Even though the Eagles won the Super Bowl this past February, an essential element of Philadelphia sports fandom remains being irrationally angry. I still freak out when a ref calls a roughing the passer penalty on Michael Bennett. Gabe Kapler made me constantly throw my Phillies hat in disgust as his team collapsed down the stretch this summer. Philadelphians are untethered and their rage knows no bounds, but it’s a relief when all that anger can be directed in one direction instead of just crying, “Woe is me,” and assuming the world is against us all.
That’s where having a rival comes in.
A rivalry has always felt like an essential part of fandom to me, but the Sixers have lacked one for decades and there’s been a void in my Sixers-loving heart. To be an Eagles fan is to hate Dallas. To be a Flyers fan is to hate the Penguins. To be a Phillies fan is to despise the Mets. Who were Sixers fans supposed to hate my whole life?
I am a 24-year-old South Philadelphian. There are only faint glimmers in my brain of watching Allen Iverson and the 2001 Sixers in the NBA Finals. I’ve never known a truly good Sixers team, much less one good enough to breed disdain from another fan base. That changed after a disappointing loss in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Celtics back in May. Now all I want to do is tell Sully from Southie that Dunkin’ Donuts is disgusting while knocking his flat-brimmed Patriots hat off his head.
I adore the “Philadelphia vs. Everybody” mentality, but there’s something especially satisfying about directing all your energy and contempt towards a single fanbase. The Sixers, and their fans in turn, are now aiming at a shamrock-shaped target. There’s larger history at play, both recent and not so recent, when it comes to hating the Celtics.
Bill Russell dueled, and almost always got the best of, Wilt Chamberlain throughout the ‘60s. Andrew Toney ascended to legendary status in Sixers lore as “The Boston Strangler” with a 34-point effort in Game 7 of the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. Julius Erving and Larry Bird choked one another on-court in November 1984, inciting a violent melee that included Kevin McHale and a rookie Charles Barkley.
That’s also before getting to the curious case of Markelle Fultz, who will be perpetually linked with Jayson Tatum.
Trading the pick Boston used on Tatum, who torched the Sixers for 23 points on Opening Night, and a juicy, top-1 protected 2019 Sacramento Kings first rounder makes last summer’s swap look ridiculously bad in its own right. The fact that Fultz still looks overwhelmed and gun-shy despite all the hoopla that came from training with Drew Hanlen all summer only makes matters worse. Tatum is going to make an All-Star team within two years, if not sooner. Fultz isn’t even ready to be in the Sixers’ second half rotation against playoff teams. This is the worst NBA trade of the decade with the potential for it be an all timer.
Tatum makes my blood boil, especially given the grossly premature victory lap Sixers fans, myself included, took after the Sixers acquired Fultz in 2017. We thought we finally got one over on good ol’ Danny Ainge and his “warchest of assets.” Tatum turning into a 6-8 version of young Kobe Bryant wasn’t something any Sixers fan expected.
One of my favorite television shows at the moment is American Horror Story: Apocalypse. The series’ portrayal of hell is a given person’s worst moment being repeated on loop for the rest of eternity. If I go to hell, I will be sitting on my living room couch drinking a room temperature Miller Lite while watching Jayson Tatum crossover Joel Embiid before draining a jumper as Markelle Fultz sits on the bench with a blank stare on his face.
Watching Aron Baynes sink three-pointers in May and again on Opening Night makes me want to take my dog on a one-hour walk, delete Twitter off my phone forever and then ignore all my family and work responsibilities. He’s a 6-10 Australian mammoth of a human being. I hate him with every fiber of my being.
But I also love him. I love that he exists and looks like a knockoff James Bond villain. I love that Joel Embiid derides him for his man bun on Twitter. I love that I will boo and yell, screaming my lungs out the first time he steps on the court at the Wells Fargo Center this season.
After that season-opening loss to Boston, Embiid said that there actually isn’t a rivalry between the Sixers and Celtics because “they always kick our ass.” I’m going to disagree with the big fella. It’s a rivalry because the Sixers are so close to beating the Celtics. The East is theirs for the taking if they want it. They can have the two best players on the court against the Celtics at any given time. It’s a rivalry because my name is literally Shamus Clancy and Brad Stevens’ smug baby face still makes me hate an Irish-themed team. It’s a rivalry because every back-breaking Marcus Smart three-pointer makes me want to grab my Allen Iverson bobblehead and smash it into a hundred pieces.
Every hero needs an adversary. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid need Jayson Tatum and Aron Baynes as much as Batman needs The Joker and The Riddler. Despite Opening Night being such a frustrating loss, a part of me is still okay with it. I’m happy that the stakes are so high with the Sixers for the first time in over a decade. I want to breathe Celtics hatred for the next seven months before watching the Sixers defeat Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals next May. I want to hear 20,000 Celtics fans in the TD Garden scream at Simmons and Embiid as the Sixers slay this green dragon on their quest for an NBA championship. They can then toss their “SHOOT A 3 COWARD” shirts in the harbor.
After being stuck in mediocrity and an afterthought for so long, it’s just refreshing to feel that emotional kick and rage I currently have for the Celtics. I don’t know if the Sixers truly have the depth right now to top Boston in a playoff series, but the day they do will be that much sweeter given the last five years for this franchise and the last five months of getting embarrassed by the Celtics.