PHILADELPHIA — The arena, brimming to capacity Wednesday night, was already rocking. Then, something happened to make the place go giddy.
Washington Wizards guard Tim Frazier drove inside the lane, attempting to loft a shot toward the rim but failing to account for 7-foot Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, who was lurking on the left block. Embiid pounced, swatting the poor, soft floater almost to the three-point line. The Sixers’ 6-foot-10 point guard Ben Simmons chased down the ball, sparking a fast break. Fans in the lower bowl of Wells Fargo Center began to rise to their feet, sensing a looming highlight. Simmons dribbled once, and finessed a left-handed dish to Embiid, who was nimbly running the floor. Embiid punctuated the end-to-end play with a dunk.
Philadelphia basketball fans waited five years for such a moment: One high lottery pick setting up another, their on-court chemistry producing a basketball freak show.
“Everyone is very much in love with the 76ers again, because people actually see hope now,” said Rahim Thompson, who founded the Chosen League, featuring the best high school prospects every summer on the playground courts at 10th and Olney Avenue. “The energy in the building is similar to when [Allen] Iverson was playing. It’s an excitement in the building because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
These 76ers are young, fun and above all, good. After Wednesday night’s 118-113 triumph over the Wizards, Philadelphia improved to 12-8 — already eclipsing the win total from the 2015-16 waste of a season in which the organization brazenly tanked its way to just 10 victories. These days, the games are sold out and there’s a waiting list for potential season ticket holders for 2018-19. The team has even been mentioned as a potential landing spot for next summer’s biggest free agent, LeBron James.
No joke: the Sixers are the NBA’s feel-good story of this young season.
“My rookie year when we won 10 games, a lot of people were clowning us a lot,” guard T.J. McConnell recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “But you have to go through the tough times to get to the good ones.”
They labeled the suffering, adopting the mantra “Trust The Process,” following former general manager Sam Hinkie’s stark, deliberate form of rebuilding the franchise by trading established players and trotting out young prospects who couldn’t win games so the team could eventually draft better ones.
But the Process tested the loyalty of a hard-knuckled city that proudly has a reputation for not suffering fools. This is a tough crowd — during a promotion Wednesday night, fans booed one of their own off the court after he air-balled several three-pointers. He was trying to score a free chicken biscuit. While disciples of Hinkie — a contingent heavily into the analytics side of basketball — praise his methods in the echo chamber of social media, they don’t speak for all of Philly.
“This is a true basketball city,” lifelong resident Kamal Yard said. “In Philadelphia, they know basketball through and through. You can pull up to a homeless guy and ask him about the Sixers and he’ll be able to tell you something.”
Sharif Hanford has never “raised the cat,” a catchphrase that spread among fans marking a 76ers win last season after Simmons posted photos of his own cats, nor does he obsess about Robert Covington’s deflections per game. Hanford’s not into memes and he’s not known to pore over player efficiency ratings. Hanford is just a kid who grew up in the Sixers Neighborhood Basketball League, now coaches ball and plays some pickup at Germantown High School whenever his body feels right. And yet …
“I guess you can say I was a part of the Process,” Hanford said. “Now the city is definitely behind the Sixers 100 percent and we’re ready for our parade.”
Hanford remembers attending a handful of Sixers games years ago with his son. There were just a few other long-suffering fans scattered around the building, including Stanford and Glenda Lattie.
“It was dead,” said Stanford Lattie of Delaware. “You could come in here and literally sit anywhere you want … This year, totally different. You can’t find a seat.”
The Latties, married 29 years, understand loyalty. They’ve been Sixers’ season-ticket holders since 1994. So they weren’t going to give up because of some terrible basketball.
“It was just something about the organization that we were tied to and we stuck through it,” Glenda Lattie said. “We never wavered. We came to every single game. Love the organization. Love the Sixers.”
Her husband finished her thought: “And we knew one day they would bounce back. They couldn’t stay bad forever. They were going to make a comeback.”
On Wednesday, the Latties stood by their usual perch near the P.J. Whelihan’s, just outside sections 105 and 106. Glenda had a slice of pizza and a soda. Stanford ordered a beer. They waved hello to old friends and marveled at the new ones filling the arena in Sixers blue and red.
“To see this crowd,” Glenda began, “We were coming when there was no one here. But just to see this crowd and to see that they have legitimate potential to go somewhere …”
The Sixers may not land LeBron James. They almost certainly will not have that parade this summer down Broad Street. But what the Sixers do have is a future, and an adoring fan base along for the ride.
The players have embraced the city, and Philly has opened its arms wide. Last summer, when Thompson put on the 16th running of the Chosen League, which partners with the Sixers, Simmons and Covington dropped by, along with Coach Brett Brown. Embiid has been known to show up at popular Philly hangouts — no entourage, no security.
“Basketball is an important part of the fabric of the city,” said Carl Arrigale, a South Philadelphia native entering his 20th season as head coach of the storied Neumann-Goretti high school boys’ basketball team.
“There’s a certain toughness that’s equated with a Philly basketball player and a basketball team,” Arrigale continued, “and I think this team has it. They’ve got some grit.”