We froze in our tracks as he retrieved the aluminum barricade he’d used to keep the fans—all six of us—from storming the Sixers when they emerged from the locker room.
“The Sixers stink this year,” said one fan, spitting for emphasis.
“Hey!” I snapped, offended. “We all stink sometimes.”
To be fair, though, he had a point. The Sixers had just dropped their 50th game of the 2009/10 season: a 128-123 overtime loss to the Toronto Raptors. And while players like Kobe Bryant (a Lower Merion product, no less) and LeBron James would carry their teams to the playoffs, our bunch was making summer vacation plans. And this year’s horrendous start doesn’t bode well for the future of new coach Doug Collins.
Yet, my husband and I have stuck by the Sixers for six seasons, as enough coaches rotated through to field their own team. We saw Allen Iverson become “The Answer” to the franchise’s playoff hopes, only to unravel into small-time hoops in Turkey (of all places). We saw Andre Iguodala emerge as the hardworking rookie dubbed “Little A.I.” I have the No. 10 jersey of Maurice Cheeks, who helped the Sixers clinch the 1983 championship, then coached them for three years before he was fired in 2008.
There are certain advantages to being a fan of a team that loses more than it wins. Each year, as the losses mount, we’re able to afford seats closer to center court. During Iverson’s heyday, we could only manage spots perilously close to the ceiling. Now, we sit in the fifth row.
We don’t go expecting them to win. It’s more like attending a kids’ music recital. You’re ecstatic when they make a tough shot, and your heart sinks when they miss a slam dunk. You gasp when they go down hard on the wood. You focus on the highlights.
On that day in April, we didn’t even mind waiting almost an hour after the game for a close encounter and an autograph. We assumed the players would be happy to stop, since most of the arena emptied out long before the final buzzer. There were only six of us, after all: my husband and I, two autograph collectors, and a father and son.
When the gates opened, a parade of SUVs squealed out of the lot, spinning up dust in our faces as we waved and jumped up and down. Then nothing.
“Should we just give up?” my husband asked me.
“No way!” I said. “Some of ’em are still in there. This is our last chance. Anyone could get traded this summer.”
Just then, a Land Rover stopped in front of us. It was 6-foot-11 starting center Sammy Dalembert, the Sixers’ longest-tenured player. He flashed a wide grin, stuck his linguini-like arm out the window, and waved us over.
“Sammy!” we cried, forming a tidy six-person line near his car. I offered up a Sharpie and the jersey, and stammered, “Hi, Sammy! You were great today.”
He just smiled and nodded.
As we departed, we marveled over how nice he’d been to stop. “The Sixers are so awesome,” I gushed.
I was even more relieved two months later, when Dalembert was traded to the Sacramento Kings. Chances are we won’t get to see him again until the Kings play the Sixers in Philadelphia. And who knows? We may even have courtside seats by then.
Jennifer Van Allen is a special projects editor at Runner’s World magazine. She lives in Bryn Mawr.