shown real franchise player potential during stretches — there’s real potential with this group.
But there’s an Andrew Bynum-shaped hole in the team’s roster. One which, when filled, allows the rest of the roster to fall in place, and one that no other player (and certainly no other player the Sixers have a reasonable chance of acquiring in the not-too-distant future) fills in quite the same way. If Bynum proves a no-go, we’ll be forced to reach for an Al Jefferson-type in free agency, which will likely result in the team overpaying for a guy that doesn’t get them much further past the first round anyway. We’d almost be better off with the team holding a fire sale and rebuilding from scratch. It’s Bynum or nothing for this team, and holding out for even a 25 percent chance that Bynum reaches anything near his potential as a Sixer is probably still our best strategy.
So we keep on waiting, pinning all our hopes for this season and the several more to follow on the return of a guy who might not come back — the latest reports from Bynum himself have him returning around the All-Star Break, but the number of things that could go wrong between now and then are countless — and who might be a total disaster when he returns. And who might leave as a free agent immediately after. It’s not an enviable position, certainly, but for most of us, it’s still preferable to another year of 41-41, a first-round exit at the hands of the Heat or Celtics, and a team that nobody seems to know or care about. If breaking that cycle is the only legacy that Andrew Bynum leaves as a Sixer (besides the hair) … well, it’s a start, anyway.