Marc Zumoff arrived at the Wells Fargo Center at 10:30 Sunday morning for Game 1 of the 76ers’ first-round series against the Washington Wizards. Tipoff wasn’t for another 2½ hours, but already people were drinking and tailgating in the parking lot. All was right with the world again.
“That, to me, means playoff basketball,” Zumoff, the voice of Sixers telecasts since 1993, said in a phone interview Monday. “Walking in, you got a sense everything was different from what had been.”
It was just the first sign Sunday, across the NBA landscape, of how much closer everything had gotten to the way it once was and how much the league needs it to be that way again. There were those 11,160 fans in the Center’s stands, who “felt like 30,000,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said after his team’s 125-118 victory, thanks to a creative and clever seating chart. The Sixers left eight sections of the arena empty, all of them on the second level, all of them behind the two baskets. The fans were crammed together, as many of them in the lower bowl as possible to concentrate their cheers and claps into a single rising sound. And there was Wizards star Bradley Beal screaming right back at them, “This is my house!”
Hours later, 90 miles north, there was Madison Square Garden, hosting the first Knicks playoff game in eight years, damn near exploding when R.J. Barrett threw down a hellacious fastbreak dunk in the third quarter. There was Spike Lee being Spike Lee on the sideline, and there were fans putting the lie to the self-serving stereotype that New York sports fans are oh-so sophisticated, chanting curses to Hawks guard Trae Young, and there was Young, dropping in that game-winning runner with 0.9 seconds left, yelling curses right back after the Garden went funereal. And in a desert to the west, there was a “BEAT L.A.” chant in Phoenix Suns Arena, an atmosphere charged for the franchise’s first postseason game since 2010 and the presence of LeBron James and the defending champions, a welcome reminder of the value of villains in sports.
In those three games, the NBA had three big-market teams acting as ready-made tractor beams for casual viewers, and it didn’t matter that the Sixers were the only one of the three to win Sunday. The league, at least for the moment, has a combination of factors working in its favor, working to regenerate audience and interest, working to counteract its ratings decline over the last several years. Fans are returning, and a few higher-profile franchises are becoming better stories. The Sixers are the Eastern Conference’s top seed for the first time in 20 years. The Knicks are decent and interesting, and that’s all it takes for New York to go gaga over them. And LeBron and the Lakers, a year after dominating in the Orlando bubble, are no longer a sure thing.
“Any time you are going through any situation, your reference points are history: recent history, history going back dozens of years, history going back hundreds of years,” Zumoff said. “You then begin to pine for what was, especially when you’ve been in situations like the pandemic or ‘The Process’ with the Sixers or the Knicks’ empty stretch. When you’re a Knicks fan, you think back to the mid-’90s when you had Patrick Ewing and you made the Finals. In the Sixers’ case, this has been something that fans have been waiting for since 2001. That’s what yesterday reminded me of.”
It has become a cliché to call the NBA a star-driven league, and daily fantasy sports incentivizes its participants to pay less attention to the final scores of games and the fortunes of teams than to players’ statistics and production. But that focus on individual players, no matter how great they are, ignores some of sports’ most powerful draws. Teams can be stars. Story arcs and characters and history matter. Even in this age of global popularity and access, there’s still plenty of tribalism in sports. Sports, in fact, is where tribalism can actually be healthy, because it creates rivalries and Goliaths and underdogs. It creates drama, and more drama makes for a more entertaining TV show.
In the late 1970s, for instance, the NBA’s popularity was at its nadir. Drug scandals tarnished the league’s image. Finals games were telecast on tape-delay. The league’s traditional powers weren’t as relevant as they had been. “The irony was,” author Pete Croatto writes in his excellent book, From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern NBA, “the level of play was increasingly watchable to a general audience.” It took the arrivals of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to revitalize the NBA, not just because the two were marvelous players who, in the 1979 NCAA championship game, had been introduced to America at the same time but because one went to the Lakers and one went to the Celtics.
“Any sentient adult who had seen a movie or read a book recognized the foundation of a killer narrative,” Croatto writes. “Magic was Black. Larry was white. Their future teams … had a bitter rivalry. Their cities feature vastly different cultural attitudes. Boston and Los Angeles also promised coast-to-coast viewership whenever these men met.”
No NBA game is going to capture the fascination of as much of the country as Magic, Bird, and Michael Jordan did in their heyday. But Sunday was a good reminder of what this sport can be and has been at its best, even if it cuts itself a smaller slice of our pop-cultural pie than it once did. It’s good that the Sixers are good, that the Knicks might be, that Joel Embiid angers Russell Westbrook and that Trae Young turned himself into a Garden enemy with one daring drive to the basket, that LeBron might go down to the Suns 11 years after they last won a postseason series. These are the stories that make sports fun, in the places where they matter a little more, with the people who care about them on hand to celebrate them. It’s about time.