Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Joys of Philly Soul Reborn.

Things change.  It's nice, really.  Tradition for its own sake is rarely sustainable or even desirable.  There was a time when the Dutch were a prominent world power.  When the concept of human flight was nothing but whimsical fancy.  When you had no way to watch your favorite shows if you weren't near a TV when they were originally broadcast.  Time marches on.  In with the new, and the new shall come faster than can be processed!!!  Also, though, things cycle around on varying timescales of recurrence.  Dynasties rise and reign and recede back into the vagaries of history ... and rise again.  The slow, stilted revolutions of the world continue.

Mostly, the forward movement is a sign of progress that we're grateful for, while the cycles are signifiers of lessons we haven't quite learned yet.  Mostly, but not always.  There was an interview with Bitch Vig ages ago, maybe 'round about 1996, talking about how Nirvana came along and shattered the artifice and hollow vessels that had come to populate the pop landscape by the end of the 80s.  Vig posited that roughly every 10 years or so, a band or musical movement emerges that distills rock'n'roll back to its purest form and dispenses with the preceding decade's inventory of crappy music.  I can't remember exactly what he said, but to paraphrase: "Someone has to come along every once in a while and break it back down to the basics; remind the world that a power trio with a loud guitar is all you need to make great records.  (Though she's drawing much more on Aretha than Chuck Berry, Adele has this back-to-the-old-school vibe on lock, and is mercifully delivering us from all that is evil Bieber.  #sweetsoultmusic.)  Sometimes the wheel coming back around is a blessing.  The familiar can be refreshing, an infusion and reminder of something half-forgotten that becomes deliciously vibrant upon rediscovery.     

Which is why it's been so strange and gratifying watching the Philadelphia 76ers this season.  I'm not any fan of Philly sports, mind you.  After the Braves spent the mid-90s battling the biker-gang scuzzbucket Phillies of Kruk and Dykstra, I find it hard to muster up anything other than a healthy disdain for the City of "Brotherly (Unless You're an Opposing Team, Fan, or Santa Claus) Love."  

For all their ballyhooed sports history, of which there is undeniably a truckload, Philly teams outside of the Sixers have a notable dearth in the iconography department relative to the longevity of their existence.  Think about it for a second.  The Flyers are part of the Original Six, the Phillies have been around since 1887, and the Eagles since 1931.  Yet the list of true non-basketball All Timers associated primarily with Philadelphia goes: Schmidt, Lajoie, Mack, Clarke, Lindros, Van Brocklin, Vermeil, Jaws, Rocket, McNabb, Balboa ... and that's it, really.  Excluding active players who are on there way to HOF's, of course, but still.  The list of non-basketball iconic moments is even shorter.  Aside from the Phillies' World Series titles and Vick's decimation of the Redskins a few seasons back, I'm hard-pressed to come up with any spectacular memories.  Doesn't that seem something of a paucity, given how many collective seasons these teams have logged?  You could argue for maybe a half dozen others to be on that roster, but you'd be pushing the bounds of "legendary" in doing so.  Three of the four Philly franchises are underachievers in manufacturing greatness.

The Sixers are different.  Their story is the story Wilt, Dr. J, Moses, Barkley, and Iverson. And, to a (slightly) lesser degree, Toney, Cheeks, Dawkins, and Ramsay.  They are old-school ABA remnants and Fo' Fo' Fo'.  They are a walking, breathing rolodex/tapestry of professional basketball's history.  They've had thoroughly enjoyable hip hop songs written in their honor.  As such, it always feels a little off when they're slogging through a protracted down period.  It happens to all franchises, of course, but with certain teams it strikes a discordant, warbling note when they have runs of failure.  Even if you don't root for them, you have to acknowledge that the NBA is a more fulfilling, more enjoyable experience when the 76ers are playing successful basketball.  Good hoops in Philly makes for a good hoops atmosphere everywhere else.  And so it warms my heart to watch them play their asses off and rekindle an original basketball rivalry with the Celtics in these playoffs. 

But this is also an oddly constructed team; they are not your daddy's Philly hoops.  Unlike previous iterations, the Sixers group that has forced Boston to a game seven in the Eastern Conference Semis doesn't have a supreme alpha dog around which to cohere.  They're an assemblage of promised-savoirs-fallen-short, castoffs, glue guys, and talented spare parts that have no business being in this position.  Yet they've managed, through an alchemy of extremely generous luck and not knowing any better, to stage a deep playoff run and an assault on everyone's preconceptions.  Iggy, Jrue, Evan, Thad, Lavoy, Meeks, Elton, LOOOUUUUUU, and Spence Hawes have become a sort of Nuggets East, shifting the onus of production and leadership around as circumstances and the hot hand dictate.  Doug Collins seems to have a knack for getting the right people on the floor at the right moment and harnessing them for maximum efficacy, even as the precepts of the league scream that you can't win without a superstar-centered rubric.

While the rest of the teams left in the playoffs rely on some variation of the "Big Three" formula, Philly relies on an exuberant brand of duct tape to patch their holes and reenforce their strengths.  They go with "whatever works" because it's all they have, and it's also damned effective.  This team doesn't have anywhere near the prestige of its predecessors, and probably doesn't have a prayer of making the NBA Finals, but they're legitimately in the mix for the first time since A.I. was in his viciously phenomenal prime.  Yes, Chicago became a paper tiger the moment Derrick Rose's ACL turned him into a DNP: Ow!!! for an indefinite period of time.  Yes, Boston is hobbled beyond belief.  It's still incredible that the Sixers are a game from the ECF given that their postseason leader stats look like this: Points and Assists: Jrue Holiday, 15.9, 4.8.  Rebounds: Evan Turner, 7.5.  Not exactly imposing tallies, right?  How can you win in the playoffs without a perimeter player capable of dropping 25 a night or a big man giving you a 15-10 on a consistent basis?  Apparently, by scraping just enough from everyone to get it done.  It hasn't always been pretty, but their "who's got this one?" strategy has Philly averaging 86.6 PPG this postseason, which is not exactly a hallmark of offensive brilliance, but still rates as an accomplishment against the defensive brick walls of the Bulls and C's.  

This team could care less who comes off the bench, who gets minutes and touches, and who gets the rock in the clutch.  No one takes them seriously, but that's part of what allows them to function.  They're outgunned, they know it, and so they play simply to keep the game going, unhinged and joyful and the devil take the hindmost on the break.  In this regard, Philly's style resembles nothing quite so much a highly-refined brand of pick-up ball.  They're not the most organized, well-oiled offensive machine, but there's a charm and verve that accompanies their recklessness. 

The ride will probably end tonight.  Even a depleted Celtics squad should be able to take a game 7 at home and move on to the ECF.  But it's been nice seeing Philly play relevant hoops again.  The Sixers probably need to acquire a legitimate Name before they can climb the next rung on the ladder, but in the mean time, it's been great to watch them scrap with giants without flinching.  They don't have the brightest stars, but they still make an interesting and lovely constellation.

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