Move Over, Boston — This City Has Plans to Become America's Next Titletown
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because high hopes can die just as quick as catching the fever.
By Matt Foley
Thunderous chants for a football team at a basketball game might feel awkward in most cities, but at the Philadelphia 76ers regular-season finale, the raucous crowd made clear that their words were meant as more than mere gridiron support. The unmistakable bird call was meant to inspire.
These days it’s not just Kelly green–clad ruffians bellowing the Eagles battle cry. Philadelphia’s stunning Super Bowl run last season served a needed dose of positivity to a rabid fan base that, at times, dwells on the failures of its franchises. But after decades of playoff disappointment relieved only by rare one-off championships, Philadelphia’s major sports franchises may finally have the potential to win in concert.
The Villanova Wildcats just won their second NCAA men’s basketball championship in three seasons. After five straight losing seasons, the new-look Phillies have promoted a tight-knit crop of potential stars to the major leagues. At 10-7, they’re holding their own. With the Super Bowl triumph still fresh, there’s a sense that perhaps the Northeast’s “little brother” is nearing an upswing of sporting success that another nearby fan base can attest to. Some 300 miles up the coast, Boston is riding out a second decade of championship-filled ecstasy. Some believe the end of New England’s reign is near. Could Philadelphia become America’s next Titletown?
The energy in the city is totally positive right now.
Philadelphia native Joe Kelly
That hope — and the way a local club’s success can captivate Philadelphia — was clear when the Sixers brought out Eagles head coach Doug Pederson to bang — er, ring — the ceremonial replica Liberty Bell during the team’s pregame ceremony at the regular-season finale. Chants of “Eagles” rained down, and a palpable energy rocked Wells Fargo Center well into the fourth quarter of the Sixers 130-95 thwacking of the Milwaukee Bucks.
“The energy in the city is totally positive right now,” says Philadelphia native Joe Kelly, watching Sixers star Ben Simmons shoot free throws during pregame warmups. Wearing matching Sixers T-shirts and Eagles ball caps, Kelly and his son, Caleb, have inched behind the front row — as close to the floor as they can get. “Hopefully that carries over to the teams and the momentum rolls for a while.”
No, Philadelphia is not entirely starved of wins. The city’s most consistent team, the Flyers, are back in the NHL playoffs for the 19th time since 1995. But playoff success has been limited, and fleeting. The Flyers haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1975. And after their World Series win in 2008, the Phillies took a nose dive. So the fear of slipping remains. “We know everything can turn for the worst,” says Kelly.
But the city’s teams are showing signs that they may be better prepared to reach greater heights. “There’s a core here that came up together,” says Phillies infielder Scott Kingery. “That helps build chemistry … we want to win together for a long time.”
Ultimately, championships are an obvious prerequisite for Philadelphia to become a “city of champions.” With their dominant Super Bowl win over New England, Philly’s favorite team may have inspired a trend. It didn’t hurt that the Eagles defied the odds, winning the title without injured star quarterback Carson Wentz. “Carson going down was the turning point of our season,” says Eagles tackle Lane Johnson. “We had to get an attitude.”
That attitude is befitting of Philadelphia’s blue-collar soul, and — much like the fan fervor spreading between stadiums — it’s become a calling card of its other teams too. Boasting two of the NBA’s best young stars in Simmons and Joel Embiid, the 76ers might look flashy. But their success this season is rooted in defensive prowess. According to Basketball Reference, the Sixers — who posted their best record (52-30) since 2001 — were the fourth-best defense in the league. “They believe in defense and they’re incredibly unselfish,” says Sixers head coach Brett Brown. “As simple as that sounds, that’s an incredible template for winning.”
The Sixers closed the regular season with a 16-game win streak, clinching the Eastern Conference No. 3 seed and first-round home court advantage for the first time since 2003. The team has already sold out of season tickets for next season and is a top contender to make the conference finals. Just like the Eagles, the Sixers are feeling the love from the Philly faithful. “The fans were there when we were losing and have really ramped it up now that we’re winning,” says Simmons, the likely NBA Rookie of the Year. “We feed off them.”
The notion of contagious cross-sport success is only sustainable if teams fall into similar cycles of team building. That’s happened with the Eagles, Sixers and Phillies, but there’s precedence elsewhere too. Before the Patriots won their first Super Bowl in 2001, Boston had not enjoyed a championship since the Celtics dynasty won its last NBA Finals in 1986. But since 2001, 10 trophies have been paraded down Boylston Street. The Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins are all perennial contenders, and the Patriots are the best franchise in sports. But if a few plays go differently, or if Tom Brady never bounces back from his torn ACL in 2008, perhaps fate will stray elsewhere. Just ask Chicago fans, who, in 2011, thought they were on the verge of another Bulls dynasty before Derrick Rose’s body betrayed him. The Blackhawks run of three Stanley Cups in six seasons invigorated the city, and World Series wins from the White Sox (2005) and Cubs (2016) bookended a memorable 11-year stretch, but the Bulls’ failure remains a sour pill to swallow.
Winning even one championship is a tall task, and no team can afford to worry about its neighbors. But, individually, each Philadelphia franchise is now capable of stringing together winning seasons. The return of Wentz — who, according to Tom Brady at Super Bowl media day, will “be back better than ever” — has the Eagles ready for another deep run, and the Sixers are just now embarking on years of title contention. To win the East, of course, they’ll have to go through Boston.
Philly fans will try to keep the mojo flowing, and maybe even borrow some cues from their brethren in Boston. At least they can agree to beat New York.