In general, I’m not the sort of person who reflexively responds to criticisms of the city of Philadelphia by sprinting to the witness stand and swearing myself in for the defense. For a city that claims to eat shoe leather and grit for breakfast, it’s remarkably easy to get a sizable chunk of the fan base trapped inside the eyewall of its feelings.
I say that mostly out of love. I might feel a little more invested in the city’s reputation if I didn’t wake up most mornings to one or more emails encouraging me to waterboard myself with a vat of lukewarm hot dog water. But, then, that’s the reality of my morning, and while the senders of such delightful notes make up a minuscule percentage of my inbox, I imagine they are also the ones who take the greatest offense to the lazy and underinformed one-liners about Santa Claus and stadium jail cells that offer the national yappers an easy narrative to inject into their flyby analysis.
The law of large-numbered crowds says that the more people who gather beneath the same banner, the more disproportionate their representation will be. Because every institution ends up owning the actions of its outliers, and the more passion that a membership as a whole feels towards its collective cause, the more extreme the actions of the idiots are likely to be. In short, Philly is a town that cares about its sports more than many outsiders care about anything in their lives. That’s what makes it a great place to follow sports, and to write about them. As with anything, oversimplified criticism simply comes with the territory. There would be no trolls if there were no trolled. Ignorance is bliss. Maybe ignoring it is too.
There is some irony in writing all of that, given that the topic at hand is a story that appeared on Bleacher Report on Friday afternoon that attempts to paint Markelle Fultz’s perfectly ordinary season with the Magic as some sort of heroic triumph over a city that tried its hardest to destroy him. In fairness to Fultz, who is 21 years old and a sensitive kid and a shadow of the player he was supposed to be, the story’s most inflammatory line, and the one that is currently earning its circulation as a viral hate-read on Philly Sports Twitter, does not come out of the player’s mouth.
He could not stop the entire city of Philadelphia from hating him, is how writer Mirin Fader phrases it as she opens the piece with a scene of Fultz lying in his bed battling thoughts about quitting the sport that pays him millions.
It's a line that establishes the dramatic tension that animates the rest of the piece. Unfairly pilloried and ultimately exiled from a city after busting his ass to recover from a rare and mysterious medical condition, the hero embarks on a quest to show them all how wrong they were and realize his true self with the help of a new city and a new and supportive cast of friends.
It's a compelling narrative, and a necessary one, since we really do not learn much about Fultz or the sudden deterioration of his shooting form that we did not already know. Yet it is also one that is almost entirely unsubstantiated over the rest of the story by any piece of evidence that might cause a reader to think, "Ah, yes, those folks in Philadelphia really were a bucket of jerks."
The story that emerges from Fultz's mouth is the same one we've heard since he first returned to the court after missing six months of his rookie season. From his vantage point, it is a tale of frustrating misdiagnosis followed by hard work and mental fortitude and strength of will. This is an understandable way for Fultz to frame his ordeal, one that we've heard out of approximately 100 percent of athletes at one time or another. Nobody believed in me. Other people would have quit. But I'm a hard worker, and I know my talent, and for that reason I prevailed. This is essentially the extent of what Fultz is quoted as saying in the story. Maybe not verbatim. But also not far off.
The rest of the story is more or less a series of Fultz's allies and advocates expressing sympathy for his situation and aiming their rhetorical lances at a boogeyman that, by the end of the story, still does not exist. The only piece of concrete evidence the author provides to bolster her claim that the ENTIRE city of Philadelphia hated him are a couple of oblique references to the "local and national media." In one, Fultz and former Sixer Justin Anderson are watching television when a commentator "started blasting Fultz," though we are never informed what, in Anderson's eyes, "blasting" entails. In the second anecdote, the author states that many in the press speculated that his problems were mental, and follows it up with a quote from former Sixer Wilson Chandler, who opines that the rumors that were going around about his mental health were not fair.
What the author does not report is that the speculation about Fultz having the yips was not simply idle rumor-mongering, at least not from any legitimate outlets. This was the view of plenty of people within the Sixers organization itself. At one point, Brett Brown was quoted as saying — regretfully, it would turn out — that Fultz’s symptoms were “psychosomatic.”
My point here is not to relitigate the Fultz ordeal. To attempt to divine the mental from the physical is a worthless exercise anyway — talk to Brandon Brooks sometime. It’s all part of the same machine. Rather, the point is that the Bleacher Report story glosses over or outright ignores a lot of real, legitimate, often nuanced reporting that has been produced regarding Fultz’s situation in order to advance a binary, hagiographic, hero-versus-villain narrative in which the city of Philadelphia’s fans and media play the soulless antagonist. It’s two-dimensional and schmaltzy, but more than anything it is absurdly unfair to the fans and media who followed Fultz throughout his two years in the city.
As I noted at the top, I’m not generally one to get my back up defending Philly’s reputation. But as someone who long suspected that Fultz’s problem was far more complex than a simple biomechanical malfunction, I can tell you with 100 percent sincerity that the vast majority of fans and media members in this town went to extraordinary lengths to accept the narrative that Team Fultz was advancing and embrace the player within the only reality that mattered. He was a young kid who meant well and was battling a potentially devastating situation that was outside of his control. When he first returned to the court, they gave him a standing ovation. When he hit his first shot, they gave him a standing ovation. When he logged a triple double, they gave him a standing ovation. Hell, when the Sixers traded him away, which was the only rational thing that they could do, a sizable chunk of the fan base decried the organization for giving up on the kid too soon.
All of this is documented. There are stories. There are videos. Of the emails that I referenced receiving at the top, more than a handful came in defense of Fultz.
Throughout Fultz's tenure in Philly, there were plenty of quiet moments when I battled the desire to just let the kid be. As a human being on the road to recovery, that might be what he needed more than anything else.
But all of us make choices in our lives, and there are trade-offs for each one of those choices we make. I chose to become a sports writer, which means I chose to become someone who places people in a public spotlight. In return, I make a decent living doing something that I enjoy. But it requires me to portray reality in an objective manner, even if it contradicts my empathy.
Fultz chose to play basketball professionally, and that means he chose to be a public figure. He is compensated handsomely for that choice. But it requires him to give up a part of humanity that is easiest realized in anonymity.
All of us who chose to play our role in the world of professional sports choose to partake in the creation of the villainy depicted in the Bleacher Report story. Fans, media, coaches, players. It is unavoidable.
But apart from the inhumanity inherent in any voyeuristic spectacle — the making of heroes necessitates heroes that get broken — the city of Philadelphia acquitted itself remarkably well in its handling of Fultz. That might not make for a compelling narrative, but at least it is the truth.