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It was Mark Twain who observed: "In Boston they ask, How much does he know? In New York, How much is he worth? In Philadelphia, Who were his parents?" That nothing has happened since Twain's day to change things can be supported by remembering Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, beside herself with shame because she had a few drinks with a magazine writer; or thinking about the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA, who arrived in town three years ago, starry-pantsed, from Onondaga County, New York. There, as the Syracuse Nationals, they had been practically nobility and were lionized by the citizenry. Philadelphians carefully examined their genealogy and found it wanting. Fans stayed home. Only one of the town's three newspapers deigned to cover the activities of these intruders who dared to sport PHILA across their chests and the 13 stars of independence on their satin shorts. "Look," Owner Irv Kosloff says now, "this is a team that I used to hate."
Compounding the animosity was the fact that the real Philadelphia team, the Warriors, had moved to San Francisco, taking all of the real Philadelphia players. That is, Local Boys. In Philadelphia, Local Boys are absolutely essential. If the Battle of Waterloo were fought again in its entirety on roller skates in Fair-mount Park, while overhead a host of angels sang ragtime, and good seats were a quarter apiece, the gate would hit about a buck and a half—unless Local Boys were employed in some substantial capacity. And Philly's Local Boys had gone West—Wilt Chamberlain, Guy Rodgers, even Wayne High tower. Tom Gola was commuting to New York for games with the Knicks. Not so rash as that, Paul Arizin refused to play any farther away than Camden, N.J., which is just across the Delaware River on a good day. And the original Local Boy, the father of Philadelphia basketball, Eddie Gottlieb, was enduring his own Valley Forge in San Francisco. Without Eddie—"The Mogul"—no Philadelphia team could ever claim legitimacy. The 76ers were properly scorned.
Since those bleak days the team has undergone a slow metamorphosis. Some home-town fans still cynically suggest that the 76ers will forever turn into stooges before the Celtics, but now that the team has acquired the finest coach in the league—Alex Hannum—many are beginning to abandon even that slur. Because, over the same period that they established the required image, the 76ers became the most powerful team in history. This year they are not only running away from the Celtics in the Eastern Division but also have achieved the finest record ever at this stage of the season, 32-3.
True enough, two of those losses were to Boston, and Philadelphia will surely meet the Celtics in the playoffs, in what has become the fiercest rivalry in professional sports. But victory would be even more pleasing this time, since so many of Philadelphia's own would be responsible. The list of Local Boys begins with Chamberlain and includes Wally Jones, Bill Melchionni, Matt Guokas and General Manager Jack Ramsay, formerly coach at St. Joseph's. Hannum, being related to the team on two sides, holds it together like a genuine family. He was Wilt's coach at San Francisco, and before that he coached the Syracuse emigrants—Chet Walker, Hal Greer, Dave Gambee and Larry Costello—up there. Furthermore, The Mogul is back in town, and his patriarchal presence makes the entire operation seem licit and bona fide.
Why, all three newspapers write about the 76ers these days. They have radio and TV coverage, and a toiletry company puts out a whole line of 76er products. You may win some if you have lucky-number program 1776. That gets the buyer a prize at each and every game—certainly a fitting memorial to our Founding Fathers. Attendance is up 50% this year, and crowds average nearly 8,000 in ancient Convention Hall—which, as every schoolchild knows, is either where the Declaration of Independence was signed or where Wendell Willkie was nominated. One of those. Next season a new 16,000-seat arena will be ready.
Philadelphia is, kidding aside, a metropolitan shrine to the sport of basketball. Games are on television virtually every night in the week. Any game. The other day Wake Forest vs. Cincinnati was beamed into town, live and in prime time. It was excuse enough that the Wake Forest coach was a Local Boy. "I have to say it," General Manager Ramsay says. "I think we've just got an ideal situation—the team, the coach, the new arena and the city."
It is, indeed, quite a team, massive in size and talent. But as the players gather for practice it is their manner that impresses even more. They are winners, and they laugh a lot. The largest of the 76ers, the one they call Norm, arrives, and shortly thereafter Hannum has the team form up in three lines for his favorite drill. Norm's random associates in the exercise turn out to be Kang and Cy (or Clops). "Humdiddy," Norm says. It is his preferred practice expression, one that satisfies every possible emotion.
The drill is a simple weave, up and down the court. In the event that anyone misses the shot at either basket, however, all three must run the maneuver again. Invariably it becomes, as Hannum explains it, "a simple game of chicken." Sure enough, Kang takes a dare from the sidelines and launches a long hook. It misses, comfortably. All three run again. "Humdiddy," Norm says, chugging along. This time, happily, he gets the shot and bangs it fancifully against the backboard. Go again. On the sidelines, Wally Wonder leads the team in squeaky laughter.
This drill, and the accompanying merriment, is the mark of a Hannum team, despite his reputation for being a tough disciplinarian. But the 76ers seem particularly loose. "We're happier," Wally Wonder explains. "We're happier because we're closer. It takes a while to get used to each other." Wally Wonder, who is Wally Jones in the box scores, has speeded the natural course of togetherness by dispensing nicknames all around.
Thus Norm—who is Wilton Norman Chamberlain. Or Bulldog for Greer. Checkmate is Walker. The Phantom is Guokas. Billy Cunningham, long renowned as the great white jumper, the Kangaroo Kid, has had that cut to Kang. Jones tagged Melchionni Cy (or Clops) for his deadeye shooting back when they were Local Boys together at Villanova.