I can still remember when Dr. J retired - his final game, win or go home against the Bucks in the 1987 playoffs - when he put his hand up and carried the ball with him off the court for the last time. I remember it because I was crying that night, in my pajamas. It was a tough, tough night in the Shyamalan household.
The Dr. J era was an amazing era to be a kid and to grow up in. My memories of watching Dr. J are me at home, sitting with Dad in the den, wishing the team on. I watched a ton of Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers growing up as well. But with basketball, every single day I could just go outside, shoot on our little driveway hoop, and pretend I was Dr. J. Maybe it's the 82 games, maybe it's the speed of the game, maybe it's because I play. Maybe it's something about basketball's accessibility that has kept it so connected to me.
Ever since I was little, I've played basketball. I still play every week. It's a super-passion. I played on teams when I was young, and later in pick-up games when I went to college. Then after college, I essentially played in weekly pick-up games for decades. These days, I'm more of an outside shooter than a slasher. I've had two ACL surgeries from playing hoops, which should tell you how committed I am. I've come back twice! Clearly, my wife thinks I'm insane.
Even as I grew older, I've always watched and monitored the 76ers. Then, in the late 1990s, another era came along that became very personal - the Pat Croce, Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo era. That era was huge in our household. By then, I had had some success. Iverson ended up moving in right next door to me, so he was my literal neighbor during that time period. I knew Pat Croce as a friend. I got very close to the team at that time, coming to games and through some of those connections.
One thing I'll never forget from that era, the team was in the Finals against the Lakers while I was recovering from my second ACL surgery. That was a hard one, because I remember one game where we were winning and I started to jump up and down. Everyone was screaming, 'Don't! Don't!,' because I was still recovering. They were like, 'You're going to snap your surgery!' I was literally just out of surgery because of basketball, and I was watching my team in the championship for basketball. There were a lot of specific memories about that era, and that's one of them. It was wonderful to watch another hugely entertaining player lead our team, almost all the way.
Go to a game now, and you might see me there too. I'm fortunate. You're talking about a little boy who grew up in the Delaware Valley playing basketball and watching this team. Then, you have this incredible luck of circumstances where I can end up sitting in two of the best seats in the arena. Being right there courtside is a dream come true - the tickets are kind of a boyhood dream.
It's actually a very different thing. Whenever I take someone courtside, I always tell them they have to prepare themselves, because you're going to be overwhelmed by the experience. Being there, standing next to these giants, watching these players come by you, hearing them talk to each other, hearing coaches give instructions, the referees jabbering back and forth, seeing the nuances of the game - the tugging on the jerseys, the being lazy on the double teams. You can see all of that stuff happening and unfolding in front of you. It's electric. It's really electric. Players are bumping into you, they're diving at your feet. It's all pretty impressive. So many times, players have slid over or fallen on us, or the ball has come flying at us. A lot of times, I'm so into the game I have to tell myself not to try to steal the ball from the opposing player. You have to stop - your instincts are calling you to sit on your hands so you don't do anything stupid and be on ESPN. You're right there.
I've always felt very much at home in Philadelphia, and feel responsible for the community - that I'm very much a part of it and connected to it, especially the basketball part. When I go around the world to promote movies, people often talk to me about the Sixers and my seats. Whether I'm in London or Rome or Madrid or wherever I am, they often talk to me about basketball because of that. Then, I get to tell them what it's like to be a 76ers fan.
Regardless of what we do for a living or where we might sit in the arena, we're all one group. We're the fans. We're all feeling the exact same thing emotionally. From the person who's in the farthest seat to the seat I'm in, there's very little difference in what we're feeling emotionally. We're tied to those players - their successes and failures are ours. They carry our hopes and dreams with them as they get on that court. All the memories we've had with this team are seared in us. It's definitely a wonderful feeling.
The NBA is a long season. As we know, there are all kinds of factors that aren't in our control, but we have the highest of expectations for this year's team. Last year, I think we realistically had a chance to win it all. A bounce this way or that way - one inches or two inches - and we might be having a conversation about what it was like to be at the parade. You just never know - the fates can go in your favor or not. However, putting all those things aside, I don't think I've ever come into the first game of a season with a stronger feeling that we might be the best team in the NBA. Since I was a kid, I don't know if I've ever felt that. But this year is different. Going into Opening Night, that's the feeling I have, and I can't wait for the ride.