A COUPLE OF weeks ago, I sat and watched Bill Simmons, ESPN's lead columnist and the author of the current New York Times No. 1 best-seller, "The Book of Basketball," at a sold-out appearance at the Borders just south of City Hall.

For more than four hours, Simmons signed books, shook hands and traded barbs with hundreds of fans there to buy a book whose target audience, narrowly defined, is hard core basketball fans. Sports fans at a book signing about basketball: This was, presumably, a cross section of Philadelphians who might be interested in basketball.

And yet, question after question focused on the World Series, the Eagles, "The Wire" and "Teen Wolf" - not the 76ers.

There were more questions about where LeBron James might end up - Philadelphia is an impossible option, no one was hoping for that answer - than there were about the home team. Of the 500 fans who showed up, there weren't 10 guys wearing Sixers gear. Afterward, I asked Simmons about it: Is Philly just not a good pro hoops town?

Simmons, love him or hate him, knows basketball. He just consumed roughly every pro basketball game ever filmed, and, as a lifelong Celtics fan, should have a decent idea of the Sixers' status in the Celts' once-upon-a-time main rival's hometown.

Pausing to thinking for a second, he tilted his head back, crossed his arms and half-whispered his answer: "I don't think so," and then paused. "No."

ON ONE hand, it's an easy time to write this piece. The 76ers are last in the league at drawing fans, a stat that shocks many, including Sixers assistant coach Aaron McKie.

"The lowest?!" shouts a stunned McKie, stumbling over nothing on his way from the court to the locker room after a recent game. "In basketball?!"

McKie, who starred for Simon Gratz, then Temple, and then that championship-level 76ers team, remembers playing in front of sold-out crowds in high school. Now Sixers games don't even cause a traffic jam.

Narrowly speaking, it seems fans have some valid excuses.

For one, the team is mediocre, and without a top-tier star, foreseeable salary-cap room or the ability to lose enough games to fall into a draft pick who matters in the short term, they're going to stay that way. No one wants to watch a loser, and the 76ers, well, they're not winning much.

Second, there's the economy, a problem compounded by the third excuse: The other teams are good.

When the Sixers started their season, the Phillies were in their World Series run, the Eagles were in the midst of three straight games against NFC East opponents, the Flyers were entering the meat of their schedule and 'Nova had just been announced as a Top 5 team in the nation.

Everyone has a limit on how much sports they can consume. Maybe it was just the 76ers' time to be low man on the totem poll.

Those are fair complaints, but they're all wrong. Sixers fans aren't staying home because Samuel Dalembert doesn't inspire confidence, or because they don't have money in their pocket or because of their love of Jayson Werth. They're not showing up because they don't exist.

Nor have they ever. Not really. Julius Erving and Moses Malone couldn't sell out playoff games against the hated Celtics in the early '80s. Charles Barkley sold posters but not sneakers. Even Allen Iverson, supposedly Philadelphia's sweetheart, never sold as well here as he did in the rest of the league.

It's true. During the end of the A.I. era, attendance waned locally faster than it did across the league.

During his last full year in Philly, the Sixers drew the 21st most fans per game. Meanwhile, America continued to tune in for A.I. - the 76ers were the fifth best road draw. Even in the finals-bound 2001 season, they drew better on the road (second) than at home (fifth).

A.I. was a draw, but hardly one that galvanized the city. Everyone came out to see A.I. - but Philly did it less than the rest of the nation.

Unsurprisingly, the Sports Guy has an opinion.

"It could be a race thing to some degree. They've never had an awesome white player, and they've always had the most iconic African-American player. They had Doc, then they had Barkley, who was obviously very outspoken, and then Iverson."

Would we have showed up more if the team were whiter? Maybe, but I'm not so sure.

I think Philadelphia does care about basketball, just not the pro team. Basketball is this town is hyper-local: High-school tournaments are filled with adults, playground teams have cult followings and every team in the Big Five has a big following.

To those who insist Philly is a hoops town, I'd probably say, yes, you're right.

But when was the last time you were at a Sixers game?

E. James Beale is a contributing sports editor at the Philadelphia City Paper. E-mail him at E.james.beale@gmail.com.