by Dante Zappala
If we are honest, I mean truly honest as Philadelphians, we can say with perfect perspective that we do not like Boston. We might put it differently. Depending on what part of the city you grew up in, it might come out like, “Yo, dewd, I hayt Bawstun, fer rill.”
This has everything to do with the respective sports legacies of the cities and our allegiances. Boston has a tradition of winning that is enviable: eight World Series titles, six Stanley Cups, an absurd 17 NBA titles. And then there are those godawful Patriots.
Boston has a history of teams and personalities that we find, to put it nicely, unappealing. But truly, our distaste for the city is bred through our own experience with losing. They expose us as a city with a few cherished championships and a lot of unfulfilled promise.
This brings me to the Boston Marathon. The prestige of the event itself creates a bandwagon effect. It’s a privilege to run in it, and, therefore, almost every runner aspires to be a part of it. I grew up listening to epic stories about the Boston Marathon, like the “Duel in Sun” between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley. I witnessed the personal battles that many runners fought to get their Boston Qualifier. The BQ is the entry not just to the race, but it’s a signifier of great accomplishment.
These legends of the past played out in my subconscious as I qualified for and now train for the race. Only recently, though, did I really start to wonder why on earth I was doing this to begin with. I never fancied myself a marathon runner. And I don’t like Boston.
I’ve spent the last three months preparing for the race. Training hit a head recently where I was downright exhausted and still feeling unprepared. I’ve been averaging about 65-70 miles a week and I realized that it’s not going to be enough. Yes, I can run 26.2. I can finish the race. I can probably run faster than I did to qualify. But I don’t feel like I can run what I might ultimately be capable of running. I will go to Boston and live out the Philly man’s destiny by not fulfilling my potential.
There’s a certain truth that emerges in training. You can try to deny that truth but it’s a dangerous proposition, especially in the marathon. You spend most of the race running relatively comfortably, waiting for the hurt to come. It’s easy to get impatient. It’s easy to believe you can do something extraordinary. It’s easy to step on the gas and try to be a hero, but in the end, you’ll never out run your training.
These humbling facts have led me back to 1986, the very root of why I hate Boston.
That year, my dad scored tickets to a late season Sunday afternoon showdown between the Sixers and the Celtics. I was 10 years old. I remember most of all the drunk Boston fans in the stands. This was a big rivalry and there was a healthy contingent in green.
With the Celtics up two and only 10 seconds left, Larry Bird stood at the free throw line. Bird shot 89 percent from the stripe in his career. He was pretty close to automatic. But he missed the first free throw and that meant the Sixers were still in it. Then, inexplicably, he missed the second.
Everyone was standing which made it difficult for me to see. Peeking between the adults, I watched as Charles Barkley drove to the basket. Kevin McHale grabbed the ball as Barkley elevated but was unable to wrestle it away. The ensuing jump ball took place with three seconds left. Barkley, listed at 6’6” but really 6’4”, went up against the 6’11” McHale. Instead of jumping vertically, Barkley jumped diagonally into McHale, which gave him the leverage to get a hand on the ball. He tipped it out beyond the three point line to Julius Erving.
Doc collected the ball and chucked up a prayer of a shot. The ball travelled through the air as sound suddenly disappeared. It was like time stopped and everyone at the Spectrum had a chance to reflect.
No, we don’t collect the trophies in Philadelphia. But we have some great moments against our rivals. The Miracle in the Meadowlands, both one and two, come to mind.
At the tender age of 10, I was going to learn that as a Philadelphia fan, I can trust that a single memory of triumph can last longer than a trophy. In 1986, the Celtics were on a tear, headed to their next NBA championship, while the Sixers flash of glory in ’83 had clearly passed.
That day, I became a part of a collective identity. Along with the 16,000 or so Sixers fans in the building that Sunday, I willed Doctor J’s shot into the hoop as the buzzer sounded. The Sixers won.
In the pandemonium that ensued, things started to fly from the upper deck. Fights broke out around us. My dad hustled us out of the building. We reminisced on that victory forevermore.
To some extent, I live in the past. Even as I welcome the fact that I periodically forget episodes from my youth, some memories are inescapable. Therefore, my goal is not to conquer Boston. It’s too big of a beast to slay. My goal is to exceed collective expectations and perform on the outer edges of my abilities to create a moment long and profound enough to forge a permanent memory. That memory, tinged with fortune and opportunity, will be the one I can point to when I’m older and still waiting for a trophy.