Living in Central Jersey, I’m right on the cusp of Philly vs. New York sports. People are either Philly fans through and through or root for New York teams. There’s no in between, and there’s a thin line that separates the two parties. You almost have to tread carefully until you know which camp your peers belong to, and then adjust your approach to them accordingly. We try to coexist peacefully, but sometimes there’s just no avoiding a little gloating after a win.
What I’ve noticed about these two fanbases is that, for the most part, they’re born-and-raised members with very little deviation from rooting for their respective teams. There’s a pride in the hometowns that overflows into different aspects of our lives, including sports fandoms. Granted, we’ve all had our bandwagon phases as children following Michael Jordan or the Cowboys (I know, I’m sorry) when they were one of the winningest teams in the NFL. Young fans simply imitated their older brother’s fandom (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). However, we’ve all come crawling back to our teams, more dedicated than ever.
Inversely, there are fanbases whose ties to their teams aren’t as strong or who are just looking to follow a team that is low risk/high reward and enjoy the sport they’re watching. Or, becoming even more common, fans following individual players as they bounce from team to team throughout their careers. The most interesting phenomenon, however, is the newfound hipster attitude surrounding the Sixers. It’s as if some Process Trusters feel that they earned their fandom by following the 76ers when they were at their worst and sticking it out. It’s the case of the Process Hipster.
The Player Bandwagon
I can’t stand small talk. So, one of my little quirks is asking people questions that would open up more of a conversation beyond the weather/weekend/whatever. I.e. Who’s your favorite nineties actor? Jeff Goldblum, duh. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten? A fish eyeball, barf. I recently asked a couple colleagues about their basketball loyalties and was met with two different perspectives.
One colleague said the Brooklyn Nets straight up, no hesitation. The other said that while he was a lifelong Knicks fan, he previously preferred following players to teams, citing Dr. J and his journey from the Nets to the Sixers.
Dr. J is a good example of a player that sparked the player bandwagon emergence. Starting with American Basketball Association, Julius Erving helped legitimize the league, which eventually became the National Basketball Association. Erving paved the way to the modern style of play with dazzling slam dunks (who could forget his dunks from the foul line?). He brought an air of finesse and artistry to the game, as well as multiple titles and awards.
We can trace a history of basketball stars from there, including Moses Malone, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Lebron James, Steph Curry and on and on. Each possessed a special something that struck fans and made them legends in the sport, becoming household names.
As technology and the culture surrounding basketball evolves, stars are becoming more and more accessible. They’re landing roles in comedies and commercials and personally responding to messages on social media. As time goes on, fanbases surrounding individual players are growing at a remarkable rate. Analytics are becoming more prevalent and the qualifications of what makes a star is changing. But that’s another piece for another time.
The Hopeful Bandwagon
Sixers fans went without one of these stars throughout The Post-Iverson Process until the acquisitions of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Even then, we had to wait at least a year for each to play. Basketball was fun again. Philly fans got a taste of victory and were eager to complete The Process. So, when interim GM Brett Brown went Stah Hunting this summer, all eyes were on LeBron James. It was like Brett promised us that he would bring a LeBron-level star to the roster. Fans spent their hard-earned money on custom LeBron Sixers jerseys. They actually wore them too, as if willing LeBron to come to Philly.
Alas, LeBron didn’t come to Philly and neither did any other star for that matter. But it’s interesting to consider how the Sixers would change from a fan’s perspective. Would you be willing to trade affordable, easily attainable tickets for LeBron, considering the droves of bandwagon fans that come with him? Would it be worth paying a premium for nosebleeds if it meant we got the title? One could argue that the Sixers’ accessibility and relatability are among their best qualities. Qualities that would be practically eliminated by acquiring a star on LeBron’s level. Or would a LeBron-level star be a worthy reward for sticking it out during The Process?
Bandwagoning in the Process Era
The most common and purest form of bandwagoning is probably when the more casual fanbase jumps on when their local team starts getting hot. I want to make it clear that I have no problem with bandwagoners. I like and welcome the camaraderie that comes along with all being in it together. However, not everyone sees it that way.
You’re not a real fan if you didn’t suffer through the bad times like the rest of us. Many Process Trusters wear it like a badge of honor, and you can’t sit with them! That attitude is being perpetuated as the Sixers get better and get closer to winning their first title since 1983.
The Process Hipster
As a self-proclaimed hipster and Process Truster, I can recognize when someone else is being hipster-y. And some Process Trusters are. Many of us stuck around for The Process for the love of the team and the love of the game. The roster was a face only the truest fans could love and was full of misfit athletes, but they were our misfit athletes. No one was tuning in to the game to see their favorite star player Chris Johnson play. Others embraced it as some kind of schtick like “Isn’t this funny? Our team is terrible, and we still watch the games!” These are the same people who I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw or heard them say they loved the Sixers before it was cool.
These are also the same people who will pull out horrendous takes about Ben Simmons and post an outrageous trade on the Trade Machine just to stir things up and make things interesting. Because they’re bored. They’re bored that people are into the Sixers now. They don’t like that people are relatively happy with the Sixers’ progress, and things have just gotten boring.
Except they’re not boring. Fans are getting creative and having fun with their fandom by starting and joining blogs (hayyy!), listening to and recording podcasts, analyzing statistics. They’re creating graphics and videos and joining conversations on Twitter. There’s never been richer, more robust content to consume than now, and maybe that’s where the resentment is coming from.
The community used to be small and fun and didn’t take itself too seriously, and now there are outliers trying to get in on it and challenge us! There’s a territorial aspect to the whole thing and people are just pissing all over the place, trying to claim their piece of the pie and claw their way to relevancy. We have to ask ourselves, which is worse: having a few well-intentioned newbies join the fold or being those jerks that tell them they can’t?
With the trade deadline looming, we’re all waiting with bated breath to see what moves the Sixers’ front office will make. If Elton does what we’re hoping and strengthens our bench, we better prepare ourselves for more bandwagon fans. Whether those fans come with our new acquisitions or our improving record, they’re coming. The more the merrier, I say.
For the Culture is a weekly column focusing on the cultural phenomena surrounding the NBA. From the history of the game to athlete fashion and civil rights, For the Culture addresses how people are affected by nuances surrounding the game.