Passion, tradition - and now futility - define our sports experience
WEATHERWISE, it had been a miserable spring. Leaden, sodden, gray day after gray day accompanied the Sixers' march to the 1983 NBA championship. Fo', fi', fo'; drizzle, downpour, deluge. And then, when it was done and the celebration was to commence, the skies cleared. The irreplaceable Dave Zinkoff, the team's ancient public-address announcer, drew one of the day's greatest ovations when he began the ceremony with the words, "I promised you a sunny day."
In 1983, it did not rain on the Sixers' parade. There was no hint, then, of what was to come.
Twenty-three years ago, that was the last championship won by a major Philadelphia professional team. It is a sentence that taunts a sporting city - and, come next June, it is likely to be 24. We are closing in on 100 football, baseball, basketball and hockey championships being awarded elsewhere. If it happens, it will be the cry-centennial.
We have learned that passion doesn't matter - or how could the Florida Marlins have won two World Series while playing in front of nobody? We have seen that tradition is meaningless, with Tampa and Arizona and Carolina all sprinting by.
Passion. Tradition. All of the capital-letter verities are dead to us. Truth has become the inevitability of disappointment. And Justice? In Philadelphia, the only Justice is Winston - and he can't even get on the field.
First it was a curiosity to all, a mockery of the law of averages, and now it is a calamity to many. They have decided that losing is in the genes here, or the water.
There are some who insist we have become the Israelites of American sports cities, condemned to the desert for years and decades, just wandering. They really see this carrying all of those Old Testamenty kinds of overtones, with every scourge visited upon us at this point but locusts on Locust Street. This isn't like Red Sox fans were for all of that time, or like Cubs fans are to this day - it isn't as if Philadelphia fans find comfort in their misery. But there are many who now find an identity in that misery. It has been that long.
I have a friend, a Philly guy who lives somewhere else now, someone who listens to WIP on the computer and reads everything and is plainly tortured by the drought. We were swapping e-mails about it the other day and he wrote this:
"Philly fans have long taken a perverse pride in our grousing about not having a championship or about how tough we are or about how rough we've had it. But, after a while, whatever comfort was taken in the fact that we've been collectively forsaken ceases to exist. What remains is the raw wound - a wound that we continue to pick at, but without any relief. That's the thing. There's no outlet, no way to vent anymore that we haven't already tried. All there is now is the fact that we're losers. It's at the point now where it's hard to imagine not being losers. "
The time period is so hard to get your head around. Twenty-three years. In 1983, nobody thought Veterans Stadium was a dump. In 1983, nobody thought the owners were cheap. Twenty-three years. Everything has changed since then except the final standings.
Sports were decidedly more mom-and-pop back then. The litany of change, on a macro level, is familiar: ESPN was new and the Internet didn't exist and the notion that you could watch eight NFL games at once, all on the same screen, was beyond even a wet dream. On a personal level, it is even more stark. Think of what you looked like back then, if you were born back then. In 1983, I was a new beat guy covering the Eagles, having just watched Dick Vermeil declare himself burned out following my first season and trying to convince myself that Marion Campbell had all the answers in my second. In hindsight, naivete is so unattractive.
Marion Campbell, Fred Bruney (for one memorable game), Buddy Ryan, Rich Kotite, Ray Rhodes, Andy Reid. That is just the football coaches. I couldn't do the Sixers coaches on a bet - I'm not sure Harvey Pollack could - and, as for the Flyers, I can never remember if it was Terry Simpson and then Bill Dineen or the other way around. The whole thing is a blur, with only one predominant image: unfulfillment.
That last word is the issue. In 23 years, "unfulfillment" has morphed into "losing. " Making it to the sixth game of the World Series is now seen as losing. Making it to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup semifinals is now seen as losing. And four straight trips to the NFC Championship Game, plus one Super Bowl? Losing, losing, losing, losing.
Maybe that is Philadelphia, always the city with an inferiority complex. Maybe that is modern American society. Maybe it is the inevitable result of that 23-year drumbeat. None of us can know for sure. But I can tell you this: In the years leading up to the Phillies' first (and only) World Series in 1980, there was a lot of disappointment but a lot less of the woe-is-us than you hear today. Maybe it was as simple as the absence of talk radio and the interactivity of the Web, but it was less venomous then, less negative.
I ask people this all the time, especially when the woe-is-us is on steroids, like during a three-game losing streak for the Birds: Would you honestly feel any different about the losing streak, or be saying anything different, if the Sixers had won in 2001, or the Phillies had won in 1993? They all say they would, that they would be more tolerant - and, especially, if the Eagles had won the Super Bowl following the 2004 season.
I think they're lying to themselves. If the Phils had won in '93, Ed Wade still would have been run out of town in 2005. If the Sixers had won in 2001, Billy King still would be wearing the bull's-eye today. It is sports in America in 2006, especially in the big-media cities (but not exclusively). The volume and the vernacular might be uniquely Philadelphian sometimes, but people get booed everywhere these days when the power play goes 0-for-4, or on the third consecutive three-and-out. It is just the way it is.
Is all of that made worse by 23 years without a championship? Certainly. But it is more than that. For the record, I would be very happy to be wrong about all of this. Of course, the only way to prove that theory is for someone to finally win a title and then see what happens the next time the Eagles lose three in a row.
On the day of the last parade, Ray Didinger wrote a column in the Daily News, using the play and movie, "That Championship Season," as a jumping-off point to ask the same question asked in Jason Miller's work: Where will they be 20 years from now?
Nobody Didinger asked thought that, 23 years later, Mo Cheeks would be a coach, no less the Sixers' coach. Nobody thought Moses Malone would be beside him on the bench, or that Julius Erving would be a prospective bidder for a franchise that finds itself, charitably, at a crossroads. No one saw any of this. How could they?
There was a 12-year-old girl quoted in one of the newspaper stories from the parade. She was there that day with her mother, and it was all about joy. Twenty-three years later, she must be 35 years old, maybe with a sixth-grader of her own. You wonder if she has buried her mother yet.
My buddy wrote a final e-mail postscript:
"One more thing, and I'm remiss for not saying this: My dad was the world's biggest Eagles fan. Way bigger than me. He lived for Sundays. When the Birds made the Super Bowl against the Pats, it was about 7 months after he passed from cancer. My mom and I were sure that the Eagles would win - because my dad deserved it, and if there's a heaven, then he was seated next to God watching that game. Then they lost. My dad needs a win, too. "
The sentiment is perfect, and beautiful. And we wait. *