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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Do Philadelphia Fans Run Players Out of Town?

Bill Conlin's column in yesterday's Philadelphia Daily News is worth a read.

The debate about the legend of Allen Iverson continues. Is he really the best "little man" ever in the NBA? Or, as Conlin says, the most talented? Perhaps he's been one of the best, but I don't think he's the best ever. I don't know who is, but coming from the "purist" end of the hoops spectrum I'd have to think there's someone out there who performed better at the entire game, and not just scoring. The whole debate about Iverson reminds of a quote that I saw attributed to the Heat's Antoine Walker last year. When the former Kentucky star (and former Celtic) was asked why he shot so many threes, his reply was, "Because there aren't any fours." Why? Because that quote smacks of a disregard for form, for process, for screens, picks, rolls, playing help defense, taking the charge, finding the open man and doing all of the important little things that help teams win basketball games. A.I., like A.W., isn't about all of those things.

The article also takes a shot at the 76ers' front office, and rightfully so. Their drafts have been downright horrible, as has the team's inability to source fundamentally sound overseas talent. A.I. might not have been a leader or done much to help make is team better, but it's hard to do so when the talent really isn't there. That hasn't always been the case, but in defense of A.I. it's hard to win when the team makes drafting mistakes year in and year out.

Much of the discussion about Iverson now focuses on the impatience and frustrations of the Philadelphia fans, who stand accused of not embracing their stars properly and contributing to running them out of town because when the team isn't successful the fans blame the stars. I'm not sure that's really the case (even if former Temple coach John Chaney recently espoused it on Comcast Sportsnet's "Daily News Live" show). True, there might have been certain episodes which turned out to be unfortunate, but part of this legend stems from the time that Eagles' fans about 35 years ago booed, and threw snow balls at, Santa Claus. Stands to reason that if they tried to treat Saint Nick like the "Whack A Mole" you find at your local arcade, the Philadelphia fans are capable of anything.

Let's look at the three major teams in Philadelphia and see whether the premise is true that the fans create a culture of running players out of town and making it hard to win a title in the City of Brotherly Love:

1. Phillies. This whole discussion about the toughness of the fans, blaming the star and running players out of town started with the 1964 National League Rookie of the Year, a slugging third baseman named Richie Allen, who used a 40-ounce plus bat and whose batting-practice exploits of hitting home runs over the Coca-Cola sign that was perched atop the left-field bleachers at Connie Mack Stadium I vividly remember. Allen was a misunderstood player, the fans weren't that forgiving of him, but he was immature, too. The media was particularly tough then, but I think it took two to tango here. Allen wasn't blamed for the Phillies' collapse in 1964; manager Gene Mauch was. And, yes, there were racist elements to the frustrations that were vented about Allen, who had some great years in other cities, had injury problems, never found a home and never realized his Hall-of-Fame potential. He returned to Philadelphia later in his career, found love from the fans, turned out to be a pretty good guy. Make no mistake, there was vitriol here, but that doesn't mean that it was re-used over and over again. The Allen situation was bad, but I think it's hard to extrapolate from that chapter that a new form of behavior was born.

After all, the Phillies' fans didn't run would-be Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins out of town (he was traded as a young player), and they were very supportive of the great teams that ran from '76 to '83. Did they embrace Von Hayes or Gregg Jefferies? No, but neither of those players, the latter a high-priced free agent and the former a hot prospect for whom the Phillies traded 5 players, produced well. Curt Schilling? Scott Rolen? Those players realized how flakey ownership was about fielding a winner in the city and wanted out (and most fans couldn't have blamed them one bit -- and both ended up playing on World Champions). Yes, I do think that the Phillies tried to turn the media against them, but they failed. Schilling is still viewed with reverence, and Rolen is viewed as one whom the team let get away for three bags of baseballs and an old golf cart that once was used to ferry relievers from the bullpen to the mound (Schilling was traded for the guys who comprised the barber shop quartet that sang the national anthem before the title game in the movie "Hoosiers").

2. Philadelphia Eagles. The history of the boobirds really emanates from this team and its quick demise from the team that won the NFL title in 1960 to, well, just a bad football team by the end of the 1960's. Despite the poor performance, the Birds still packed Penn's Franklin Field, where they spewed their venom on ownership and the team. Again, I have vivid memories of attending an Eagles-Cowboys contest at Franklin Field where Eagles TE Mike Ditka (at the end of his career) tussled with Cowboys DB Mike Gaechter and both were tossed from the contest. Joe Kuharich was the coach then, and the fans disliked him, chanting "Joe Must Go" at every opportunity. Did they run Kuharich and other Eagles' coaches out of town (Jerry Williams, Mike McCormack, etc.)? Perhaps. But did they run players out of town? Who would have known? Were any of them save OT Bobby Brown, who now is a Hall of Famer, that good? No, I think that was a pure meritocracy -- if you don't win, you get canned. The fans just added the punctuation mark to the conclusion (a resounding exclamation point) here -- those teams were terrible.

Fast forward to the 1980's, and there have been strange relationships with some players and teams. By and large, the Dick Vermeil teams were revered, both because of Vermeil's winning personality and for the way that team played the game. It was hard not to like the smooth efficiency of Wilbert Montgomery and Harold Carmichael, the energy of Ron Jaworski (which remains to this day), and the omnipresence of defensive players like Bill Bergey and Roynell Young. Moving forward to the Buddy Ryan years, yes, Randall Cunningham was an enigma and never got the full love of the fans, but it didn't appear that he received the full love of his teammates, either. He was a QB on a defense-dominated team who wasn't a good leader (and probably wasn't allowed to lead). True, the team emphasized defense to the point where Cunningham had little help on offense, but it also seemed to be the case that his teammates thought he was a flake, too. As for Reggie White, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner and Eric Allen, it's hard to say that the fans expected too much or ran these guys out of town. There are a few facts that are hard to escape: 1) those defenses were amazing and the players on them very much admired; 2) Buddy Ryan was a flawed head coach, a great defensive coach who either knew or cared little about offense; 3) the White/Cunningham teams won only one playoff game during their tenure in Philadelphia; and 4) the player departures had more to do with the front office than they did with the fans. It struck me that the fans liked those Ryan teams for their swagger, and to this day you see people wearing White and Cunningham jerseys.

Moving forward to the Rich Kotite/Ray Rhodes/Andy Reid years, again it's more of the dynamic of the free-agent market and the fact that players have much less worth (except quarterbacks) once they hit 30. Again, there is a peculiar relationship with Donovan McNabb, and that's unfortunate because he's an outstanding football player. My guess is that because he's built more like a linebacker, really isn't superman, doesn't throw the ball as fluidly as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning (and he also has lapses where his front leg is too straight and he throws the ball into the ground), didn't take T.O. to the woodshed and threw up during the final drive in the Super Bowl two years ago the fans haven't given him their unconditional fan love, even if they do like him (on the continuum of "Adored to Despised", call it the Dr. J/T.O. continuum, they'll rank McNabb about 3/4 of the way toward the Dr. J. end, but just beneath the bright line that says "beloved." "Beloved" were the likes of Richie Ashburn and Dr. J. Not even Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton fall in that pantheon, and both were Hall of Famers. The former smiled little and the latter talked even less).

The failure to give McNabb "Ashburn-Erving" love is sad, because he's a tremendous football player, a prototype of players to come and by all accounts a really good guy (I, personally, am a huge fan and defend him to the NY fans who are prone to knock him, although much less so now because Eli Manning has frustrated them and because McNabb is hurt). McNabb wins games, but the Eagles have to learn the way Denver did that they can't just wait around for Donovan to save them. Instead of being grateful for Donovan's heroics, the fans get down on them when he can't win the game by himself each week. That's not fair. As for the T.O. situation, I'll bet that there are those in the Eagles' locker room who, based upon how well the team is united now and how well it has rallied since McNabb's injury, realize in a renewed fashion the importance of team chemistry and wish that they had taken a stand against #81's self-indulgent goofballism last season. Are they running McNabb out of town? Hardly, but they could love him a little more.

Others -- Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, Troy Vincent, Jon Runyan, Brian Westbrook, to name a few -- garner a lot of respect for their contributions over the past decade. Dawkins, particularly after his effort against the Giants in the Meadowlands last Sunday, is getting a Hall of Fame buzz and is moving toward that Ashburn/Dr.J. end of the continuum (he's dazzling in his post-game comments not because he's an entertaining personality, but because he is thoughtful and collected -- he just looks and sounds like a great leader). Yes, you'll hear comments about Trotter's overunning plays or Westbrook's size, but those players have gotten and continue to get a lot of respect from the fans (they work hard and are honest about themselves and the team). Make no mistake, the fans can be critical, but it's because they care too much. They want to win so badly, so I'll analogize the attention they pay to their teams to the attention that you give to family members or co-workers you really care about -- you only are so demanding because you care so much. That scrutiny may not always be fair, but it's there because of the huge emotional investment.

3. 76ers. If the Eagles' fans started the reputation of how impossible Philadelphia fans can be, then the 76ers' fans have added to the mixture because of the team's tortured history (remember, the Phillies, with the exception of the watershed of the mid-70' to mid-80's have been almost universally bad relatively speaking), while the 76ers have had pockets of championships and good play). Remember, at times Philadelphia has been a baseball town (before the Buddy Ryan Eagles and before the baseball strike of 1994, although with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley the Phillies are rallying very well today) and a pro basketball town (the Dr. J era from the mid-to-late 1970's through the mid-1980's), as well as a football town (which it undoubtedly is today). It always has been a college basketball town, it's one of the best college basketball towns in America, and you could argue that from the early-to-mid 1950's through the early 1970's some of the best hoops in the country anywhere (save, of course, Tobacco Road and Westwood) were played in Philadelphia. True, migrations to the suburbs and the advent of numerous options on TV have made the Big 5 less compelling than it once was, but the interest is still there. At any rate, the excellence at the high-school level, the Big Five and, yes, even the legend of Wilt Chamberlain have galvanized Philadelphia's love for hoops and reputation as a hoops town.

That said, the 76ers haven't always enjoyed a lofty role within that reputation. They had one of the best NBA teams of all time in 1966-1967, where Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, Wali Jones, Chet Walker and Luke Jackson (and several others) finally were able to solve the riddle of Bill Russell's Boston Celtics and win an NBA title. But by that time 76ers' owner Ike Richman had died, Wilt had a spat with Richman's successor, Irv Kosloff, and the 76ers accommodated the native Philadelphian and sent him to the Lakers -- for Darrell Imhoff, Archie Clark and Jerry Chambers (and all we really remember is that Clark wore a headband and soonafter was shipped to the then-Baltimore Bullets for Fred "Mad Dog" Carter). Was Wilt "run out of town?" Probably not. True, he's more beloved today than he was when he played, but for all of his wonderful points Wilt wasn't always the easiest to deal with. On the one hand Philadelphia was his home (which he made a point of visiting after he left the city for good), but even while he played for the 76ers he lived in New York. It's hard to say that you've run people out of town when they didn't love the town that much in the first place (yes, you can psychoanalyze this point and say that had the city embraced Wilt more he would have loved it better, but there were those in the city he cared for deeply -- he just wanted something different).

Still, John Chaney's point lingers. Was Wilt blamed for the failures? Yes, he was, and the Philadelphia media was unforgiving. But if you look at the numbers and Wilt's performances against the Celtics, he was, most of the time, heroic, even in defeat. Sure, there could have been some less-than-superstar performances, but the Celtics during those years were the best teams of all time. Who wouldn't have had a bad performance or two? And no less of an expert than John Wooden has opined that had Chamberlain been on the Celtics, they would have won all of those titles too. Remember, also, that Red Auerbach tried to entice Wilt to attend college in the Boston area so that the Celtics could have garnered territorial rights to him (they existed in those days). Chaney's point, I believe, is true as to Wilt Chamberlain. He was big, he was a transcendant talent, and the 76ers won "only" one title during his tenure on the team. Rightly or wrongly (and I submit it's very wrongly), he gets blamed for the 76ers' running into a wall against the Celtics.

But George McGinnis? Moses Malone? Andrew Toney? Charles Barkley? Allen Iverson? Five "nos" in a row. McGinnis is hardly worth mention because while a cheeful guy he didn't "want it" badly enough and found himself traded for a consummate team player named Bobby Jones who played a great Pippin to Julius Erving's Jordan on the 76ers' team that won the title in '82-'83. McGinnis helped revive interest in a sport that had hit rock bottom in the '72-'73 season, where an unknown coach named Roy Rubin led the team to a 9-73 record. Remember Tom Van Arsdale? John Block? Manny Leaks? John Q. Trapp? Dennis Awtrey? You shouldn't. McGinnis showed up a few years after with some game and grit. He should get some credit for that, but his lack of intensity doomed him, not the fans.

Signing Moses Malone was the best thing then-76ers owner Harold Katz did after the 1981-1982 season, and the former Rockets' MVP was a class act in Philadelphia, insisting upon arrival that it was "Doc's team." Now, Doc enjoyed status (pre-Bird and Magic Johnson) as the preeminent player in the game and a great ambassador for the game, and Malone's deference was not only a smart and classy move, it was well-advised (it's hard to say that Carmelo Anthony currently deserves the same deference from Allen Iverson in Denver). Malone was a true battler inside, and he had a great season during the championship run. Thereafter, his skills seemed to have fallen off a bit, he tried to do too much inside, and Katz, thinking that he had great skills as a hoop owner because he signed Malone, figured he could tinker with the roster again and create a winner. The result was a series of disastrous trades that led to a) trading Malone for Jeff Ruland, who promptly blew out a knee and never materialized and b) trading the #1 pick in the draft (who turned out to be Brad Daugherty) to Cleveland for Roy Hinson (cognoscenti will remember that he played his college hoops at Rutgers and was a power forward, but not powerful enough to make memories for the hometown fans). Those trades marked many years of free-fall for the 76ers. But was Moses blamed for the demise after '82-'83? No, not at all. Harold Katz was.

As for Toney, his sad story remains a footnote to the post-career stories of the 1982-1983 76ers. He played his best games against the Celtics, earning himself the nickname "The Boston Strangler," and he was a great shooter. But he had a history of foot problems after that and tangled with Katz, whom, I believe, he hasn't forgiven to this day for the way he was treated. Again, we all felt his pain and were frustrated that he couldn't produce at the levels he did when he was at the top of his game. But he's looked upon fondly, far from being a cause of disappointment.

Charles Barkley was beloved to a large degree, but frustrating to a smaller but important one. On the one hand the "Round Mound of Rebound" played ball with the enthusiasm of a kid, treated everyone around him well, was nice to people in his neighborhood, was very quotable, played hard and made his team better. He also played for an owner, Katz, who by and large didn't know how to run a team. On the other hand, he had weight problems and didn't always take the best care of himself (even his good friend, Michael Jordan, had commented about what Charles might have been had he been more disciplined). So, was he blamed for the 76ers' not having more success? I think not. I think that the fans admired him for how far, at roughly 6'4" tall, he helped take the team. Frustrations, again, were vented at Katz, not at Barkley. Barkley asked to be traded because he wanted to play for a championship team, not because he didn't like the city or its fans, who still admire him to this day.

Okay, Allen Iverson, the Ultimate Lightning Rod, but a guy who brought the attention to himself with the way he plays (hard), carries himself (tough) and lives (hard). Every intellectually honest hoops fan will concede that A.I. plays very hard and very much cares about winning. But then those fans will differ as to whether Iverson was a cause of problems or a victim of front-office bungling. The debate will rage on, and, perhaps, yes, many fans tied the 76ers' frustrations to their best and most exciting player. Why? Because he didn't lead by example in terms of off-the-court activities (practice, weight room, etc.) and he really didn't seem to grasp the concept of the team game necessary to help sustain a perennial contender. He also seems to represent, rightly or wrongly, the SportsCenter generation of players who are more interested than making the highlight reel than on fast-breaking and help-defending their way to a 15-point win over the Spurs in San Antonio. Again, I realize that A.I. is more complicated than that, but that's certainly a perception of him. In the end, attendance was down and the 76ers were going nowhere. It was a once-bright play that had a long run but whose lustre had faded and needed a new beginning with some new cast members. So, did the fans contribute to A.I.'s departure? Yes, by stopping showing interest and by not always agreeing with their hard-to-love (but easy in ways to admire) superstar. Then again, A.I. contributed to his fate in Philadelphia too.

So, in the end, do the fans in Philadelphia make it any tougher on their teams to win games? The answer here is no, they do not. First, if the players are true pros, the attention of the fans shouldn't matter. Second, why is Philadelphia tougher than Boston or New York, the latter of which has more fans (and, last I checked, they're pretty tough too). Third, because of the championship drought, there's more pressure (at least in the fans' mind), but unless a player grew up in the area or has a great sense of history of it, that thought doesn't weigh much on their minds. Fourth, the fans do expect much from their stars (see Pat Burrell), but A-Rod got a ton of scrutiny in New York this year, and Eli Manning is feeling that heat now.

I think that the whole argument is overblown. Ownership sets the stage, and players win championships. The last time I checked, the only thing that fans have to do with those title teams is to buy tickets and watch the games.

The last time I checked, while fans get thanked for their support, no one gives them credit for management decisions, playcalling, the setting of a pick, the throwing of a gutsy 3-2 changeup on the road with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth, the decision to go for it on fourth-and-two or anything like that.

So, if that's the case, they shouldn't get the blame for when things don't go right, either.

In Philadelphia, New York or anywhere else.

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