SO THIS GUY walks up to me in the gym with a worried look on his face.
"You think Bynum will ever play this year?" he asks.
"No," I say, smiling.
"That sucks," he says.
He is not smiling. He is sad. It is Christmas season and he is sad because Andrew Bynum, the center who was supposed to make the Sixers whole, has instead become a hole. A giant one.
And so . . . The Sixers are a mess.
About the time a young Delaware Valley sports fan receives his first authentic Eagles, Flyers or Phillies shirt, he or she are given these simple words to use on those rare occasions the name of the town's NBA franchise comes up. The words are a very handy sports tool. They cover just about any era, whether we're talking Iverson or Barkley, Doug Moe or Larry Brown.
Me in 1996: "So what do you think about the Sixers?"
You in 2006: "The Sixers are a mess."
This winter has been a little different, though. The NHL won't let the Flyers play hockey. And, well, wouldn't it have been great in hindsight had the NFL done the same thing with the Eagles? And the Phillies? After they aged ungracefully before our very eyes last summer, Ruben Amaro Jr. went shopping with a big to-do list and wound up at an antiques store.
See, ha-ha, that's supposed to be funny. Except people around here don't really have much of a sense of humor when it comes to sports. Angelo Cataldi can make them laugh a little, and Joe Conklin too, but mostly it's about angst and anger.
That is how it works here. Every loss, every unfulfilled promise, every bust, bad move or embarrassing sports moment creates a living, bleeding wound. Enough of them and we start looking and sounding like zombies, which is where we seem to be headed right now. Conveniently, we point to the many losses our teams have suffered over the years as justification for this, but the truth is that we seek out suffering even in the best of times.
Proudly, we also boast of toughness when it comes to our teams, but the real truth is our pain tolerance is no greater than that of a small child's. One bad baseball summer after five pretty damn good ones, and the manager and general manager are now viewed by many as dolts. And that pitcher we mourned when he was traded away to Seattle? Well, a whole bunch of those mourners wanted to trade him last summer.
The gym is my little petri dish for this. The conversations between men clanking weights often reflect our civic mood. The best part of living in these parts is that it is never about apathy, not even now when the Eagles season can't end soon enough, there's no Ilya Bryzgalov to psychoanalyze, and the signing of the newest old Phillie brings with it yet another medical condition to be aware of.
"You worried about Mike Adams' Thoracic outlet syndrome?" some big, tattooed guy asks me.
"He can't spit?" I ask.
Mostly though, the gym talk these days is about the Sixers. Which I guess is a good thing for that franchise, in a uniquely bizarre Philly sort of way.
"They can't win without [Jrue] Holiday," another guy says, looking at me for what appears to be some ray of hope.
"Doesn't appear so," I say. Again, I am smiling. It is the day after the Sixers have lost their fourth game in a row without him. In that game, a 125-103 loss to the Houston Rockets, rookie Maalik Wayns drove toward the basket, then suddenly turned nearly 180 degrees and threw the ball to referee Bennett Salvatore.
It is hard for any team in the NBA to win consistently without a center. This is an NBA staple. It becomes even more difficult when a team does not have its starting All-Star-caliber point guard and pretty much impossible when the second-string point guard can't differentiate between a teammate and a referee.
For one thing, they don't dress anything alike.
See, this is funny, people. Not sad. Funny. If another team's backup point guard did this we'd all have a hearty laugh about it, the way Bennett did, and on we'd go to the next thing.
But when Maalik threw that ball to Bennett the other night, you didn't laugh, did you? You got mad. You rubbed your face into your hands just the way Doug Collins did.
Nothing funny about it at all.
Well here's some holiday-without-Holiday advice: Lighten up. Lighten up soon. Before it eats you up, ages you, before you start looking like Keith Richards.
Or a new Phillie.
(Just kidding. Happy Holiday-less holidays!)