‘You dream about those moments’: Philadelphia 76ers arrive in NBA Playoffs with a bang
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Miami Heat in 1st round of NBA playoffs
Gallery: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Miami Heat in 1st round of NBA playoffs
PHILADELPHIA — Last year, the Philadelphia 76ers made a bold statement when they unveiled their new slogan for the upcoming 2017-18 NBA season.
“Welcome to the moment,” the Sixers declared.
The team’s official Twitter account posted that message for the first time late in the evening on June 22. Earlier that night, the Sixers had completed a trade with the Boston Celtics to get the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and selected Markelle Fultz.
Welcome to the moment. #PH1LA pic.twitter.com/5ynfWp9c0w
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) June 23, 2017
Finally, it seemed like the Sixers had arrived. There were two top selections on the roster, a transcendent talent in center Joel Embiid, some nice complementary pieces and enough flexibility to add veterans like JJ Redick. The Sixers seemed on the precipice of returning to NBA relevancy after five sometimes painful seasons of rebuilding and retooling.
On Saturday night in South Philly, the Sixers hosted the Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Philadelphia entered the postseason after winning 52 games — the most since their 2000-01 NBA Finals team led by Allen Iverson — and clinching the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Sixers boast candidates for NBA Coach of the Year (Brett Brown), Rookie of the Year (Ben Simmons) and Defensive Player of the Year (Embiid). The conference’s landscape gives them a chance to make a run.
And on Saturday night, the Sixers arrived. They pulled away from the Heat for a resounding 130-103 victory. In the year since the team announced its slogan, there have been plenty of twists and turns. But there’s also been a steady build toward where things are right now. The Sixers are having a moment.
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The scene in the parking lots surrounding Wells Fargo Center early Saturday evening felt more like an NFL Sunday for the Philadelphia Eagles. After a long, brutal winter in the Mid-Atlantic, it was the first beautiful weekend day of spring, and the sunny, 80-degree weather coaxed fans out to the asphalt to tailgate.
Anthony Mannello and Mike DeSantis got their tickets last minute and headed to the Heat game from South Jersey. They tossed beanbags on their Villanova-themed cornhole set about three hours before tipoff and marveled at the Sixers’ season.
“They’ve totally exceeded our expectations,” Mannello said. “With Simmons and Embiid, we knew it was going to be a good year, but not this good. Not this good, not this fast.”
The moment we’ve been waiting for.
The moment we’re united for.#PhilaUnite x #HereTheyCome pic.twitter.com/7izxNJOsUn
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) April 14, 2018
The duo wore crisp blue Embiid and Simmons t-shirt jerseys, and they weren’t alone. The crowd in front of the Xfinity Live! pregame pep rally was a sea of blue, and the Sixers gave away t-shirts featuring their “Phila Unite” playoff slogan and logo.
It’s common to see Eagles gear everywhere in Philadelphia, whether it’s church, a night out or even a nice dinner. The Eagles are ubiquitous in Philly. But while it would take plenty for the Sixers to reach the level of the Super Bowl LII champions, the red, white and blue of the Sixers is bound to become more popular around the area during the playoffs.
Mannello and DeSantis’ shirts Nike swooshes emblazoned on the front below the right shoulder, meaning they likely bought the gear sometime since Nike took over as the NBA’s primary apparel partner last summer. And they wouldn’t be alone in making recent purchases.
According to Fanatics, which operates the NBA and Sixers online stores, the Sixers are the best-selling team since the start of April, and in the week leading up to the start of the playoffs, Sixers merchandise sales spiked 100 percent vs. the previous week.
“Especially with Simmons and Embiid, this is a team that you can follow and a bunch of guys that you can like,” Mannello said.
During the Sixers’ lengthy and occasionally painful rebuild — in the three seasons from 2013-2016, the team went 47-199 — the fan base had its attention split between a future with a core of young, talented and healthy players and a relatively recent past that featured one of the franchise’s all-timers in Iverson.
But in the tailgate scene before Game 1, the focus was mostly on the present. The majority of fans wore Simmons, Embiid or Fultz jerseys. One was wearing a T.J. McConnell jersey. There were still the classic Iverson and Julius Erving jerseys, which will likely always be staples, and aside from the one man wearing a Kyle Korver jersey, there were few reminders of the past.
The focus on the present has been displayed through the team’s ticket sales and attendance. According to ESPN, the Sixers ranked third in the NBA in home attendance in 2017-18. An average of 20,329 fans came to the 41 home games. That’s up from 17,330, which ranked No. 17 in 2016-17, and it marks a complete turnaround.
In 2014-15, the Sixers ranked last in the NBA with an average attendance of 13,940. In 2013-14, they were second to last with an average of 13,869.
On Saturday night, the Wells Fargo Center was sold out with an announced attendance of 20,617. Ticket prices on StubHub for Game 2 are high. The cheapest ticket available as of Sunday afternoon was $90 in the upper deck. There were seven floor seats available starting at $3,850.
“The 76ers performance has improved this year and their success has become an increasing draw to their fans,” StubHub spokesperson Cameron Papp told PennLive. “We’ve seen roughly a 35% increase in the average ticket price paid for tickets this season compared to last season demonstrating that their success is driving more interest and a willingness by fans to pay to get in.”
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The Sixers took notice of the Wells Fargo Center environment. Philadelphia sports fans have long held the reputation of being dedicated, diehard fans, but the current generation of Sixers fans have a particular edge to them after going through “The Process,” the tagline adopted during former executive Sam Hinkie’s attempted rebuild.
Eighteen minutes before tip, the Sixers entered the court for warmups and earned a standing ovation. With less than eight minutes remaining, the arena played “Dreams and Nightmares,” the track from incarcerated Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill that became the anthem of the Eagles Super Bowl run.
Everything got a reaction. Simmons and Robert Covington drew oohs and aahs with a dunking exhibition in the layup line. When someone missed a warmup shot, there were scattered groans.
And at 8 p.m. sharp, the first chants of “Trust the Process” rained down from the upper deck. The lights went out, and Embiid appeared at midcourt wearing a “Phantom of the Opera” mask for the Sixers’ ceremonial pregame bell ringing. The arena played Future’s “Mask Off.” The crowd was ready.
“Goosebumps,” JJ Redick said. “The crowd gave me goosebumps.”
“It’s amazing,” said Simmons, who nearly had a triple-double in his preseason debut. “Them tailgating before the game, the atmosphere was insane. Philly has some of the bet fans in the NBA.”
The crowd stayed engaged the duration as the Sixers pulled away in the rout. There were boos for Heat star Dwyane Wade, cheers for the luminaries sitting courtside, which included Iverson, rapper Lil Uzi Vert, Harrisburg native and former Eagles running back LeSean McCoy and boxer Danny Garcia, and the requisite “E-A-G-L-E-S” chants.
Brown said the only environment in the NBA that competes with Wells Fargo Center, and that’s the Golden State Warriors’ Oracle Arena in Oakland. The Sixers won 30 games in South Philly during the regular season, and they’ve lost at home only once since Christmas.
“The Philadelphia fans, apart from the vocal side and the volume, there’s this complete passion,” Brown said. “You see it, and sometimes I glance up in the crowd and you can just see it, and to have our fans be treated to this season and to get this win, there’s way more to go, way more to grow. We’re not getting ahead of ourselves at all, but what a tremendous opportunity to give back to them. They were awesome.”
During the pregame introductions, the Sixers’ slogan flashed on the big screen at Wells Fargo Center: “Welcome to the Moment.”
Through all the losing seasons, a couple misses on high draft picks and the waiting game for its stars to get healthy, the Sixers and their fans were looking to the “moment” to finally arrive.
It’s here. No matter where the Sixers playoff run ends, the new era of Philadelphia 76ers basketball has finally started. Brown didn’t want to “anoint” the Game 1 rout as anything special. He knows it’s just the first step into a Sixers future.
“As a basketball player, you dream about those moments where you’re in the second half of a playoff game and your team’s making a run, you’re getting stops, you’re hitting 3s and the crowd is just energizing you and pushing you,” Redick said. “It was awesome.”
Brett Brown discusses Philadelphia 76ers 130-103 win over Miami Heat in NBA playoffs