Philly love & basketball

What does the Sixers’ new city jersey tell us about the future of Philadelphia?

6 minute read
Sixers All-star Ben Simmons poses with the 2021 edition of the team's city jerseys. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia 76ers.)
Sixers All-star Ben Simmons poses with the 2021 edition of the team's city jerseys. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia 76ers.)

This might come as a surprise, but I’m really into basketball. It’s been part of my identity since I started watching it back in the late ‘90s, and I’m frequently crafting metaphors infused with basketball-isms. I fell in love with the game watching Allen Iverson play for the 76ers. He was the “little guy” on the court, scrappy, speedy, and tenacious as he fought against tall odds. Some six-foot-nothing dude from Hampton, Virginia, captured the heart of Philadelphia. He embodied the spirit of the city.

Alternatively, there was Kobe Bryant. Nicknamed The Black Mamba, he was bullish on the court. He, too, was a Philadelphia hero—sort of. Throughout his career, Philly fans disowned him: “He’s from Lower Merion so it doesn’t count.” He was born in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, raised partly in Italy, and graduated from Lower Merion High School off the Main Line. This sourness was exacerbated by his dominance over the Sixers. He even sealed a victory of the 2001 NBA Finals against the Sixers down on Broad Street at the aptly titled “FU Center.” Our envy repudiated Kobe (making it strange when Philadelphians embraced Kobe as their own after his death almost a year ago). Philly wanted that illustrious success. We had a deep void to fill.

So the recent unveiling of the Sixers’ new city jerseys was right on time—the reveal came shortly after election week. Somehow, these two events are related. Let me dribble that out for you.

“Lazy” Philly?

City jerseys are departures from the regular jerseys that teams usually wear. Designer Nike says the “uniforms represent insights and emotion from the court to the upper deck to the cities’ streets, in pursuit of a unique way to capture each team and its city in a way that respects the past and present of the clubs while also positioning them for the future.”

I’m still wondering: what do the new jerseys say about Philly?

The 2021 edition of the Sixers city jersey is all black, with “Philadelphia” spelled out in white in all caps, with an outline of Boathouse Row that, at first glance, is visually incomprehensible. Plus, Boathouse Row is hardly an iconic symbol of Philadelphia.

It gets worse. Sixers president Chris Heck said in an interview that the nickname “Philly” is “lazy and undersells the city” and doesn’t appeal to what a “new Philadelphia” fan is to the organization. He went further, criticizing the city’s embracing of “blue collar,” which he says is “important for the city, but it’s not the only component. New Philadelphia is about the arts, it’s about culture, it’s about education, it’s about diversity.”

There’s a stark dissonance here. What is “new Philadelphia”? Yes, “Philadelphia” is about the arts and culture, and it is a diverse town. Part of me finds Heck’s comments lacerating while the other side is like—hol’ up, he might be right.

An iconic piece of Philadelphia: Boathouse Row at night. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Parks and Recreation.)
An iconic piece of Philadelphia: Boathouse Row at night. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Parks and Recreation.)

How Philly swung

By geography, Pennsylvania is largely a red state, but our most populous counties went blue in this election, including Allegheny (Pittsburgh), Dauphin (Harrisburg), Lehigh (Allentown), and Philadelphia (obviously). The state was historically red until the late ’80s, when Philadelphia and its suburbs swung politically. This gets complicated, too: you can trace the swing back to Frank Rizzo, the infamously racist (but celebrated in many circles) mayor and police commissioner. He was a Democrat until switching to the Republican party in 1986, six years after his service as mayor. Imagine a racist Democrat running our city for eight years. And we wonder why we have identity issues. That’s like trauma that hides in your body. How do we even begin to process that?

Being properly acknowledged might help, but when the entire country fails to acknowledge that votes in Philadelphia were critical in saving us from another four years of Agent Orange, it fails to acknowledge the work that swung Philly into the progressive arts-and-culture hub that it is—or at least is trying to be.

This isn’t new. Philadelphia’s identity has been compromised for a long time. We’ve been called bullies. Tourists assume all we are is the Liberty Bell, cheesesteaks, and what’s that other place? Oh, right, the Rocky steps! And when a city reveres a mayor like Rizzo and reluctantly removes his statue and mural after years of protest, we’re more complicit in that identity than we want to admit.

What Philly wants to become

No doubt Philly’s got issues it needs to work out. Universities are swelling, devastating neighborhoods with gentrification. Many restaurants that have popped up in the past 10 years continue to fail to contribute to their communities. The city's education system has long been underfunded, and dozens of schools have shut down since the early 2010s. The trend continues, with Hallahan and Bishop McDevitt announcing their closures in November. Philadelphia has the second-highest homicide rate in the country this year. Justice hasn’t been served for Walter Wallace Jr. The city offered an empty apology for the MOVE bombing (over 30 years late on that one). And let’s not forget the budget cuts last spring—that felt like utter betrayal.

A crew from Mural Arts Philadelphia paints over the Frank Rizzo mural on Ninth Street in June 2020. (Photo by Steve Weinik.)
A crew from Mural Arts Philadelphia paints over the Frank Rizzo mural on Ninth Street in June 2020. (Photo by Steve Weinik.)

This is the “new Philadelphia” we’re representing with our jerseys. It’s not the “blue collar” or “Philly” part that’s lazy. It’s that our reps and officials and organizations refuse to accept what Philly wants to become: a progressive sanctuary city that values its communities and its arts and is dedicated to evaluating and executing on a solid, palpable identity.

What I’d wear

I remain hopeful: like Iverson, we’re scrappy, speedy, and tenacious. Like Kobe, we’re winners with unequivocal slants—we’ll tell it like we see it whether you like it or not. That makes us sound pretty brash to many outside the city, and apparently, “bad things” happen here (of course, we argued righteously over whether to claim that). But watching Philly folk dancing in the street the Saturday that the election was decided warmed my heart. This is also who we are. We love to dance. We love to share our joy in the face of our pain. We love to speak our minds, and we did so by swinging the vote at the 11th hour. We stand up for our own. Pennsylvania didn’t save the election—Philly saved that jawn. Lumping us in with the rest of the state isn’t something Americans do with other major cities.

There is a mountain to unpack when it comes to Philly’s problems and their roots. But I hope we collectively continue to push forward and fight with the love in our name as we shape a “new Philadelphia Philly” that functionally values arts, culture, education, and diversity.

That is what I’d be proud to wear on a city jersey.

Image description: A photo of player Ben Simmons, centered while wearing the new city jerseys, which feature 'Philadelphia' in all-caps and white font and an outline of Boathouse Row. Boathouse Row is in the background, its lights lit up against the night sky.

Image description: A nighttime photo of Boathouse Row, which has riverside houses outlined in yellow and blue lights that reflect on the water.

Image description: A photo of the Frank Rizzo mural being painted over with light brown paint. One long-handled roller, its handler out of the frame at the bottom, spreads paint. Most of the mural has been covered, except for a square that Rizzo’s eye looks through.

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