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THE PHILLY FAN opens at a dive bar in South Philadelphia in 2005, the night before the Super Bowl, with the title character drinking a beer and booing a television set that happens to be showing a Tom Brady highlight. The character, a white-haired union worker in a flannel shirt who served in Korea and vacations on the Jersey shore, spends the next 70 minutes lamenting in explicit language and excruciating detail all the great losses of his life—among them his best friend, his wife and the 2001, '02 and '03 NFC Championship Games. "There's somethin' ya gotta understand," the Philly Fan warns early on. "We never do nothin' the easy way 'round here."
The one-man show, written by Bruce Graham and starring Tom McCarthy, premiered at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in 2004 and had to be redone after the Eagles reached the Super Bowl in '05. The play became so popular that the Northlight Theatre outside Chicago wanted to run its own version, with a notable twist. BJ Jones, the artistic director at the Northlight, asked Graham if he could adapt his script to the plight of the Chicago fan. Graham, a native Philadelphian, did not see how that was possible. "You haven't lost enough," he said.
The Cubs have gone 100 years without a World Series title, but at least their fans have had the Bulls and the Bears, even the Blackhawks, to provide them an occasional ultimate thrill. Philadelphia has gone a combined 100 seasons without a championship in any major professional sport—25 fruitless years in a row for the Phillies, Eagles, 76ers and Flyers, easily the longest wait for any of the 13 metropolitan areas with four major professional sports teams. As The Philly Fan relates in the play's final scene, "We are the most loyal goddam fans in the world, and we just want a championship, that's all. That's not askin' a lot. Not when ya got four teams.... When's our turn?"
This World Series, which was supposed to be all about the Cubs and their 100 down years, is instead all about Philadelphia and its 100 dry seasons. The rallying cry is not 1908, but 1983, the year the 76ers swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Point guard Maurice Cheeks, believing he would win several more championships with the 76ers before his career was up, left the locker-room celebration early at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles and walked back to his hotel alone. "If I'd known how many more years it would be until the next one, I'd have stayed a lot longer," says Cheeks, now the 76ers head coach.
Since '83 the Phillies, Eagles and 76ers have each played for a championship, and the Flyers have played for three. They are a combined 0 for 6. Their timing has been terrible. They ran into the Lakers of Shaq and Kobe, the Patriots of Brady and Belichick, the Oilers of Gretzky and Messier. (Even Smarty Jones, the legendary racehorse from Philadelphia Park, won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2004, only to finish second in the Belmont Stakes.)
"Cubs fans would say, 'It's O.K., we got there, what a great year, they're still the lovable Cubs,'" says John Kruk, the first baseman for the 1993 Phillies, who lost the World Series to the Toronto Blue Jays. "In Philadelphia they're not the lovable Phillies or the lovable Eagles or the lovable Sixers. Freakin' win. We'll love you then."
PHILADELPHIA IS unique in that all of its teams play next door to one another, with Citizens Bank Park butting up to Lincoln Financial Field and the Wachovia Center, a veritable strip mall of professional sports. If one team is winning, the other teams believe the good fortune somehow rubs off on them, as if success can seep through the walls. When the Phillies started advancing in the playoffs this year, 76ers forward Donyell Marshall told guard Willie Green it was a sign that they would do the same come spring.
The golden age of Philadelphia sports spanned 10 years, from 1974 through '83, and included two championships for the Flyers, one for the Phillies, one for the 76ers and a Super Bowl appearance by the Eagles. As the Flyers paraded down Broad Street in '74, a 19-year-old aspiring physical therapist named Pat Croce jumped on top of the bus that was carrying the media. "It was just me and a couple of gangsters up there," Croce says.
Croce would become president and part owner of the 76ers, and in 2001 he was so confident in his team that he started planning their championship parade in January. "It was going to come down through North Philly into Center City," Croce says. "I reserved 15 flatbed trucks. I had the airport flyover zones checked. The city thought I was nuts." The 76ers made it to the Finals, but the Lakers beat them in five games, and Croce resigned six weeks later after a power struggle with team chairman Ed Snider.
A city can take only so many victory parades that never come to fruition. At some point in the past quarter century, all the heightened expectations gave way to crushing disappointment, and Philadelphia enhanced its reputation for one three-letter word. "When they boo you in Philadelphia, it penetrates you," said Dickie Noles, a relief pitcher for the Phillies when they won the World Series in 1980. "It's different than your normal boo. It comes at you quicker because of the knowledge of the Philly fan. And then it grows into something louder than you hear anyplace else. Philly fans are not just booing the play they just saw. They are booing a whole lifetime at you."