“Shut the f— up,” Michael Rubin screamed. “Are you joking or serious?” It was the afternoon of April 24, mere hours before the Philadelphia 76ers looked to clinch a first-round series victory over the Miami Heat, and the team’s co-owner had just learned local rapper Meek Mill—jailed for months due to a judge’s highly-dubious rulings throughout a case littered with flawed legal proceedings—had finally been freed on bail.
Rubin’s pure jubilation punctuated his and countless others’ exhaustive efforts to seek justice for Meek. That enthusiasm was only paralleled by that of the Sixers’ fan base, erupting on social media at the news. With Meek’s “Dreams and Nightmares” serving as the soundtrack to the Eagles’ Super Bowl sprint in February, only fate would allow the local phenom to properly grace the city’s NBA franchise, improbably rising so quickly from the ashes of a 10–72 season two years prior to early postseason dominance. Meek was freed the same day as Game 5? Will he sit courtside when the Sixers win their first playoff series of The Process era tonight? Would he… Wait… Is he going to ring the bell!?
Maximizing the in-arena experience has been a key ingredient for the Sixers’ ownership group since purchasing the team in 2011. On opening night in 2012, the team unveiled Big Bella, a 600-pound T-shirt gun capable of spitting out 100 tees every 60 seconds. And as the team entered its historic Process in 2013, the Sixers’ business operations doubled down on bolstering the stadium’s game environment. In August 2014, Philly purchased Quince Imaging’s cutting-edge, projection-mapping technology to be beamed onto the Wells Fargo Center court. They dusted off the franchise’s 1970’s “Clap Your Hands” anthem as the modern iteration’s victory song. “We knew that we were in a rebuild, so we better give the fans something to really hang their hat on in all aspects of their time that they’re spending at our games,” said Sixers president Chris Heck. “I want to create an atmosphere where a grandma, an 8-year-old kid, and a guy in a suit are all jumping for T-shirts, cheering, singing, dancing, and rooting for the Sixers,” team CEO Scott O’Neil told The Crossover in 2016.
They embarked on a continuous search to reinvent their in-arena environment. When former general manager Sam Hinkie, fabled architect of the team’s rebuild, was scouting Melo Trimble and Diamond Stone at the University of Maryland, he noticed an entertaining halftime hopscotch game and phoned O’Neil. The 76ers regularly challenged one lucky fan to a halfcourt shot during home games, with free season tickets on the line. They briefly installed a money-grab booth on the concourse, offering fans an opportunity to grab as many bills as they could toward a discount for future seat purchases. The corporate brass considered distributing fly swatters to fans as the Sixers consistently ranked in the league’s upper echelon of blocked shots.
Efforts eventually turned to creating lasting rituals, something unforced and natural, but intrinsically resonating with Philly’s rabid fan base. The staff went through a short list of their favorite traditions in sports. Three ultimately stood out: Clemson football players rubbing “the rock” before sprinting down the hill at Memorial Stadium, a celebrity or local hero singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch at Wrigley Field, and the Baltimore Orioles blasting John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” during their seventh-inning festivities. “They were all unique to their environments and that kind of brought us to the place: We need to do something around the bell,” Heck said.
The Liberty Bell, of course, has been emblematic of the city of Philadelphia and a national symbol of American independence since the 18th century. It first arrived in Philly in 1752, originally rang to summon lawmakers to legislative sessions and alert citizens about public meetings. Bells were rung across the city for the reading of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The Phillies boast a colossal, mechanical bell above centerfield at Citizens Bank Park, chiming with each run scored. The Sixers could find a way to seamlessly incorporate the allegory into their gameday, too.
There was one challenge: It’s not exactly easy to find a bell with similar size and stature to the iconic landmark in Independence Hall. “We hunted for a bell,” Heck says. The Sixers’ sweeping search finally culminated with an eBay purchase from an owner in Lancaster, Penn. It weighs nearly 350 pounds and now hangs from a wooden beam the team constructed on top of a portable cart, which naturally requires multiple hands to push.
In 2013, the team first stationed the bell directly outside the tunnel it began using for pregame introductions. Instead of having players shuffle down the narrow corridor that leads directly from their locker room onto the court, the Sixers began introducing their starting lineup from the gaping entrance to the lower bowl VIP bar area. Like Clemson’s storied rock, the team instructed players to touch the bell en route to the floor. It was impossible to miss along the carpeted runway. But one player—who unfortunately shall remain nameless—refused to take part in the new ritual. After the expected-tankers shockingly began the season 3–0 behind Michael Carter-Williams, the entire roster refused to touch the bell out of superstition. “They defied us!” Heck said, laughing. “We were scratching our heads.”
It sent the Sixers’ brass back to the drawing board. Chief marketing officer Katie O’Reilly hatched the idea of ringing the bell on-court before the intros, syncing it with the team’s elaborate court projections. As someone struck the bell three times, the imaging could portray the hardwood shattering into a blue oblivion. “She kind of brought it to life,” Heck said. Philadelphia spent the inaugural ringing season of 2014–15 test-driving bell ringers. They honored long-time team employees achieving career milestones and once featured a staffer who finally received his green card and became a U.S. citizen.
It was difficult to find notable public figures like the Seahawks’ 12th Man flag raiser, or the honored individual to strike the Panthers’ “Keep Pounding” drum. “Two years ago, in the middle of a 10-win season, you didn’t exactly have celebrities lining up to ring the bell,” Heck said. “We even had a corporate sponsor that we were trying to pitch. We knew things were tough when we had someone ring the bell and they wouldn’t do a sponsor with us.” The Sixers, tenants in their stadium that’s owned by Comcast Spectacor, the team’s former owners, also went a full season without the bell reverberating throughout the entire arena. They were incredulous at the ritual’s muted sound, until a stadium techie informed them of a master panel of volume controls. The bell’s mic was only set at level 3. They quickly juiced the decibels to level 10.
Local icons began to trickle in as well, sensing the results the team’s brazen rebuild was bound to produce. Meek frequently appeared courtside with his then-girlfriend, superstar singer-songwriter Nicki Minaj. Director M. Night Shyamalan, raised in Penn Valley, began attending a majority of home contests. And the team’s vice president of business development Desron Dorset started compiling a list of Philadelphia-area moguls he could connect with, and ultimately promise bell-ringing lore upon their appearance at a game. “It’s now become something aspirational and really, we’re anticipating who’s going to ring the bell before the game starts,” Heck said.
As Spike Eskin, 39, drove to the Wells Fargo Center for Game 5 between the Sixers and Heat, his teenage cousin asked if Meek Mill would be ringing the bell later that evening. Eskin guessed yes, only for the youngster to further inquire, who exactly is Meek Mill? “The fact that Meek Mill was going to ring the bell was a big deal with him even though he didn’t really understand why that was a big deal,” Eskin laughed. “It definitely feels like it’s become a big deal rather quickly that everyone is rather in on.”
Eskin, the programming director for Sportsradio 94WIP in Philly, braved The Process as a co-host of the ever-popular Sixers podcast, The Rights to Ricky Sanchez. The fans who listened along the way, sporting “Hinkie Died For Our Sins” T-shirts and flying to Milwaukee to boo Malcolm Brogdon for winning Rookie of the Year honors over Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in 2016–17, have emerged rejuvenated. The Process thriving behind Embiid and Ben Simmons—obvious jewels of the three-year mining period—compounded by the everlasting hangover from the Eagles’ title, has launched a deeper provincial fandom within the Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers, and all of Philadelphia, can’t seem to lose (except in the TD Garden). Emphatically ring a bell before a game in this environment, and it intrinsically sparks a rallying call, albeit to cheer for spread pick-and-roll three-pointers rather than town assemblies.
Allen Iverson and Julius Irving, Lil Dicky and Kevin Hart, a native son sounding the bell before battle naturally induces team and city spirit. “Ringing the bell was a really cool experience,” Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, who received the honor on Feb. 24, said via email. “The atmosphere was electric and I was extremely honored to have been chosen to get the crowd fired up in that way!”
Embiid emerged from the dimmed stage lighting to lead the ritual prior to Game 1 against Miami, launching the crowd into an utter frenzy. Sidelined with a fracture orbital bone, destined to don a mask upon his return, Embiid wore a white Phantom of the Opera guise as he struck the bell. “That was a marketing masterstroke by the Sixers,” Eskin said. “Everybody was talking about who was going to ring it. It was really perfect.” Meek’s Game 5 appearance clearly couldn’t have been scripted any better, either.
Head coach Brett Brown introducing a post-game locker room, miniature celebration bell following team victories has helped sell the pregame ritual as well. It took three interminable seasons for the Sixers to compile victories to tribute, and the same span to perfect their bell-centric ritual. But the Sixers return home to Philadelphia on Saturday with hopes of inching closer to the Boston Celtics in their second-round matchup, the arena faithful itching to cheer on a victory right from their unique opening ceremony. “Just like the rebuilding process, it took us a little while,” Heck said. “We had to go over a few speed bumps, but we finally have arrived.”