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August 30, 2023

Why should you care about the Sixers this season?

Apathy has set in for Sixers fans. Why should you still care about the team? It's for the love of the game, writes Kyle Neubeck.

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Sixers-Pistons-arena-fans_012821_Kate_Frese117.jpg Kate Frese/Kate Frese for PhillyVoice

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 28: A Philadelphia 76ers flag during the game against the Detroit Pistons on October 28, 2021 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. (Photo by Kate Frese/PhillyVoice)

Happy August to everyone who I have not chatted with in a while. I somehow managed to time a two-week trip to Australia with the Sixers being a colossal circus, and while I apologize for not being here to sort through the wreckage with/for all of you, it was nice to be disconnected from yet another absurd stretch for our local basketball franchise.

Being “off the grid” and spending dozens of hours on flights gives you plenty of time to watch the entire "Mission Impossible" series ("Fallout" is GOATed), but also to think about whatever might rattle through your brain as you try to avoid a blood clot while sitting in a flying metal tube for most of 14 hours. And yes, while I tried to stay out of the muck while feeding kangaroos and swimming in the Great Barrier Reef, I did spend some time wondering how everyone at home was feeling.

The verdict seems to be, “quite bad.” I want to illustrate to everyone reading this — fans, certainly, but also anyone connected to the Sixers — just how fed up people are with this team:

This is a small group of people responding to a single tweet prompt in late August, which admittedly comes at the end of a tumultuous month. And yes, there are plenty of people who say they’re tuned out right now that will jump back on board at some point during the season. But I am not sure the organization is truly prepared for the level of backlash they could face early this season, with the weight of recent history and the toxic James Harden situation hanging over everything.

A “sales pitch” for caring about the team has to start here — you have to enjoy watching basketball. And that also has to be the brand of basketball that is played in 2023, not the one that might have been played several decades ago, during your childhood, or even before the three-point boom hit within the last 10-15 years. Because I have seen a lot of people get angsty about lead swings and Sixers games that are bog-standard nights in the NBA these days. There have been times where I’ve poked fun at people who yearn for the “good old days” of basketball because they want to see Joel Embiid do nothing except posting up. But I can’t tell you you’re obligated to enjoy how the league has evolved any more than I could with another hobby.

I know this seems like a silly place to start, but I’ve said or suggested over the years that a lot of people care about the Sixers as an idea, a community property, and a piece of their upbringing more than they care about the sport itself. And that certainly isn’t wrong, as it’s sort of how I feel about following baseball and the Phillies, and increasingly how I feel about sports in general. As I get older, most non-basketball sports are enjoyable for me more because of who I get to share them with, where I’ve gotten to go because of them, or who I might meet as a result of watching them. As a last-minute addition to our trip, we ended up at an Australian Rules Football game in Melbourne with a couple from Brisbane that we met by chance during a wine and gin-tasting tour. The joy of that experience for me was much less about the sport than it was about making new friends and feeling a connection to someone’s home.

That sort of joy can carry you a long way. Many of you can think of games you went to with a parent, parties you went to with friends, or a sports-themed date you went on that you look back on fondly even if the team you rooted for was hopeless on a macro level or lost by 35 that day. If winning was all that mattered, we’d all root for teams like the Lakers, Yankees, Real Madrid, and so on, expecting that success was a birthright instead of something to chase.

But I can understand why that has been so hard for people to wrap their minds around with this Sixers team. It’s not just that they’ve been stuck in this spot as they’ve cycled through coaches and front offices and sidekicks; it’s not just that they went through a dramatic and divisive rebuild process to leap out of the NBA’s middle class; it’s not just that they’ve drafted multiple players No. 1 overall who forgot or never learned how to shoot, because it’s all of those things. The people who hated The Process feel vindicated having done so because the Sixers still can’t make the proverbial leap. The people who supported it seem to increasingly feel cheated, believing they are owed better than this for backing the team even as they won just 10 games.

So yes, enjoying basketball has to be a starting point. You have to find joy out of watching Joel Embiid, underwhelming in the playoffs as he was, trying to push the envelope even further after another summer in the gym. You have to be interested in seeing what Nick Nurse can do tactically to shake things up, whether that’s dramatically changing the rotation or messing with the schemes the players are operating within. You have to be excited about — and I know I was told not to mention him — Tyrese Maxey’s growth as a core piece, as he works to grow into a true lead guard and prove he’s worth a gigantic payday next summer.

There are questions galore to be interested in. What does De’Anthony Melton have to offer with everything to prove in a contract year? Will double-big lineups become a regular part of their setup? Can one of their two-way players, zooming in on Terquavion Smith specifically, make a case for a real roster spot and rotation minutes? Does Patrick Beverley bounce back as a shooter, and does he add some more dawg to that locker room? With or without trades for big names and big-contract players like James Harden and Tobias Harris, these are points of intrigue.

Many of you will read those questions and think, “I know the answer to that” the same way you feel you can tell me how the Sixers’ 2023-24 season will end. And you may even be correct in your assessments. But to me, the whole reason to follow sports is the unscripted nature compared to other hobbies you might pursue. I live and breathe the Sixers for a living and do pretty well with my preseason predictions, but I get a bunch of those wrong every year all the same. The “juice” factor varies night to night, but I show up to the arena and find joy in the unpredictability. On a random Sunday night against the Jazz, Embiid could turn in a 59-point howitzer. Hell, sometimes you show up and a guy on a 10-day contract ends up getting a standing ovation for annoying the piss out of James Harden and having a mid-January moment in the sun.

The point is not that these experiences create the same level of joy as a championship for your favorite team, but that there are many moments of joy even along doomed journeys. Being reluctant to buy in on the Sixers doesn’t mean you have to completely opt out of having fun watching a sport. If you’re going to be mad about an outcome that you feel is set in stone before the games even take place, then you’re probably right to feel you should spend your time on something else, like scripted TV or video games or knitting or starting your own YouTube channel dedicated to craft bourbon. It shouldn’t feel like a burden or a downer to simply follow a sports team, and I know the Sixers have dumped more baggage on their customers than most franchises over the last decade or so.

“Do what brings you joy” is an idea I think everyone should follow. I have this career because I love basketball, I love talking about and going to games, and I love sharing these experiences with the people who choose to get back on the ride every year. Sometimes it’s getting a mid-game text from my dad complaining about Scott Foster, other times it’s meeting a stranger at a local bar who knows my work and wants to glean any extra insight I might be able to offer over a beer. With the sting of the Game 7 meltdown and a summer of madness so fresh, I can understand why sentiment is at an all-time low right now. But I suspect that you’ll be able to find some pleasure in following this team, even if it’s a rockier journey than you’d like.

And if you can’t, at least you’ll have the Eagles.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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