Gil Dowd knows his way around Madison Square Garden. After working 52 ½ years as an usher at the famed arena he should. He saw Willis Reed play Game 7 against the Lakers in 1970. He saw Mark Messier hoist the Stanley Cup in 1994. He saw Kobe drop 61 points in 2009. But on this Saturday night in November, the 85 year-old Brooklyn native with a hunched back and wispy white hair was surprised by what he didn’t see.
“I always tell the other teams’ fans when they come to the Garden to cheer for their team because everyone deserves some support,” he said before pausing to show a couple in matching Carmelo Anthony jerseys to their seats.
“But I haven’t spotted one fan in a Sixers jersey tonight.”
Can you blame them?
The 76ers are 0-13, just five games away from matching the worst start in NBA history. The franchise is accustomed to inglorious records. Last season, they tied the 2009-10 Cavaliers’ mark of 26 straight losses and the ’72-73 Sixers still hold the distinction of owning the worst record over a full season (9-73). This year’s team might eclipse both feats.
Yet despite Dowd’s statement, fans in Sixers jerseys haven’t gone extinct. On Saturday amid a jungle of orange and blue in the sellout crowd at MSG, they were more of an endangered species. When K.J. McDaniels sank a corner three for the Sixers to cut the Knicks’ lead to 12 with a minute to play in the first, the applause sounded like it came from the gallery at a golf tournament, not the raucous Philly fans we’re accustomed to.
Two fans who did make the trip up the New Jersey Turnpike were Sean Cosenza and his father, Vincent, from Horsham, Penn. Sean, a 25 year-old personal trainer wasn’t ashamed to show off his Sixers fandom -- but the No. 3 black jersey that he wore without a shirt underneath was for a player who last suited up for the Sixers in 2010: Allen Iverson.
“What keeps me going is tradition,” the younger Cosenza said. “It’s gonna be at least another 20 years before the next A.I.. He was my guy.”
Iverson was on the court at the last Sixers’ game Sean and Vincent attended this past March. The 2001 MVP received a standing ovation—but not for his play. Iverson was at the Wells Fargo Center on Mar. 1 for his jersey retirement ceremony. Maybe the team should have asked for some help instead of hanging his No. 3 up in the rafters. The Sixers have won only four games since that ceremony.
When asked about his opinion of this year’s team, Sean’s outlook was predictably bleak. “It’s free-for-all, undisciplined basketball,” he shouted as his dad tried to calm him down. “They have no chemistry. Maybe if the guys upstairs would keep a player for more than a month I might actually buy a current player’s jersey.”
That might be easier said than done.
Matt Davis knows. Sitting in Section 105, he was wearing a brand-new red Sixers jersey. He bought it at the NBA store in New York last Sunday -- there was just one problem.
“I would have really liked to get a Nerlens Noel or Tony Wroten jersey,” said Davis, 18, from Sydney, Australia.
Noel and Wroten weren’t available. Neither were Michael Carter-Williams or Joel Embiid. The 6,000 square foot store that resembles a locker is filled with jerseys -- from XXL all the way down to newborn creepers. You can find jersey with sleeves, jerseys with players’ first names and even a Michael Jordan All-Star game jersey. What you can’t find is a jersey for a current Sixers player. The only options are Julius Erving and Allen Iverson.
“This is our temporary store so anything we stock has to sell and sell fast,” said the store’s manager, when asked the next day.
What’s a Sixers fan to do?
Davis opted for the Dr. J throwback instead of the vintage A.I. with “The Answer” on the back.
By the third quarter of the Knicks-76ers game, it was clear Philly had no answer on the floor. New York began to pull away, despite its own laundry list of problems.
But some of the home fans still weren’t content. After all, this is New York. “Trade Melo!” a group of Knicks fans chanted after Anthony missed a three-pointer to end the third quarter.
“We’ll take him,” said Dan Lamonte, a 76ers fan sitting nearby.
Lamonte, a 23-year old who works as a medical scribe in Red Bank, New Jersey sported a white No. 50 jersey with “Allen” on the back.
It wasn’t a custom Iverson jersey. Allen was for Lavoy Allen -- a third-year pro from Temple University. Before Temple, Allen attended Pennsbury High School in Trenton, New Jersey.
So did Lamonte. That’s why he bought the jersey despite his fellow alumnus’ meager scoring output in the NBA.
In 171 games for the Sixers, Allen averaged 5.2 points per game. The team decided to ship him to Indy last season when it sent Evan Turner, the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft, to the Pacers for Danny Granger, who the team promptly waived six days later.
More casualties ensued. Philadelphia also traded starting center Spencer Hawes to the Clippers in February and Thaddeus Young to Minnesota in August.
Who’s left? Not many names you would recognize. The Sixers now have the youngest roster in the league an average age of 23.8.
While Lamonte admitted that he didn’t understand the reasoning behind all the transactions, he still said he agreed with GM Sam Hinkie’s plan.
“I’ve seen too many years when we’ve gotten the eight seed and then are out of the playoffs in the first round,” Lamonte said. “We need to break that cycle of mediocrity.”
The cycle wouldn’t be broken Saturday. The 76ers lost 91-83 to the Knicks, failing to notch a victory for the 13th straight game.
“I thought tonight was gonna be the night,” Lamonte said after the final buzzer.
Donny Forline didn’t think so. “It’s tough,” Forline, a 32-year-old legal clerk from South Philadelphia, said about being a Sixers fan. “At this point I pretty much expect them to lose.”
That didn’t stop Forline from purchasing a jersey this season. And it wasn’t a throwback. Forline sported a red Michael Carter-Williams uniform.
“He’s the face of the franchise, I guess,” Forline said. “Right now I’m just hoping in two to three years the team isn’t as bad.”
In the MSG concourse, Forline eyed a TV screen screen as the Knicks-76ers game waged on. A play unfolded that epitomized the current sad state of the Sixers. Nerlens Noel tried to save a ball underneath his own basket. He failed. Iman Shumpert intercepted his pass at the three-point line, dribbled the length of the court and attempted a layup as Tony Wroten came swooping in for the block.
The basket was good. And one.
The effort was there, but the team that currently sports seven undrafted free agents was simply overmatched.
“Honestly I have no choice,” Forline said, before sipping his beer. “A real fan is patient."