25-year title drought gnaws at Philadelphia

June 18, 2008 7:18:19 PM PDT
It's all about a parade in Philly. The four-mile stretch of Broad Street, from City Hall to the sports complex, is a poor man's "Canyon of Heroes," where downtown office buildings give way to stout South Philly storefronts and row houses.

But that stretch of blacktop is hallowed ground for fans of the Phillies, Flyers, 76ers and Eagles because Philadelphians celebrate their sports heroes and titles with parades on south Broad Street - at least they used to.

Twenty-five years have passed since fans last crowded the sidewalks along the thoroughfare and celebrated a championship.

It's a silver anniversary of futility made all the more painful by events in Boston, where the Celtics grabbed the NBA title Tuesday and gave that city its sixth pro team championship in seven years.

How are Philly fans to cope?

Its sports heroes of the past encourage the fans to appreciate the near-successes, the joy of being in contention, the anticipation of a championship season, the fun of the game. And they counsel patience - up to a point.

Every sports season seemingly starts with great promise in Philly, and more often than not, at least recently, those campaigns have ended with respectable regular-season records. There have also been plenty of near-misses over the last quarter-century, with teams falling flat in the playoffs, finals or title games.

"It is such a delicate thing," said Billy Cunningham, a member of the Sixers' 1967 title team and coach of the 1983 champions. "If you go back to the early '80s everybody was doing well ... Things are cyclical."

The 1982-83 76ers were the last of Philly's four pro teams to win a title, with Moses Malone, Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks leading a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals.

After finals flameouts in '80 and '82, the '83 title ignited the kind of excitement only Philly fans can display. They lined Broad Street, three, four and five deep and punctuated their daylong salute with a wild celebration inside Veterans Stadium.

"It stays with you," Cunningham said. "It's one of those things you'll never forget and you realize how fortunate you were. And, you appreciate it more with age."

Who could have known that sun-splashed parade on June 2, 1983, would be the city's last chance to celebrate, especially after a run of four championships (Flyers 1974, '75; Phillies 1980; 76ers '83) in 10 years, a period some call the golden era of Philly sports.

"It's like, how long will this go on?" Dr. J said earlier this year. "There's something special about being known as the last team, but enough is enough. The first 10, 15 years, it was pretty cool.

"It's not cool anymore."

The Flyers were the first to experience a uniquely Philly-style celebration, when they claimed the first of their consecutive Stanley Cups in six games over the Boston Bruins in 1974. That impromptu celebration of the Broad Street Bullies set the standard for all other champions and parades. The Flyers added their second title a year later, beating the Buffalo Sabres in six games.

But near-misses have followed since, with fruitless Flyers trips to the finals in 1985, '87 and '97.

Flyers fans are a demanding bunch, and one member of the Stanley Cup-winning teams understands the frustration.

"I don't think the fans are too tough," said former Flyers goalie Bernie Parent, the Vezina Trophy winner in both Cup seasons. "I think they are very supportive of all four teams. They're good people, and 25 years is a long time, so they deserve a championship.

"We (the players) want it as much as they do. It's one of those things that you have to be patient."

Phillies fans had their patience rewarded in 1980. The franchise has done more losing than winning - and has 10,000 losses to prove it. But in 1980, behind the play of three-time National League MVP Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose, the long-suffering Phillies and their fans had their chance to celebrate when the team beat the Kansas City Royals in the World Series.

When Tug McGraw recorded a strikeout for the final out of that series, 30 frustrating seasons since the Phillies' Whiz Kids won the N.L. title was washed away. The parade and celebration that followed was legendary.

"In our case, the town having waited so long for a title created a special atmosphere," said Schmidt, the MVP of the 1981 World Series. "They filled the streets and JFK (Stadium) at the end of the parade. It seemed every person in Philly was there to pay their respects to us.

"It was a love affair between a town and its team, and that atmosphere will never be reproduced, with all due respect to Howard and Rollins and Utley, who will win multiple championships."

The Phillies haven't hoisted the World Series hardware since, falling short against the Baltimore Orioles in 1983 and the Toronto Blue Jays in '93.

One old-time Phillie knows how cherished championships are. "It's the greatest memory you can have as a player, especially if you only did it once," said Robin Roberts, Hall of Fame pitcher and catalyst of the '50 Whiz Kids. "You remember everything about those winning seasons."

One franchise that hasn't experienced a title in nearly 50 years is the Eagles. A loyal and vocal bunch, Birds fans have watched their team evolve from a group of hapless losers to almost constant contenders. Still, the franchise's only NFL championship came in 1960, against the Green Bay Packers.

The team reached the Super Bowl in 1981, against the Oakland Raiders, and again in 2005, against the New England Patriots, and came away empty both times.

Tommy McDonald, a Hall of Fame receiver for the '60 Eagles, says fans should enjoy the team's success, even though it hasn't netted a title - yet.

"Fans should be glad that we are up there all the time," McDonald said. "Nobody thought we would win in 1960 against Green Bay. Nobody gave us a chance, but we beat them.

"Tell the fans not to project. Just buy the tickets and go, because we are in the entertainment business."

Schmidt believes a team's continued success makes up for the lack of a championship.

"Fans attend games for the entertainment value, and in Philly, like most towns, the atmosphere at the stadium is more upbeat and more exciting when the team is a contender," the Hall of Fame third baseman said.

There are signs the city's teams are closing in on a title.

The Eagles have enjoyed yearly success, but the window of opportunity might be closing for veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb and his teammates.

The Phillies are stacked with young, talented players like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. They are leading their division as the season closes in on the halfway mark.

The Flyers made a quick turnaround from one of the worst teams in the NHL to make the Eastern Conference championship series this year.

And, the 76ers, who lost in the 2001 finals to the Lakers, qualified for the playoffs this season for the first time since 2005.

The teams' recent success isn't lost on the town's sports veterans.

"I think they are all going great now," Parent said. "I think it is going to be a great four, five, six seven years coming up.

"Everybody is getting healthy, they are building up with good young players and I think we're going to have some fun in Philly the next few years."

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AP National Writer Ben Walker in New York also contributed to this report.

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