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July 18, 2016

After years of empty promises & empty arenas, the Sixers finally matter again

Something remarkable has happened to the Sixers this summer in the aftermath of a pitiful 72-loss season. They matter again. For the first time in over a decade, people actually care about pro basketball in Philadelphia.

The first sign of this seismic shift in attitude came right after the draft lottery that brought No. 1 pick Ben Simmons here when callers began clogging the phone lines on my WIP radio show with comments about the team. In the past five weeks, I have taken more calls about the Sixers than in the last five years combined.

Last week provided the final confirmation that the Sixers have experienced a rebirth in interest, not just here but also nationally. When fans are showing up at the airport for a player who doesn’t figure to make the starting lineup, that’s a sign. And a national debate over Simmons playing in the NBA Summer League is further proof.

Dario Saric, one of the many future investments made by ex-GM Sam Hinkie, arrived at Philadelphia International Airport on Thursday night amid the hoopla of a superstar. Surrounded by fans and microphones, the Croatian mystery man must have thought the Sixers were as popular here as the Eagles.

Granted, with three sports on hiatus and baseball on break for the All-Star Game, last week was the slowest on the sports calendar so far, but still, the response to Saric was astonishing. Is he really going to be a serious contributor to the new, improved Sixers? People want to know.

The Simmons debate was even more surreal. In my 26 years at WIP, we have mentioned the NBA Summer League maybe twice, and then only in passing. Now, because Simmons sat out three of the first eight games, it became a national emergency.

Not only did analyst Isiah Thomas openly criticize Simmons on an NBA TV broadcast, but two ESPN blowhards – Max Kellerman and LZ Granderson – also launched into a double-barreled rant against the kid for not playing. No one seemed concerned that this was the NBA Summer League they were talking about.

All three commentators were right, of course (see below), but the much bigger story is that the Sixers are suddenly attracting this much attention. Since ex-president Pat Croce left after the NBA Finals in 2001, half the seats at the Wells Fargo Center have emptied, and the franchise has degenerated into irrelevance.

In fact, for the past three years, the only real public conversation was provided by the Hinkie cultists, who became enthralled with his tanking process and his unprecedented skill at losing basketball games (47-199). Since Hinkie was forced out, that blip of interest has grown into a phenomenon. An Internet poll we conducted last Friday at WIP showed that 80 percent of fans are following the team again.

Why? Well, obviously Ben Simmons is the biggest reason. Even though he does not project to be a prolific scorer, his passing skills alone are worth the price of a ticket. How coach Brett Brown will blend all of this raw talent on the roster has also become a point of fascination. And, by nature, people are drawn to the unknown.

The Sixers are most certainly a mystery right now. They are still years away from contention – the usual measuring point in Philadelphia – but they bear watching. They are worth our time again.

Over the past few years, I have offered a running joke about the Sixers. After writing or talking about how bad they were, I often tagged my remarks with the cliché: “Good seats are still available.”

Well, I won’t be saying that anymore. Because I’m not so sure good seats will be available. People actually care about the Sixers again.

Life really is full of surprises, isn’t it?

***

The ridiculous decision to bench a healthy Simmons for three games in the nine-game NBA Summer League schedule is the latest example of an epidemic of coddling players in all four sports. Will this babying of athletes ever end? Or will it just keep getting worse?

Simmons, who has one year of experience above high school basketball, didn’t play those three contests for absolutely no good reason. Yes, he had some cramps after the first game, but that was from not playing enough, having been off since LSU’s season ended.

Why did the Sixers shut him down? No reason, really. Coach Brown said it was just part of a schedule the team had developed right after drafting the 19-year-old forward. Did they employ any newfangled medical science that said playing nine games in two weeks was too much? No, not at all.

They set that schedule up based not on logic, but on fear. The Sixers didn’t want to see their biggest attraction since Allen Iverson injured before he had a chance to dazzle the paying customers and sell some merchandise.

The Sixers are hardly alone in managing their people this way. Only old-timers like me remember the four-man rotation in baseball, a system that led to no more injuries than the five-day scheme used today. Relievers pitched more than an inning, day after day, without the burden of pitch counts. They all survived.

In the NFL, there are no two-a-days with pads anymore at training camps because they were bargained out in the most recent contract talks. The focus now is on avoiding the long-term effects of concussions on the players. OK, fine. But this is football, right? There is no actual way to legislate contact out of a contact sport.

And in hockey, goaltenders are rarely asked to work on back-to-back days, even though they routinely did it for decades without any obvious repercussions. Just 10 years ago, Martin Brodeur was in net for 78 of 82 games. He played nine more mostly exceptional seasons after that.

The great irony of this softening of American sports is that just about every one of these elite athletes played day and night to hone his skills. Just check out a basketball court this summer. Those teenagers are out there hour after hour, day after day, learning how to play the game. No one is counting their reps.

Ben Simmons should be playing every day, gaining the experience he needs to make the most of his extraordinary ability. Anybody who thinks otherwise is governed not by logic, but by fear.

***

The invisible nine-month tenure of Matt Klentak as Phillies GM is about to end, whether he likes it or not. With the trade deadline only two weeks away, the 36-year-old novice is going to have to do more than preach patience as the outcry grows for him to improve the roster of a team enduring its fourth straight losing season.

Since he arrived here, Klentak has been a model of minimalism. Release Ryan Howard? No, thank you. Add a top free agent? There are no good fits. Address the behavioral issues of Odubel Herrera and Nick Williams? Their managers can handle that.

Unfortunately, Klentak cannot afford more buck-passing when it comes to the trade deadline. He owns some appealing commodities, in a market that has already proved highly beneficial to sellers like the Phils.

For example, if Drew Pomeranz – a 27-year-old starter with a 22-31 career record and one good season in the big leagues – can win San Diego the best pitching prospect (Anderson Espinoza) from the Red Sox, Jeremy Hellickson should be able to draw some serious offers, no? Jeanmar Gomez has value, too, as a back-end reliever, doesn’t he?

Klentak has made one excellent move since he took over, the trade of Ken Giles to Houston for Vincent Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer and two other prospects. Giles has been a bust with the Astros, and Velasquez has shown glimpses of No. 1-starter talent. That was a good first step, but it was seven months ago.

Now it’s time for this undeniably intelligent young GM to use all of his analytics data to turn some of the current players into future contributors. It is definitely not the time for him to find more excuses to shirk his responsibility.

Philadelphia is not a patient sports city. Matt Klentak is going to find out just how impatient if he does nothing again.

And finally …

     • ESPN had quite a week. First, the mighty TV sports network inflicted Chris (Back, Back, Back) Berman on the public for another cloying Home Run Derby, and then it snubbed Villanova from all awards at the ESPYs, including best play of the year. It’s a shame they don’t have a category for most overrated sports network.

     • After reaching an all-time low for TV ratings of the All-Star Game, is it finally time for major league baseball to put an end to this tired tradition? In fact, fans would not rebel if all four major sports dumped these events, whose preening superstars only alienate the paying customers anyway.

     • Here’s all you need to know about Tom Brady now that Deflategate is finally over. The New England quarterback destroyed his cellphone to thwart the investigation, and then he bailed out on his promise to take the matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Are these the actions of an innocent man?

     • New Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo admitted his discomfort last week with having so many big men on the roster. And who built this dysfunctional set of players? Ex-GM Sam Hinkie, of course. Yet his clueless followers remain devoted to a man who cannot find another job in the NBA, who had no idea how to build an actual team, and whose only obvious skill was losing games. Insane.

    • Is there no end to the blind loyalty of the Joe Paterno apologists? The latest court documents have a Jerry Sandusky victim revealing, under oath, that he told the Penn State coach of a sexual assault in 1976. Paterno allegedly told the 14-year-old boy that he was too busy preparing for the football season. Now these hero worshippers want to bring back the Paterno statue? That’s even more insane.