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At 6:35 p.m. on Tuesday, May 17, I arrived at Philadelphia sports megabar XFINITY Live! where the mood was more that of a vigil than a celebration. At the front entrance of the building someone had carefully arranged about 60 electronic pillar candles to artfully spell out the name “HINKIE,” and inside the pub’s 40,000 square foot main hall small clusters of 20-somethings offered one another condolences and wondered aloud what the future of their favorite team, the Philadelphia 76ers, might hold.
Considering that Philadelphia was entering the NBA Draft Lottery with the league’s best odds of obtaining the first-overall pick (thanks to their league-worst 10-72 record), and realizing that they, in fact, had better odds than any team has had in modern NBA history (thanks to their right to swap picks with the 8th-seeded Sacramento Kings), all the negativity in the room might've seemed a bit melodramatic. But to understand the mindset of this fanbase, we must rewind five weeks to the day Sam Hinkie, the team’s president and general manager for nearly three years, handed in his resignation via a sharply worded 13-page letter to the team’s owners.
The cultish adoration of Hinkie and his "Process" is something we’ve covered at length in the past, and trusters of The Process took Hinkie’s resignation hard. Within minutes of Hinkie’s letter going public, reports began to swirl that the Sixers were poised to hire Bryan Colangelo, the son of recently-installed advisor to ownership Jerry Colangelo, to a high-ranking basketball operations position. In that moment, those who had placed their faith in Hinkie knew that The Process as we knew it was—if not dead—on critical life support.
In taking the temperature of the room at XFINITY Live! early in the night, I was confronted with the Kübler-Ross model five stages of grief. Some, like 28-year-old Warren, were angry. He broodingly expressed a desire to cancel the season ticket package he first purchased early in the Sam Hinkie era. He still loved the Sixers, but couldn't bring himself to line ownership’s pockets any longer. Another, a 20-year-old named Nathan, was clearly battling post-Process depression. He confessed that this past month had been the darkest of his sports fan life (impressive, given that he’s from Philadelphia) and that he doesn’t think being a Sixers fan will ever give him the same joy again.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a hard copy of Sam’s 13-page manifesto in my apartment that I read some nights after I get off work,” said Andy, 30, a lifelong fan who had just recently reached acceptance. “Hinkie wanted to zig while the rest of the league comfortably zagged…I’ve been stewing on this analogy for a while, but it’s kind of like you’re a parent, and your kids want to eat ice cream every day for dinner. I mean, that sounds great! If I were a kid, I’d fucking love that shit. Of course I’m going to be mad at my parents when they say, ‘No, you can’t have ice cream every day for dinner.’ Sam’s the parent, and the ice cream is a bunch of mid-level players who’ll win you 35 games and maybe get you the No. 8 seed so you can get swept by the Cavs in the first round.”
He didn’t explicitly say it, but I assumed that in his metaphor the children were the impatient fans of the team who didn't "Trust The Process" or believe that tanking for three seasons was worth whatever future gain there was to be enjoyed. Perhaps he lumps the team’s owners and Bryan and Jerry Colangelo into that group.
Spike Eskin, who along with Liberty Ballers writer Michael Levin hosts a popular Sixers-centric podcast called The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, is the one who has organized these draft lottery watch parties. He couldn't help but get emotional when reflecting on the past three years.
I’D BE LYING IF I SAID I DIDN’T HAVE A HARD COPY OF SAM’S 13-PAGE MANIFESTO IN MY APARTMENT THAT I READ SOME NIGHTS AFTER I GET OFF WORK.
“These people are the Sixers’ most dedicated customers,” he said. “We’ve talked about Sam Hinkie and Process and all of this stuff, but still after all of that, they're still here. This team is their team. They’ll outlast ownership, they'll outlast the front office, and they’ll outlast me and you. We all want the same thing. And even though we might disagree sometimes, we are all on the same team. Those fans are the greatest fans I've ever seen and the nicest people I've ever been around. They deserve attention and respect.”
And perhaps nobody at the party deserved that respect as much as one fan who braved a 35-hour flight from Wollongong, Australia to Philadelphia to be part of this weird celebration-turned-memorial. Tim, 28, started following the Sixers in 1997, when his father returned from a stateside business trip with an Allen Iverson jersey as a souvenir. From that day forward, the Sixers became his adopted team, despite the fact that they’ve posted just a single 50-win season since then.
Maybe it was a result of sleep deprivation, or maybe Aussies are just a less pessimistic bunch than we Americans are, but Tim’s attitude was much more positive than the other fans I interviewed.
“I love RTRS [Rights to Ricky Sanchez] and all the Process-trusters, and I've wanted to come along the past two years but the times didn't work out. I knew I had to make it here this time because this is a huge moment in the Sixers’ rebuild,” he told me. “I tried to explain to people at work what this was, but I don't know if it made any sense to them. I’m usually at work when the Sixers play (Wollongong is 14 hours ahead of Philadelphia), and it kills my data but I still stream their games on my phone with League Pass, which I've bought now for about six straight years. Before that, I'd find illegal streams or use an American VPN to listen to live radio streams. It’s a bit of an obsession.”
“Obsessed” is a good word to describe this group. For nearly three years, the 2,000 people gathered at this bar and many more who shared in their devotion from afar have monopolized Sixers fandom. They’ve had that luxury because, well, nobody else was willing to pay attention to a team that amassed just 47 combined wins during Hinkie’s three seasons at the helm of the franchise.
But unlike past lottery parties, there was a surprising lack of attention being paid to the potential outcomes themselves this time around. Most of the chatter in the room focused upon Hinkie’s resignation, the overwhelming distaste for Jerry Colangelo and ownership, and concerns about the multitude of ways in which Bryan Colangelo could potentially undo the progress made so far (e.g. by blowing cap space on mediocre free agents and wasting draft picks in trades for veterans who don’t move the needle). Nearly everyone I asked to predict the lottery’s outcome said the Sixers would fall to No. 4, the night’s worst-case scenario.
WE GAVE EVERY OUNCE OF FANATICISM WE HAD TO SAM HINKIE AND THE PROCESS...BUT I THINK WE’RE FINALLY READY TO GIVE THE ACTUAL SIXERS THE ATTENTION THEY DESERVE.
At 8:15 p.m. the lottery drawing was about to begin. Spike picked up a microphone and tried to pump up the crowd. His voice blared over the PA system as fans cheered and jeered in unison. “This team doesn’t belong to [Sixers principal owner] Josh Harris! This team doesn’t belong to [Sixers CEO] Scott O’Neil! This is YOUR team! This is YOUR night!”
As the broadcast returned from commercial break and deputy commissioner Mark Tatum assumed his position at the podium, the crowd of 2,000-plus quieted down. There was a palpable tension in the air, and despite all the fretting, all the negativity, and all the threats of apathy or even disownment that have occurred over the past couple hours, in that moment none of it mattered.
Tatum began by announcing the owner of pick No. 14, which remained in the hands of the Chicago Bulls. Then picks No. 13 through No. 5 were unveiled in rapid succession. As each envelope was cast aside, the crowd grew louder.
As he reached for envelope No. 4, some fans around me began cursing under their breath, others held their hands over their mouths or nervously ran their hands through their hair. Some shouted the word “no,” as if to will the pick to anyone but the Sixers.
“And the fourth pick in the 2016 NBA Draft goes to…the Phoe-”
Tatum’s voice was drowned out by the deafening roar of the room. The very same fans who’d feigned disinterest about the future of the team in talking to me less than an hour earlier were experiencing pure elation. As the broadcast went to a brief commercial break, Spike got on the mic again and riled up the crowd. In this moment, the pain of the past five weeks temporarily melted away.
“The third pick in this year’s draft goes to…th-”
The crowd saw a flash of green on the card and cut Tatum off before he could even utter the word “Boston.”
For the first time since the Sixers began their hyper-aggressive rebuild, the team would pick in the top two. As Tatum opened the penultimate envelope, the entire room screamed at him through the enormous, 32-foot monitor at the front of the room.
“The second pick will be made by…the Los An-”
The room exploded. People near me bounced up and down and hugged complete strangers, a grown man to my left stood motionless and appeared to be on the verge of crying, and Nathan had ripped off his shirt and thrown himself to the ground. It’s vindication, it’s euphoria, and it’s a massive weight lifted from our tired shoulders.
After years of being dumped on by members of the national media, of seeing our team wallow in the middle with no end in sight, of watching as they made misguided trades and even more misguided draft selections, the fans in that room were handed the most valuable thing Sam Hinkie could've ever provided them: Hope.
In the end, that’s what The Process was really about for most of us. One of the primary reasons that we, the most devout of followers, bought into this plan so excitedly was simply that it was something different, something unlike all those other worn-out avenues that had failed us in the past.
For three years, the most hardcore Sixers fans refocused their attention away from the tangible on-court product and dove headfirst into the more conceptual aspects of the team’s rebuild. Now, with the team set to pick first overall in the NBA Draft and with the possible additions of a healthy Joel Embiid, a stateside Dario Saric, and maybe even some free agents (!), those same fans will begin to concern themselves with the minutiae that typically occupy basketball fanatics—the signing of mid-level players to compliment stars, the head coach's halftime and end-of-game adjustments, and looking for that final piece to put the team over the hump at the trade deadline.
The reality of the situation is that when we "Hinkieites" said we rooted for Process above team—we were lying to ourselves. Right or wrong, we’re going support our team no matter how shitty the product is, no matter how foolish its long term plan appears to be, and no matter who happens to be at its helm. That's just part of being a fan.
We gave every ounce of fanaticism we had to Sam Hinkie and The Process. It took us a while to get to this point, but I think we’re finally ready to give the actual Sixers the attention they deserve.