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March 03, 2022

James Harden's home debut changed the course of Philly basketball

Sitting in the Wells Fargo Center, it sounded like I just heard Guns N’ Roses come on stage for a concert in the late 1987 or I was about to witness a WrestleMania match. While it would’ve been killer to see either of those events, what I actually saw might end up a marquee moment in Philly sports history: the home debut of James Harden as a Sixer.

During player introductions from the great Matt Cord, I never heard a stronger, more profound response from the crowd at a Sixers game. The arena had never felt louder. It was deafening.

The loudest I’ve ever heard a sporting event was during Patrick Robinson’s legendary interception return touchdown against the Vikings in the 2017 NFC Championship Game. A lot of things that relate to that Eagles run feel like tall tales in retrospect. The crowd at Lincoln Financial Field gets louder every successive time I tell the story about watching Robinson scamper his way into the end zone. This wasn’t quite that, but Sixers fans did right by the former MVP and future Hall of Famer for his first game as a Sixer in the City of Brotherly Love.

Perhaps an outsider would think it’s odd that this type of reaction would only come in a regular season game on a Wednesday night against the lowly Knicks and not during some epic postseason win, but to misunderstand why this game was so important is to misunderstand the Sixers franchise over the last several decades.

Before I was a full-time journalist, I was just another fan who would go to games. I had season tickets during the Process era for roughly $11 per seat for the first couple of years. I watched an infinite amount of losses pile up. Some Sixers fans spent, at least, 20 times that amount to get in the door to see Harden play for the Sixers with their own two eyes for the first time on Wednesday. Things change. The Sixers are no longer a rudderless ship wading between irrelevance and self-induced destruction.

I haven’t seen a ton of incredible Sixers games in my life to be frank. Again, that’s just a symptom of being a basketball fan who came of age in the 21st century. Allen Iverson’s iconic stepover move in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals is the faintest memory in the back of my brain, right alongside some random episode of Rugrats I watched at the ripe ol’ age of seven.

I was in the building for the Sixers’ series-clinching Game 6 win over the Bulls in the first round of the 2012 playoffs. It was the team’s first postseason series victory in nine years. That was a scene, but the crowd was more raucous for Harden. I was there for the Sixers’ first post-Process playoff game in 2018. People were celebrating as if they just got a new lease on life after the Sixers’ 27-point win over the Heat, but Harden still has that beat in terms of putting people into a frenzy.

This all has less to do with Harden as an individual and more to do with what he represents. He put up 26 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in the Sixers’ nationally televised victory over the Knicks on Wednesday night, but it goes beyond that.

The Sixers have not had two players of the caliber of Harden and Joel Embiid since the organization was trotting out four Hall of Famers on their 1983 championship team. My parents graduated elementary school that year if that illustrates the proper perspective of how long this listless feeling has circled the Sixers, how strange it feels to be seeing superstars like this simultaneously play Hall of Fame-level basketball in Philly.

The parallels are there. Moses Malone was in his age-27 season when he won league MVP honors and brought the Sixers franchise their second championship in Philly. Embiid is in his age-27 season and is the MVP favorite right now. Julius Erving was the more seasoned star in his age-32 season who had been a former MVP in his own right and was well on his way to the Hall of Fame, but had yet to get over that final hurdle and get a ring in the NBA. James Harden is in his age-32 season who just got selected to the league’s 75th anniversary team, but still hasn’t won a title. The vibes are there.

This is unprecedented for legitimately multiple generations of Philly basketball fans.

Iverson was transcendent for that great 2001 Eastern Conference champion team, but, as great of a defender as Dikembe Mutombo was, he was no Joel Embiid. Harden has taken over that role as a lead-guard scorer that Iverson once inhabited when captivating fans in South Philly. It just so happens that Embiid is playing even better ball right now than Harden and is the most beloved Philadelphia athlete over the last decade — excluding Nicholas Edward Foles — at the peak of his powers.

It all just feels different.

Today’s Sixers fans know nothing about a Big Two, let alone the Big Three that may be building with 21-year-old Tyrese Maxey, a godsend with the 21st pick in the 2020 NBA Draft who’s blossoming into a star in his own right. The cognitive dissonance of pretending that Ben Simmons could be a true running mate with Embiid feels like a bygone thought from years ago even though he’s only been off the roster for two weeks. Two weeks is all it took to change the trajectory of professional basketball in this city.

“It was a movie,” Harden said after the Wednesday night win to ESPN television reporter Israel Gutierrez about how his Philly debut unfolded. The anticipation of seeing a sequel that has Harden and Embiid hand-in-hand on a parade float down Broad Street should carry Sixers fans through the spring into the summer.

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