The waiter suggested to the 20-something guys at Xfinity Live, across the parking lot from the Wells Fargo Center before a recent 76ers game, that maybe they'd want to do some shots - "could help in the second quarter."
Inside the Wells Fargo Center during a Sixers game night, you'll hear the "Tankadelphia" jokes, the suggestions for pregame fan tryouts to create interest and even beef up the squad as the Sixers pile up losses, no end in sight.
You don't really hear fans inside actively rooting for the Sixers to lose. Even those in favor of strategically losing to gain a better draft position, taking the concept to its furthest extreme, they can't do it. They'll gripe and groan and curse and eventually get fed up and start booing. Someone will say, "I didn't know we were this bad." But root against their team playing right there in front of them?
"When I watch on TV, I'm rooting for them to lose," said Aaron Snyder, from Allentown. "When I'm here, I'm rooting for them to win."
How do you root for a franchise that at its core isn't rooting for itself right now? This season, that's a basic Sixers fan conundrum.
The 76ers are in the second year of a massive, and possibly historic, rebuilding plan that has seen its roster overhauled in an effort to lose enough games to gain the highest possible draft choices. The front office, led by general manager Sam Hinkie, has three, four, maybe five years down the line as a target for the full turnaround. And Hinkie and company believe that building through the draft is the only ticket out of the mediocrity this franchise has experienced for a decade.
Last year's team won just 19 games, good enough for the second-worst record and the third pick in the draft, where the Sixers selected Kansas star center Joel Embiid. This year's team is 0-16 - the league record for losses to start a season is 18 - and is headed toward even fewer wins. It ranks last in the NBA in points per game, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, and three-point percentage. The Sixers also average the most turnovers.
But with a terrible win-loss record, the team hopes to draft another potential superstar as the roster slowly rounds into shape.
Inside the Wells Fargo Center, fans are like the players and coaches, ignoring the almost inevitable outcome. At tipoff, there is hope in the building but little expectation.
"Philly fans always have hope, that's the thing," said Ryan Schmidt of Conshohocken.
These aren't the greater majority, the fans who are staying away and wondering why the Sixers even bother showing up themselves, the ones who consider this whole thing a perversion. Why not stay home as a franchise - call in a forfeit, save on the electric bill. The ones who make it to a game, the more hopeful part of the fan base, say they do it for all sorts of reasons. Many find themselves in possession of a free ticket to a live sporting event and are pleased they still get to feel the experience, even if they laugh about it.
"Hey, we're winning, whoooooa - stop the game," said a man walking in from the concourse just after the start of a recent game against Phoenix. The scoreboard read 2-0.
A couple of hours earlier, that waiter at Xfinity Live across the parking lot, catering to the pregame crowd, suggested to Schmidt, wearing his Sixers T-shirt, that maybe he'd start with some wings?
"I'm just drinking," the 28-year-old told him. No problem, the waiter said - "especially if you're going to the Sixers game." (The waiter's call about the second quarter, the suggestion for a shot to get through it, was a smart basketball forecast. The Suns outscored the Sixers by 41-17 in that second quarter.)
"Believe me, I take a lot of flak at work for having season tickets," said Adam D'Andrea, there with his 17-year-old son, Gino. "It's good quality time hanging out with my son. He loves basketball, plays basketball."
Sure, the quality of the time has its limits. Gino D'Andrea figures he made it to five games last season.
"I didn't come to a game they won," said the Downingtown East High student. Even finding friends to take tickets for free isn't easy, said Adam D'Andrea, who has a third of a plan. "I already gave one set away. It's already a better year."
Father and son are on board with the long-term plan. At least there is a plan, they say. Painful, the son said, but it could be worth it. They saw enough mediocre hoops in recent years, they both said, that they are willing to sacrifice as fans as the Sixers try to get good.
"To get good, you either have to be good or start by being bad," Adam D'Andrea said.
So everyone inside is on board? Ciro Tufano of Cherry Hill, at the Suns game, realizes the players aren't trying to lose. He gets the concept of the plan. But assembling a team incapable of getting the job done - "stupid," he said. Yes, he was there, and is happy to bring his own son, get a slab of pizza the size of a table, a couple of large sodas, have themselves a time of it. But the plan?
"Trying to lose on purpose, it's [expletive] horrible," Tufano said. "It defeats the purpose of the game."
Quite a few fans expressed more concerns about the players than they did for themselves as fans, worried about a losing mentality infecting players and coaches. Most bad teams have a respite from misery. Usually even a bad NBA team can beat a good team on a given night.
"Not this team," said George Wolfert of Washington Township as he walked out to the parking lot after the Celtics game, there with his two adult sons. One was in from Las Vegas and wanted to see a game, buying a vintage Sixers zip-up sweat top for the occasion.
How many players can Steve Wolfert name? "Oh man," he said before the game, ticking off Nerlens Noel, Tony Wroten, and Michael Carter-Williams. "I think that's it. Davies? . . . McDaniels! That's five players. That's a team."
The Sixers clearly are working as an organization to get people inside. It's far from full but not as empty as you'd expect, even if a lot of the beer stations are closed on the upper concourse and the 50-50 raffle gets a fraction of what comes in for Flyers games.
Archbishop Ryan's cheerleaders, on the court before the pregame against the Celtics, took most of a section upstairs with their entourage. The Springton Lake Middle School Choir was in from Delaware County for the Suns game. There were all sorts of groups like that. The day of the Celtics game the Sixers held a career day starting at 3 p.m, inviting some elementary schools in to listen to the job descriptions of various staffers. Then they could stay around for the game, free of charge.
At the least, they're buying a lot of french fries, at $7.75 a bucket. If you get bored with the game there's a face-painter down on the main concourse and a table to make a homemade sign. So what if you have just as good a shot at naming a member of the Sixers dance team as a Sixers player?
"This team now?" Brenda McNulty said when asked to name any current players. She was there with her daughter and a group from Jay Cooke Elementary School in the city's Logan section, there for the career day. "I know Allen Iverson. I know Julius Erving."
Through the first eight home games this season - the Sixers were averaging 14,173 fans per game, which ranked 29th in the 30-team NBA (only the Detroits Pistons were worse). They ranked 29th last season over 41 games, at 13,869 fans per game.
To get people in there, the Sixers sell the future but also the past, offering season-ticket holders chances to meet Iverson and Erving. Heavy hitters are escorted onto the court for pregame halfcourt photos. But the cheap seats have some season-ticket-holders, too, since you can pay as little as $13 a ticket and still have an opportunity to get that photo with Iverson or Doc.
In the front row of the upper deck, Bill Bunt of Sanatoga, in Montgomery County, pays $15 a ticket for seats listed at $20 ($22 for the aisle seat). He has four seats for the season. He sold a small share on Stub Hub last season, Bunt said, figuring he made about $400 back.
"This year, I'm just putting everything up, and what doesn't sell I'll go to," said Bunt, who added that he sold two of his seats for that game earlier in the day for $10 each. "I've [already] sold four or five games." He feels kind of funny doing this, he said. "I go through the Sixer website. I'm not doing anything they don't tell me to do."
Getting in cheap or free doesn't seem difficult for the diligent. Mike Konnick and Rob Sargent, in from Paulsboro, at Xfinity Live before the Suns game, got their seats in Section 111 for free after a friend texted them about a promo offer, a fan code where they could go on the team's site and pick from one of six games, getting two seats. So they're splitting $25 for the parking and the toll.
"We like to show our face, even if they [stink]," Sargent said.
They said they may leave early since a Flyers game was on TV later. They also worry about what it will cost to get in down the road if the Sixers' tanking plan pays off.
"Once they get good, we won't be able to go," Sargent said.