Early Wednesday evening, as the sports-complex parking lots throbbed with the alcohol-sparked anticipation of a new 76ers season, the two stadiums flanking the Wells Fargo Center loomed dark and empty, mournful reminders of the high expectations that recently died there.
Gradually, the crowd – younger, taller, and much-more diverse than that which had attended a Flyers home game two nights earlier – moved toward the arena. At 6:30 p.m., the last of the main gates opened, and with “Here Comes the Sixers” blaring over the sound system, fans danced, literally, through an archway of red, white, and blue balloons.
Many were wearing team jerseys and hoisting cellphones above their heads to record the color of an opening night, the first leg on a journey they hoped would end on adjacent Broad Street with a June championship parade.
They waded into corridors occupied by careening break dancers, a DJ, an artist finishing an oil portrait of Charles Barkley. At one point, as giddy, onrushing spectators streamed toward the main concourse, an NBA cameraman filming their arrival swam into them like a salmon heading upstream.
“Slow down, people,” he shouted in vain. “This is crazy.”
A 2019-20 Sixers season that fans hope will lead to the team’s first NBA Finals appearance since 2001, one made more urgent by the team’s steady ascent and by recent and unexpected Phillies and Eagles disappointments, dawned with a level of enthusiasm the city has rarely displayed for its professional basketball team.
“I’ve been coming to these games since Wilt [Chamberlain] played here,” said Jim Reed, 64, of Bensalem, “and I’ve never seen people more excited about this team than they are now. It’s something that’s been building up for a while.”
For whatever reasons, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and their teammates have connected with the city in a way that 76ers clubs featuring superstars such as Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, and Allen Iverson never consistently managed. And that’s especially true with millennials.
“The fans here got it from the beginning, and I do believe the millennials were the catalyst for that,” Sixers president Chris Heck said. “Our transparency with the public allowed for the millennials to jump on this team. Now, this cult following [has] built into something that’s really universal.”
All the energy built up pregame and throughout a long offseason by a lively first-night sellout of 20,442 exploded during an animated national anthem and when new 76er Al Horford appeared in a center-court spotlight to ring the replica Liberty Bell.
“The emotion and hype was electric,” Gilbert Saunders, 29, of Drexel Hill, said afterward. “I got chills when Horford rang the bell. You really got the feeling this year is going to be something special.”
Then, as if to acknowledge all the anticipatory fervor, another 76er, Tobias Harris, took a microphone, thanked the fans, and yelled, “Now let’s get to work!”
This level of Sixers mania is a recent phenomenon. Once, there were playoff games with empty seats. And just five years ago, in coach Brett Brown’s initial season of 2013-14, the 76ers finished 29th, next to last, in NBA attendance. They averaged 13,869 fans that season, but the counts were criticized as wildly inflated, padded by giveaway tickets and dubious math.
“I remember one night not that long ago they said there were 14,000 people here,” said Reed, looking up at fans packing the arena’s highest reaches. “But, when you looked around, there was nobody upstairs, and the lower level was only about half-filled. Look around tonight. This is what a sellout looks like.”
This is the third season in a row of Sixers home sellouts, a streak that will reach 100 when the Miami Heat visit on Nov. 23. Season tickets have been capped at just over 14,000, and there’s a waiting list of 15,000.
And it’s not just Philadelphia that’s eager to see this team. Wednesday’s 107-93 victory over Boston was televised nationally by ESPN, and, according to Heck, millions more watched in Asia, where Embiid and Simmons are enormously popular.
“Those two have this reach that we’ve never seen before in any sport in Philadelphia,” Heck said. “Whether I’m traveling to Europe, the West Coast, Canada, or Asia, I see 76ers gear everywhere.”
And by one local sportswriter’s count, there were 55 accredited media members in attendance for Brown’s pregame press briefing, events that used to attract a handful of reporters.
“We want to win a championship” Brown said. “I couldn’t have gone into the locker room at the start of the last year and looked at my team and said, `We’re here to win a title.’ None of us would’ve believed that was a fair goal. And now it is.”
The game began at 7:45. It took just one minute for the first “Let’s go, Sixers!” chant to rumble around the building. That decibel level ramped up when, seconds later, Embiid scored the season’s first points.
“It kind of felt like a playoff atmosphere already,” said new 76er Josh Richardson. “As soon as the game started, it was ready to pop.”
Curiously, given all the enthusiasm, most of the giveaway blue T-shirts draped on every arena seat and designed to be worn en masse went unused.
“Mine wouldn’t fit,” said Tamara Robinson, of Philadelphia. “Besides I paid $125 for this [Simmons] top I’m wearing, so you know that’s my priority.”
And if the supercharged atmosphere seemed emblematic of a younger, more optimistic breed of Philadelphia sports fans, there were scenes that brought to mind their vintage reputation as cynics.
A young boy and young girl were standing side-by-side at a row of arcade machines, shooting balls into miniature basketball hoops. When one of the girl’s shots bounded off a rim and into the arriving crowd, the boy felt the need to provide some color commentary.
“You,” he said, “shoot worse than Ben Simmons.”