I can't take my eyes off the Sixers, and I'm not entirely sure why. They don't offer the bombast of the Heat or Clippers, or the knife-tossing bonhomie of the Thunder. Nor are they true underdogs, crackling with the morbid energy that comes when a team is over-achieving and clinging with all its might. I have no idea if Philly will be a force in the playoffs, but I know that these Sixers are intensely, irresistibly, watchable. At this moment. Whatever that means.
Sports fans like to pretend that our consumption is value-driven. We need to watch our team; they need our support. If our outlook on sports is more global, we need to watch crucial games to stay informed. In the era of League Pass, every consumer has had the burden of scouting thrust upon him. There are, however, any number of teams or players who can burn away all this rubbish, and get us to admit that—at least on some level—some people in sports are just fun to watch. LeBron was that way before the fall, and even now, the Heat at their finest can bring on that feeling, even if we can't help but tinge it with darkness. Ricky Rubio is a mean clinician and a sexy little bugger, but as Ben Polk wrote here, it's the thrill of discovery that has made him such a phenomenon. When we giggle, or tweet, late into the night over a Blake Griffin dunk, it's aesthetics at work, not some hardened sense of what's right in sports, or an expert's impartial gaze. "I love this game" exists for a reason; the dunk is at once amoral and remarkably sweet.
There are few terms in music writing as pushy, or empty, as "listenable." "Listenable" isn't the same as accessible, which is no one's version of praise. Nearly a tautology, it announces that this record is the sort of thing one can't help but happily listen to. It suggests pheromones, invisible rudders, and common sense. There is also no way that a "listenable" record could result from formula alone. There's something extra there, a quality that makes it not only appealing, but one of those cases where compulsion isn't sleazy. If anything, it reflects positively on the listener. You chose it as much as it chose you.
The Sixers are, in some very basic sense, watchable in this same way. Philly is an explosive team that avoids looking ragged, a relatively young group that's never slashed apart by emotion. The Sixers have obvious competitive weaknesses, and Spencer Hawes is, at best, a goofball. But there's no disarming thud when they play, nor that guilty pang that comes when uptempo play dissolves into a mass of turnovers. They are, as the weird bear said, just right.
It’s not just a case of covering their bases, though. The Sixers are somehow flashy and conservative at the same time, a team brimming with athleticism that insists on good taste. Newjack point guard Jrue Holiday is a lefty whose hops are one of the league’s best-kept secrets. He also shows flashes of spatial thinking that would make Chris Paul proud, those times when the entire court seems to leap up and reveal an extra dimension to exploit. Andre Iguodala, an insufficient replacement for Allen Iverson because he didn’t offer enough to love or hate, is a leaper who seems happiest behaving like a point forward. When he makes a mistake, it can feel like he’s balking at the role he’s thrust into. Their bench, “The Night Shift”—inexplicably not named after the Commodores jam about everyone dying—is a study in incomplete reform. Lou Williams, formerly a gunner-unto-chucker, has been reborn as instant offense. Thaddeus Young has spent his entire career ricocheting back and forth between responsibility and impulsiveness. On any other team Young—a multivalent forward whose spin moves are part post-game, part guard’s improvisation—would be an enigma. Here, he puts his head down and puts in work. But make no mistake, Young has made this team home as much as he’s been welcomed into one. After all, he’s never played anywhere else.
What makes them notable is that, in some very basic way, these Sixers are also believable. They are down-to-earth, natural without needing a pat on the shoulder for being human. Usually, NBA teams are elevated to god-like status through physical ability alone. The money helps, too, but when a person can sky like Andre Iguodala, it’s hard to judge them like a mere mortal. Their conflict and tension, then, is elevated as well. It becomes drama, turmoil, and any player or team faced with a decision is presumed to be in trouble. Only the most ineffectual and bland athletes avoid this perpetual state of alarm; they are the ones we’re most used to identifying with. Others are heightened in their actions and in our understanding of them. It doesn’t just mean assuming athlete drama at every turn. It can also mean viewing quite ordinary life-choices, or workplace shifts, as upheavals in some grand narratives. Basketball players are warriors and artists, but they’re also professionals. On the court, we see occasionally bare their souls through exercises in high style. We also get to see a lot of them at what’s probably their least interesting—on the job (post-game cant is a byproduct of our collective hysteria).
I lived in Philadelphia for five years. The Rocky stuff is great, as is the city’s blue collar pride. There’s also an odd sense of entitlement, maybe destiny, that I never quite understood. The place is tough, as posture, and parts of it are actually tough, as in “a lot of people get shot there.” But what I liked about Philly, and why I think its identity can get so confused or self-important, is that the place doesn’t need to be harder, or an angry underdog, in the face of New York. As silly as this sounds, Philadelphia’s strength comes from being genuine, which is different than authentic (read: defensive). Philadelphia is real, and not necessarily in some gritty-gully Beanie Sigel kind of way. Real as in authentically, if not unself-consciously, itself.
People live in a city, where they do city-life things and those things are normal. And NBA players play basketball. Sometimes they’re larger than life, but lots of the time, they exist in their own kind of normal. The Sixers are a team that not only acknowledges, but embraces, this humility. They are humility without shame—shame that doesn’t ruin the fun for us.