Sixers management aims to score big in the long term by growing a D-League basketball crew in Philly's backyard.
“We are a laboratory,” says the team’s general manager, Brandon Williams—the man most responsible for personnel decisions. Williams describes Pelle as a “clear project” and someone who hasn’t “had the opportunity to play in a longstanding system, who [is] still developing physically.”
That system that Pelle and his teammates now find themselves in doesn’t just encompass the 87ers locker room, but also the larger Sixers organization. The two teams’ affiliation allows for what Moszer, the 87ers president, describes as a tremendous amount of synergy both on and off the court. The 87ers, he says, operate under the same business philosophy as their parent club—meaning that advertising, marketing and other spending habits all mimic whatever direction the Sixers are going in. “Each person in our staff works directly with their counterpart with the Sixers,” he says. And that applies not just to business practices, but to basketball philosophy as well. Fans can expect to see newly hired head coach Rod Baker implement the same playbook, from pick-and-roll offense to defensive strategies—and even the same conditioning workouts that they would if they were seated in the Wells Fargo Center.
Given that approach, it’s important that Moszer and Williams understand the D-League experience as more than just administrators. In fact, twelve years ago, Williams himself was one of the ball players shooting for that NBA chance. From 1996 to 2003, he recalls, he found himself constantly relocating to small-market cities, in the U.S. and overseas, in hopes of eventually catching on with an NBA team. His NBA career lasted a handful of games, although he did earn a championship ring as a member of an upstart San Antonio Spurs squad in 1999. After hanging up his sneakers for good, he transitioned into the business side of the game; prior to joining the 87ers, Williams—who also holds a front office position with the Sixers—worked as the NBA’s associate vice president of basketball operations.
Thinking back to the days when he was first offered a D-League players contract after several years in the (now defunct) Continental Basketball Association, Williams recalls being “a little skeptical. At that stage of my career, would the league be strong enough? Would I be caught in the middle of the season looking for a job?” But he found the D-League to be something more than he’d expected: “I saw it, probably the first week or two of my experience. [The Continental Basketball Association] had history and a track record. D-League didn’t—it was brand new. But what it had was, it looked a lot like the NBA. The lights, the floors, the colors, the jerseys were of a better quality. The trainers, the balls and the facilities we used were just better.”
NOV. 16, 2013: It’s Saturday afternoon, and the 87ers are holding an open practice for the community to come check them out at Delaware Technical Community College. About 80 people have shown up, and the atmosphere in the room is that of a Division III basketball game. The play, however, is decidedly more akin to that of the pros, with plenty of stout defense, hard-nosed lay-ups and silky three-pointers to keep the crowd entertained.
Afterwards, young fans scramble up to the team for autographs. “It’s hard to gauge how tall they are until you’re down here with them,” marvels one local dad, Jay Hayes, 36, standing by while his two daughters collect autographs. This decidedly kid-friendly atmosphere is part of what Moszer describes as a commitment to “an affordable family entertainment environment”—a marketing philosophy common in the D-League. “The majority of our fans won’t really care if we win or lose,” Moszer says. “It’s about the camaraderie that you develop with your community. There aren’t a lot of entertainment options during the winter months here in Delaware.”
Lacking the NBA’s innate draw, the 87ers have devised incentive-based ticket packages—for example, a 25-ticket package guarantees a chance to high-five the players as they walk onto the court—along with family-based perks like kid-friendly zones and face painting. Research supports this approach to ticket sales; attendance across the D-League is rising, with last year marking the first time in its young history that the league crossed the 1 million threshold for total attendance, averaging just under 3,000 tickets per game. If that number seems low, consider that it’s a 6.57 percent increase in attendance from the year prior. For comparison’s sake, the Sixers draw an average of 14,000 fans per game—which actually ranks last in the NBA. Temple’s average is 8,165.
Speaking of Temple, the 87ers could have a real impact on the Philadelphia college landscape, too.
The way Dwayne Killings, an assistant coach at Temple, sees it, the 87ers’ proximity to Philly gives the Sixers a cheap, easy way to take a longer look at any local talent coming out of college. “Especially the guys that are close to being in the NBA,” he says, “to have that opportunity right in their backyard—it could be what puts them over the top.”
And for a struggling franchise like the Sixers, this new feeding system might just be the best way to assess and develop future talent. Not everyone can be the Los Angeles Lakers or the Miami Heat; free agent NBA players simply aren’t tempted to make the move to Philadelphia the way they are to those other star-studded destination cities. It makes sense, then, that the Sixers—rather than shelling out top dollar for overvalued players as they have in the past—should embrace this more organic process. Not only is it cheaper, but in time, it may well prove to be just as effective.
In a few weeks, then, there will be chants and cheers erupting out of the Bob Carpenter Center. And every player’s NBA probability will rise and fall along with the trajectory of each jump shot.
The 87ers season begins Sat., Nov. 23 with an away game at Canton, Ohio. The first home game is Sun., Dec. 8 at 7pm vs. Canton, at 7pm. Bob Carpenter Center, University of Delaware, 631 S. College Ave., Newark, Del. Tickets: $14.10 to $108.60. nba.com/dleague/delaware