Someone once said of this city's crowds that "they'd boo a cancer patient." Well, you have to understand that a half-century of rooting for the Phillies and the Eagles and, except for a rare handful of seasons, the 76ers and Flyers can make a fan feel like he's rooting against cancer. Philadelphia fans always expect to lose, and in their unshakable pessimism create a kind of Jungian collective paralysis that seizes hold of their teams in key moments and, like the demon in "Ghostbusters," brings to life the very image they fear the most.
I'm not making excuses for them. They are, after all, a collectively foul fanhood, and it's hard to go to a big Phillies or Eagles or Sixers game and not feel that the fans aren't getting pretty much what they deserve. Mike Schmidt, one of the half-dozen greatest players in baseball since World War II, winner of three MVP awards, was booed by Phillies fans. Schmidt led the Phillies to half of their World Series and their only championship, but they booed him when they didn't deliver. For that alone they are going to continue to burn in fan purgatory for many a decade to come.
I want to love Philadelphia. My father's family is from there, though they are now long fled to Jersey and small towns like Collingswood and Haddonfield and Moorestown. Scarcely any of my cousins or their kids play sports anymore except for hockey, which is basically God's gift to white kids who don't want to have to compete with black kids.
Because Philly is still what Curt Flood called it when he started the modern players' revolution by refusing to be traded there in 1970, namely the most racist town in America. That's largely the unspoken appeal of hockey around the suburbs of Philadelphia, the only area in the country where I heard the words "Thank God he's white" when Mark McGwire approached Roger Maris' home run record three years ago.
This presents a genuine dilemma for the rabid sports fan, of which Philadelphia has more than any comparable area in the country. Philadelphia is a baseball town, completely and totally, a fact that is all the more ironic as everyone in the city and the surrounding area seems to have forgotten it. (How backward is the Philly sports scene? I think you'd have to go north of the border to find another city where hockey is more popular than baseball.)
The only time this city has come together since the Constitutional Convention was in 1980 when the Phillies won the Series, and the resulting celebration was louder than if the Eagles, Sixers and Flyers combined had won. But that was long ago, and a lot of white flight to the suburbs and very bad baseball management has occurred since then, and the city now ignores baseball as if in sullen remembrance of a time when Pete Rose was everything it ever hoped a sports star could be.
Allen Iverson, on the other hand, is the prototype of the athlete a lot of white fans would despise if he couldn't make 15-foot jump shots, but he can, and even 20- and 25-footers, and so he seems the best chance they have of relieving their massive inferiority complex. (The biggest roar I ever heard out of Philadelphia fans was in 1980 when Tug McGraw, in the victory parade after the World Series, told New York fans they could "take this championship and shove it." The main point of winning the Phillies' only World Series trophy seemed to be as leverage for sticking it to New York.)
One can't pin this phenomenon on Philly fans alone; intellectuals just can't wait to line up behind the latest reformed street thug who seems to have changed himself around because he now makes an occasional assist. In a bizarre twist on the cherished conservative chestnut that sports build character, a great many liberals are perfectly prepared to believe that the thugs who win somehow have more character than the ones who lose -- or at least that thugs acquire character from winning.
Please understand, I mean "thug" in the best possible sense; I'm simply pointing out that an unusual number of athletes, particularly basketball players, are regarded as thugs before they win and then somehow redeemed in the eyes of their critics for having done nothing more character building than winning a few games of basketball. Oh, well, sports do funny things to people. For some fools, they actually give hope.
About six minutes into the game Wednesday night it suddenly became collectively obvious to everyone in the handsome First Union Center that they had once again allowed false hope to build up around them. The Sixers stormed out of the gate with such ferocious energy that the fans were standing for the first eight or nine possessions. Philly went up 4-1.
And that was it.
The Lakers came bounding effortlessly back on a 13-2 run, and after that the game was never close. Worse than that, the game lit up a retrospective path going back to Game 1 that mocked the very idea of Sixers hope. After the first game it was taken as an article of faith that a miracle had just been witnessed because the Sixers were so tired from the long series with the Bucks, when in fact it ought to have been noticed that the reason the series was so long was because the Sixers simply weren't good enough to beat a team markedly inferior to the Western powers in fewer games.
In fact, history has generally proven that the team that has less chance to go stale during the playoffs has the early edge, and it took the Lakers a full half to shake off the rest of a 10-day layoff. L.A. stormed back to a five-point lead with 2:20 left, and did it so easily that it lost its concentration and the game. Looking back on it, it's obvious that the Lakers should have won and that Wednesday's game by rights should have been the final one.
In any event, it had become obvious to the sellout crowd, which went through an angry, silent stretch Wednesday before the old feeling of inevitable letdown was recognized, and the rest of the game (except for a late, 12-0 run in which a few brave souls cheered again only to be silenced by a ferocious Shaquille O'Neal slam-dunk) was spent in an angry, cynical parody of hometown support that included curses and threats and a kind of wait till next year and this will happen all over again attitude.
Iverson, who was brilliantly defensed and not a factor in Game 4, was the subject of not a few jibes up in the cheap seats. After all this "dominating player" talk and the rude discovery that Iverson is not the man to lead them to glory, don't be too shocked to find that Philly fans boo him to, say, Orlando in about two seasons. On the other hand, who knows? Maybe they'll find a cure for cancer.