I didn’t remember how loud it could get at a basketball game. I’d been to Sixers games this year already, but none of those were at full capacity. But aside from a few tarped-off seats behind the benches, the arena was full for the Sixers’ 118-102 win over the Hawks on Tuesday night. There were 18,624 fans in attendance, which is 92 percent of capacity. That’s pretty much full. My section didn’t seem to have an empty seat in it.
I was not really sure what to expect when the Hawks and Sixers took the court. The Sixers had been run out of the building for most of Game 1, with a late rally falling just short. Would they get blown out again? Would they counterpunch with a blowout of their own? I wasn’t even thinking about what the atmosphere would be like; I was too nervous about what would happen if they got crushed again. Honestly, one reason I wanted to go Tuesday was to be there for a possible classic Crushing Philadelphia Sports Moment™.
The Hawks knocked the opening tip right to the Sixers’ Danny Green, who dunked it six seconds into the game, putting the Sixers on pace for a historic 480-0 win. That wouldn’t keep up, but they really came out of the gate like Smarty Jones on Tuesday. Tobias Harris scored eight of the team’s first 12 points. Suddenly it was 12-2. Then it was 18-4. Finally, it was 23-6, after a Seth Curry three. The Hawks took a timeout, and I realized that I could not hear myself think. This was what I’d forgotten about.
It was loud. It was so loud. I did not remember this is how loud the Sixers’ arena can get. I had last been to a full-crowd playoff game in 2019, when the Sixers broke open a close Game 2 against the Nets with a 51-point third quarter, and I did not remember it being that loud when the Sixers suddenly couldn’t miss for a quarter. When it was 23-6 in the first quarter, the crowd was rocking, my friend next to me was screaming, the stranger on the other side of me was slapping my back. I was screaming, too, and deliriously using “we” to refer to a team of strangers down below.
Later, the Sixers brought out the noise meter, and it got up to 11.1! I know that this is not a scientific device, or even a terribly sophisticated graphic. I know that it has nothing to do with the actual crowd noise. But when I was there on Tuesday, it really felt like we were pushing that thing up.
The Sixers’ arena is not really a great place to watch sports, in my opinion. Opened in 1996 and owned by Comcast, the arena is significantly better than the Sixers and Flyers’ old arena, The Spectrum, but it has none of the charm that the old building did. Part of this, I think, is that it has been named after four different banks during its 25 years of operation: CoreStates, First Union, Wachovia, and now Wells Fargo. That an area with a local bank name—CoreStates was previously Philadelphia National Bank, which was known for its early ATM network that older Philadelphians still call “MAC machines”—is now named after a San Francisco bank makes it feel like less of a place. Philly’s more recent football and baseball stadiums have bank names too, but good nicknames (CBP, The Linc) and the fact that their occupants have won championships since they’ve opened helps make them feel more special, if only because special things have happened there. Meanwhile, the biggest title win in The Center came when Roman Reigns defeated Sheamus for the WWE Championship. “The Center” just doesn’t have the same feel.
A recent renovation has helped a bit. They upgraded the sound system in 2018, too, and the place did seem like it was rocking a bit more on Sunday. (Like all NBA teams, the Sixers play in-game sound and music during the game.) WXPN radio DJ Kristen Kurtis told me yesterday that while the place is not the best for concerts, it does get loud. But that’s with Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready coming out of the speakers. Apparently the howls of PA announcer Matt Cord or a recording of Mr. Burns saying “Excellent!” must pump up the crowd a bit more, too.
And that’s important! Home court/field/pitch/whatever advantage has been shown to be driven by strong crowds; the fans really might subtly influence officials to call more fouls on the opposing team. (This idea comes from home field advantage dissipating during soccer matches held in empty arenas because a team was being punished for their fans being riotous or whatever.)
Teams have even attempted to artificially increase that crowd noise for their advantage. In last year’s NBA bubble, of course, the league pumped in fake crowd noise to simulate the effects of a real game, but that was a league-wide initiative. In 1997, though, the New Jersey Nets were caught pumping in fake crowd noise at their since-abandoned arena in the swamp. It was a common tactic for the team that decade.
It was most noticeable in an upset win over the Chicago Bulls in March. The Nets pumped in fake cheers to override Bulls’ fans boos as New Jersey’s Xavier McDaniel hit four free throws down the stretch to clinch the win. “I guess it’s like a game show, where they have those applause signs,” Nets guard Kevin Edwards said. New Nets coach John Calipari was similarly peeved. “Some of this stuff is embarrassing,” he told the New York Daily News. Later, he said it would all be forgotten: “One day, you’ll say it was only three years ago that they were pumping in fake crowd noise. You’ll say, ‘How far has this organization come?’” It was a solid prediction, if a little ambitious, but Calipari was long gone by the time the Nets made the NBA Finals. At that time, the Sixers told the AP they did not pump in artificial noise. I was told the team ceased pumping in fake noise this year when fans returned.
NBA crowds get loud. During the 1992 NBA Finals, even Michael Jordan admitted that the crowds fazed him while on the road. “Yes, we’re human, too,” he said. “We hear the cheers. And we hear the boos. There aren’t too many players like Charles [Barkley] who can feed off a hostile crowd.” Not long after the Nets were busted pumping in fake crowd noise, Utah Jazz fans were so loud that the NBA considered asking the team to tone down its pregame fireworks to compensate. (The 1997 NBA Finals was full of complaints: Bulls coach Phil Jackson complained about the pregame fireworks, and also “about the Jazz mascot ‘Bear’ taking a loud Harley-Davidson motorcycle onto the floor,” per the Associated Press. The Jazz retaliated with a note that it was Karl Malone’s motorcycle and that fans smoking cigarettes at Chicago’s arena was much more annoying than Bear’s borrowed chopper.)
This may sound weird to younger readers, but back in the early 2000s the Sacramento Kings were regularly good, and their crowds were known for being loud. The guy who ran the shot clock wore earplugs. So did Mavericks coach Don Nelson, when the team was at the arena. And, in 2003, The Sacramento Bee ran a front-page story on whether crowds at Kings games were so loud they could affect your hearing. UC-Davis audiologist David Sheaffer concluded that loud noise at Kings games did cause some hearing loss, but it was only temporary. (I can attest that my ears returned to normal after Tuesday’s game, just like my voice.) The Bee article also noted that the Kings’ arena’s size—they play in a new arena now, and the crowds are reportedly not as loud—could not fully compensate for the noise. Steve Pettyjohn, owner of The Acoustics and Vibration Group in Sacramento, said the Kings’ arena’s intimate atmosphere couldn’t account for the loud noises alone: “This is a social issue. It’s mass hysteria.”
And this is how I felt on Tuesday. I don’t think the Sixers are going to win the title this year. But when the game was 23-6, and the crowd was screaming, and I was high-fiving strangers … well, I believed. I thought back to this game during the Sixers’ run through the 2001 playoffs in the same building. It was 20 years and at least one sound system ago, but the arena was rocking for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. A fan had a “Beat the Bucks” sign the camera kept showing on the big screen. Milwaukee had cut their deficit to just two points. They showed the sign. Everyone was chanting “Beat! The! Bucks! Beat! The! Bucks!” The Sixers ended the game on an 8-2 run, and closed it out so easily I remember arguing with my mom on the way home how close the Bucks had cut their deficit to.
It’s not the win I remember primarily. That helps, of course. But what I remember best is the crowd screaming, trying to will the team to victory even if we weren’t sure our efforts actually did much for the team. That’s how I felt about this week’s game as well. Standing up and cheering after Shake Milton did his thing. Screaming anytime Joel Embiid did anything. Yelling to no one in particular that Ben Simmons only had four points. It was great to be in that atmosphere again. It couldn’t have been anything but loud.